Lighthouse keepers to be honored in Mathews

by Peter J. Teagle - Posted on Mar 06, 2019 - 12:54 PM

The lives and careers of six Mathews lighthouse keepers will be honored on Saturday, April 13, in four cemeteries across the county as the Chesapeake chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society honors the service provided by these beacons of maritime history.

First to be honored will be Frank Raymond Lewis, who served at six lighthouses including Pages Rock, York Spit and Stingray Point. In 1926, while at Great Wicomico Lighthouse, he assisted Keeper A.B. Sadler in rendering aid to a grounded yacht, the Red Wing.

Nelson Stanley Atherton, who served for 21 years at lighthouses including Smith Point, retired in 1965 as one of the few civilian lighthouse keepers in the country.

Levi D. Merchant, who spent 32 of his 38-year career at Stingray Point, is believed by the U.S. Lighthouse Association to be one of the longest tenured careers of service at a single location. “During my long time in the lighthouse service I have not been sick a single day and not lost a day’s pay,” he once quipped. “The secret to good health is that I have been where the doctors couldn’t get to me.”

Another keeper, Isaac Foster, commissioned the first three-masted schooner in America prior to serving as a keeper. His vessel, the Ferrata, was built in Mathews in 1827 and he was the keeper of New Point Comfort until dying while in service in 1854.

William James Diggs served at three lighthouses, spending 24 years at York Spit where he survived the devastating 1933 hurricane by holding onto his station’s bell. Diggs’ station boat was found at Cape Charles and he was presumed lost at sea, but in fact survived and was rescued by a passing fisherman.

Last of the keepers to be honored is merchant seaman turned lighthouse keeper Wesley Foster Ripley. According to family legend he sailed around Cape Horn prior to serving at six lighthouses during his 35-year career. In 1916 he, like Foster, died in service at New Point Comfort.

“Recognizing lighthouse keepers and the life-saving service they rendered promotes an awareness of lighthouses and maritime history,” said Chesapeake chapter board member and event coordinator Betty Collins. “Through the Chapter Grave Marker Program, we share the unique stories of the Chesapeake Bay area lighthouse keepers while bringing families and communities together to honor the past,” she said.

Lewis and Atherton will be honored from their final resting places at H.C. Smither Cemetery in Hudgins at 9:30 and 10:15 a.m., respectively. Merchant’s ceremony will be held at 11:15 a.m. at Mathews Baptist Church Cemetery. Following a brief lunch, the attendees and Lighthouse Association members will reconvene at Pear Tree Cemetery in Onemo to honor Foster and Diggs. Ripley rounds out the day of commemoration with his 3:45 p.m. service at the Ripley Family Cemetery on the apropos Lighthouse Road in Bavon.