IMAGES OF LIGHTSHIP ‘OVERFALLS’
Lightship ‘Overfalls’ is one of only seventeen remaining lightships out of a total of 179 built from 1820 to 1952. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, she is one of seven lightships still open to the public in the US.
DETAILS: Builder: Rice Brothers, East Boothbay, ME. Year Built: 1938 Length: 114′ 9″ Beam: 26’0″ Draft: 13’4″ Displacement: 412 Tons Illumination Apparatus: Duplex 375mm electric lens lantern, each rated 15,000cp Propulsion: Diesel – one Cooper-Bessemer 8 cylinder air-start engine, 400 BHP, connected to shaft through reduction gear; 7’2″ diameter propeller; max speed 9 knots Fog Signal: Dual air diaphones, switchable to single horn; hand operated bell
STATION ASSIGNMENTS 1938 – 1957: Cornfield Point, Long Island Sound (CT) 1958 – 1962: Cross Rip Station (MA) 1962 – 1972: Boston (MA)
The ship’s first assignment after she was launched on June 4, 1938, was to Cornfield Point, located in Long Island Sound roughly three miles from the Lynde Point Lighthouse and the entrance to the Connecticut River. While many lightships were armed and used as examination vessels during World War II, LV-118 remained on station throughout the conflict. In 1957, a lighted bell buoy was placed at Cornfield Point and LV-118 was reassigned to the Cross Rip Station, where it marked the shoal of the same name found just over seven miles offshore from the Cape Poge Lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard.
Following four years at Cross Rip, LV-118 remained in Massachusetts but was transferred to the Boston Station, where it was anchored just over six miles east of Boston Lighthouse to mark the approaches to Boston Harbor. LV-118 was decommissioned on November 7, 1972, after receiving significant structural damage during a storm in December of 1970. In 1973, the lightship was donated to the Lewes Historical Society, who berthed the vessel along the Rehoboth Canal in Lewes, Delaware and gave her the name of the closest lightship station – Overfalls.
Although the lightship bears the ‘Overfalls’ insignia today, the ‘LV 118/WAL 539’ never actually served at the Overfalls station.
CONSTRUCTION The Lightship ‘Overfalls’, known to the men who served aboard as LV-118, was the last lightship built for the U.S. Lighthouse Service (USLHS). Built under contract by Rice Bros. Corporation of East Boothbay, Maine, LV-118 was the last lightship completed by the Lightship Service, though the Coast Guard, which absorbed the service in 1939, would build another six lightships. The hull of LV-118 was subdivided into an unusually large number of water-tight compartments below the main deck to reduce the risk of the vessel’s sinking in the event of a collision. LV-118 was equipped with diesel engines for propulsion and to power its radio-beacon, compressed-air fog signal, warning whistle, and its powerful masthead light. The radio-beacon and fog signal were synchronized for distance finding.
She was only one of the two lightships built in the 20th century for which the Congress made a separate appropriation for a lightship to serve on a specific station. She was built in East Boothbay, Maine in 1938 and incorporated the latest features of lightship design at the time, including steel bulkheads to compartmentalize the ship. She was the last lightship commissioned by the USLHS and the last built with a riveted construction. All subsequent lightships, and ships in general, were and are built using welded seam technology.
One year after ‘Overfalls’ was commissioned, the USLHS and all of its assets (lightships, lighthouses, etc.) in 1939 were merged into the U.S. Coast Guard, so for almost all of the ship’s service life she was a Coast Guard ship with uniformed Coast Guard crews aboard.
- National Register of Historic Places, (U.S. National Park Service), 1988.
- National Historic Landmark, (U.S. National Park Service), 2011; due to ship’s unique characteristics (she has no sister ships which is unusual for lightships of the period which typically had one to five sister ships emanating from the same set of plans) and high degree of integrity.
OVERFALLS LIGHTSHIP STATION The Overfalls Lightship Station was located near the mouth of Delaware Bay, roughly three miles east of Cape Henlopen and 8.5 miles southwest of Cape May, and marked the Overfalls Shoal where the shallowest spot had a depth of only ten feet. Just four different lightships serviced the station between 1898 and 1960, when a buoy was used to mark the location. LV 101/WAL 524 had the longest tenure at the station, being anchored there from 1926 to 1951, and is now permanently docked at Portsmouth, Virginia where it is open to the public as a museum.
