A passion for history first sparked Earl Soles’s interest in New Point Comfort Lighthouse. Now retired from his position as director for historic area programs and operations at Colonial Williamsburg, Soles grew up in Mathews County and got hooked on the lighthouse’s role in U.S. history after once again making his home on the Middle Peninsula over 15 years ago.
At that time, Dennis Baker, a Bavon resident and fellow history buff, talked Soles and his friends, the late Wayne Hudgins and Dee Lawson, also deceased, into joining a special purpose lighthouse committee of the Mathews County Historical Society.
Ever since then, Soles has been working on preserving the lighthouse. He and his friends worked with other committee members, including Steve Wilson, Will Gwilliam, Jim Smith, Doreen Folzenlogen and Martha Brockner, to raise awareness of the lighthouse by obtaining the funds to build a walkway and overlook with interpretive signs at the end of Route 600 in Bavon, from which the lighthouse is visible in the distance.
And Soles and others worked tirelessly to raise money to restore the lighthouse. He is gratified that, with the help of Mary Lee Carter of the Commonwealth Transportation Board and Mathews County Administrator Steve Whiteway, the county has recently received nearly a half million dollars in federal funds to add to an earlier $150,000 grant to pay for Phase I of the restoration. He’s also grateful that two local residents—Bill and Wilbur Burroughs—have donated $10,000 to establish a Mathews Community Foundation fund to help pay for ongoing maintenance.
Located on a shrinking island at the southernmost tip of Mathews County, the lighthouse was once an essential aid to navigation for ships sailing up the Chesapeake Bay to the Port of Baltimore, the second largest port in the fledgling United States of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The bay was the main artery for traffic coming into the U.S. from other countries, said Soles.
Virginia governors began calling for a lighthouse at New Point as early as 1730, and sandstone was actually delivered to the site in 1775 or 1776, said Soles, but the Revolutionary War ended plans to build at that time.
After the revolution, lighthouses were a priority for the federal government, said Soles. The first Congress established a taxation system on imports, and they needed to make sure ships had safe access to ports in order to be able to tax the goods they carried.
Lighthouses were an essential part of ensuring that access, and Elzy Burroughs was commissioned to build several of them during the administration of President Thomas Jefferson—at Old Point Comfort, Smith Point, and finally at New Point Comfort. The White House was being built during the same period, said Soles, and sandstone for the lighthouse was taken from the same quarry as that for the White House.
After work on the lighthouse was completed in 1805, Elzy Burroughs, ancestor of Wilbur and Bill Burroughs, was appointed by Jefferson to be the first light keeper. He remained in that position for 10 years.
In 1963, after over a century and a half serving to warn sailors of the shoals at New Point, the lighthouse was decommissioned and the light removed. A decade or so later, the small island was reinforced with rock and the lighthouse received a facelift, but weather events and vandals took a toll and the lighthouse once again fell into disrepair.
No light shone at New Point until 1999, when a band of Bavon residents led by Marion Grey Trusch raised the money to install a commemorative solar-powered, fixed beacon.
"Mrs. Trusch got people involved early and sparked attention," said Soles. "She let us know that we’ve got to work on this building."
The New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force, chaired by Soles, was established in 2001 to develop a plan for saving the lighthouse, and it has been hard at work ever since. Committee members were initially enthusiastic over a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use dredge spoils to rebuild the island, but the preliminary study the corps conducted found that the plan wasn’t feasible because it lacked an economic benefit for Mathews or Virginia, said Soles.
A newer Phase I study by the engineering firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin calls once again for reinforcing the existing land mass with stone, but with a different engineering design that should protect the island and the structure from a 100-year storm. Soles is pleased that work on the project can begin, now that the money is available to pay for it.
"I’ve been waiting for something positive to happen," he said. "I’m kind of stubborn. I wanted to stay on long enough to see something happening beyond studies, something that would actually take a positive physical step. I feel as though I’ve fulfilled my goal a bit."
But Soles isn’t stopping. He’s already gearing up to work on finding funds for Phase II, which will consist of restoring the lighthouse itself at a cost of around $1.3 million.
That phase will consist of cleaning the building, repointing mortar joints, repairing the brickwork at the top, replacing the door and windows, and installing a security system to deter vandals. The county and the historical society together have $34,000 in funding designated for Phase II, said Soles.
While it’s primarily been Mathews residents who have led the fight to preserve New Point Comfort Lighthouse, Soles said it’s a project that should involve both the state and federal governments, as well.
"The lighthouse certainly ‘speaks Mathews’ because it’s here," he said. "Everybody uses the lighthouse to identify Mathews, and that’s great, but it wasn’t built for Mathews. It was built for national reasons."
Soles said that, with sea level rise, the processes that are threatening the island can’t be stopped, "but we’re buying as much time as we can."
Steve Whiteway praised the efforts made by Soles and the taskforce charged with restoring the lighthouse.
"The committee has done outstanding work," said Whiteway, "and Earl in particular has shown an unwavering sense of purpose and commitment to the lighthouse project. He’s wonderful."
For information on how to help or contribute, contact Soles at 776-6194 or email@example.com or Mathews County Administrator Steve Whiteway at 725-7172 or firstname.lastname@example.org.