WLV-605 bore the station mark ‘Overfalls’ on her sides from when she was built in 1951 until the station was discontinued in 1960. One seaman and an engine-man were on watch at all times, and a four-hour watch was typically served followed by eight hours off. The men lived aboard for twenty-one days and were then treated to an eight-day leave.
Since the Overfalls Lightship acted as a mid-channel marker, traffic near the vessel was common. In October of 1954, a large tanker staved in the lightship’s bow and knocked it a full quarter mile off station. The lightship’s beacon blinked on for ten seconds and off for five seconds, while the fog horn, when necessary, sounded for 1.5 seconds, followed alternately by silence intervals of three and fourteen seconds. WLV-605 was also equipped with a radio beacon that sent out a dot-dash-dot signal on the 1st, 4th, 7th, and 31st, 34th, and 37th minutes of every hour.
An amateur ham radio station, K3CGA, was established on the lightship to help boost morale. By contacting a ham operator on shore, the men were often able to speak to their wives for hours at a time. A movie projector was also brought aboard in 1955 to help the man pass the time.
MODERN HISTORY In 1973, the Coast Guard donated the ship to the Lewes Historical Society (LHS) to serve as a floating museum in Lewes, Delaware. LHS brought her to her current location on the canal in downtown Lewes and painted on a new station name, OVERFALLS, in honor of the lightship station closest to Lewes, in the mouth of Delaware Bay where lightships had served as a mid-channel marker from 1898 to 1960 when the station was discontinued.
In 1999, the Lewes Historical Society reluctantly decided to sell the lightship due to upkeep expenses and liability issues. When a potential sale fell through, a group of local citizens, later officially called the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation, stepped and purchased the lightship. An ambitious lot known as the “Dirty Hands Gang,” has worked tirelessly to clean, prep, paint and restore the lightship. When additional expertise was needed, contractors were hired to help with complex tasks such as electrical wiring and asbestos removal.
After over 15,000 hours of donated labor, the gang had completely rehabilitated the lightship, inside and out, by 2007, leaving just the restoration of the hull below the waterline. Several shipyards were contacted to dry-dock the lightship and repair its hull, but Colonna Shipyard of Norfolk, Virginia with a bid of $270,000 was eventually selected. Starting on September 2, 2008, a hydraulic and mechanical dredger were used to free the Overfalls from the buildup of years of mud around her hull. By the end of the month the lightship was floating free at her berth and had been inspected by a marine surveyor, allowing the Coast Guard to issue a tow permit.
Early on Tuesday, October 14, a tugboat provided courtesy of Wilmington Tug Inc. extracted the lightship from its birth and towed the vessel out into the Delaware Bay – the first step in its 275-mile voyage that would take it up Delaware Bay, through the C&D Canal, and down the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk.
Claymont Steel donated plates that over a period of three months were welded onto the pitted and corroded areas of the Overfalls’ hull. The lightship was re-floated on January 19, 2009, but a leak was found that delayed the completion of the work until early March. The ‘Overfalls’ remained in Norfolk until favorable springtime weather allowed her return to Lewes. After several months at the shipyard in Norfolk, the lightship returned home to Lewes on May 31, 2009 via the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Chesapeake Bay, which shortened the length of the journey. With a Coast Guard escort, the Lewes fireboat, a flotilla of local boaters, and hundreds of well-wishers looking on, a pair of tugboats maneuvered the lightship into its slip, where it will soon be open to the public.
Lightship ‘Overfalls’ was officially dedicated as a National Historic Landmark, the thirteenth National Historic Landmark in Delaware, during a ceremony held at the lightship on October 5, 2011.
One again, a monumental historical project had to be left in the hands of local communities and individual volunteers and corporate sponsors with a profound sense of historic responsibility and appreciation, yet the acuteness of a lightning rod with foresight and bequest to future generations to undertake a project of saving a heap of scrap metal from the torch … maritime history is our history … and, we are thankful for the salt and the sacrifices of the generations before us …
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