History of the Lightship # 116-538

When Lightship 116 was completed in 1930, she was among the most modern and capable lightships in use with the US Lighthouse Service (USLHS). One of the 6 vessels of the Lightship-100 class of lightships, she was built to USLHS design, numbered 116 and boasted the best in stability, signaling capacity, living accommodations, and engineering efficiency available in the 1929-1930 era. The other five (5) sister-ships of the class were LS#'s 100, 113, 114, 115 and 117.


Lightship 116 was built in South Carolina at the Charleston Machine and Drydock Company at a cost of $274,424. She was laid down on 6 February 1929 and launched on 22 October 1929. She leaves the shipyard on 17 August 1930.   The ships' Deck Log starts on 31 July 1930 although there is no entry in the Deck Log that she was "commissioned" as we know that Coast Guard and Navy ships are today. This new vessel featured an efficient diesel-electric propulsion plant (superseding earlier steam powered designs), all-steel construction although still riveted, and impressive signaling equipment capable of marking her station in all kinds of weather and light conditions. Electricity for the ship's 350 hp propulsion motor was supplied by four 75-kilowatt diesel engine/generator units located in the engine room. Electricity for ships lighting and machinery was produced by two ships-service diesel generators.

This floating lighthouse was a major Aid To Navigation. It had a light beacon signaling apparatus consisting of a 13,000 candlepower electric lamp atop each mast (later consolidated on the aft mast), an electric foghorn (later replaced with a compressed-air diaphone), a Submarine Bell, and fog bell mounted on the main deck. A High Frequency Direction Finding Radio Beacon Transmitting system was installed in 1933. When RADAR was installed in the 116/538, the two Light Beacons were replaced with one double light fixture on the Aft Mast. The main light beacon used a 1500 watt bulb that produced 35,000 candlepower and the stand-by light beacon used a 1000 watt bulb and produced 13,000 candlepower. The Submarine Bell was removed in 1941. The ship was equipped with two 5,000-pound mushroom anchors (one main and a spare) designed to hold her on station in all but the roughest weather. On two occasions (1936 and 1962) while marking the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, Lightship 116-538 rode out hurricanes so powerful that the ship's anchor chain broke, forcing the crew to drop the spare anchor and run full ahead into the wind for many hours in vain attempts to remain on station.


As shown in the original plans from 1930, Lightship 116 was initially designed for a crew of up to 17. The crew accommodations included 5 two-man staterooms for the unlicensed sailors, a crew's mess, and an electrically powered galley and refrigerator unit (a major advancement for 1930). The Officers (Mate, Engineer, Assistant Engineer and either an Assistant Mate or additional Assistant Engineers) had their own staterooms adjacent to their mess (Wardroom) and the Captain, or Master as he was called in the Lighthouse Service years, occupied his own stateroom immediately behind the pilothouse. The two Radio Officers had their bunks in the Radio Room in the aft deck house.

With the transfer of the Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard in 1939, the Commanding Officers of Lightships were designated to be a USCG Warrant Officer Bos'n. The remainder of the lightships crew were Coast Guard enlisted sailors. This transition was initially very slow and it took the beginning of the war with Japan in December 1941 for all civilians aboard lightships to be immediately converted to the coast guard ranks or forced to resign.

As radios became easier to operate, the two Radio Officer positions were eventually removed, along with their 2 bunks in the radio room. Then an extra stateroom was added to the starboard work area for the ships cook. This changed the full crew to a total of 16 sailors. During normal operating periods several members of the crew would be away on shore leave at any given time. Lightship duty was designated as "extremely arduous sea duty", so lightship sailors earned extra leave. With the coast guard sending a cutter out every two weeks on a Wednesday to bring supplies, fresh food, water, fuel, repair parts and mail, it provided the perfect transport to allow crew to use two weeks of their extra leave.    


The US Lighthouse Service first assigned Lightship 116 to the Fenwick Island Shoal Light Station off the Delaware coast from 1930-33 where she was marked "FENWICK". In 1933, she was assigned to the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and marked "CHESAPEAKE" until the beginning of World War II. During that war, almost all coastal lightships were withdrawn for security reasons, although some stations did have a buoy placed in that location. Most Lightships were modified and reassigned for wartime duties. During late 1942 Lightship 116 was sent to the Boston Navy Yard, decommissioned for repairs and modifications, including being painted battleship gray. Recommissioned in January 1943, Lightship 116 was used as a Examination, Guard, Inspection and Patrol vessel at the north entrance of the Cape Cod Canal, stationed at Sandwich Mass. In late 1945, Lightship 116 was returned to her pre-war configuration and returned to the Chesapeake Light Station, 17 miles off Cape Henry (VA) where her piercing fog horn, steady light beacon, powerful radio direction finding beacon and bright red hull stood watch and guided maritime traffic safely in and out of the Chesapeake Bay for the next 20 years.  


Despite some equipment upgrades such as radar, technology began to overtake Lightship 116/538 by the 1960s. In September 1965, the Chesapeake Lightship Station was replaced by a Coast Guard offshore light tower built on stout pilings strong enough to withstand the roughest seas. Manned by a crew of just four, the "Texas" style light tower was cheaper to run and had a more powerful beacon visible for a distance of 17 miles. After being relieved at the Chesapeake station, the final duty station for Lightship 116/538 was guiding shipping in and out of the Delaware Bay. She was then marked "DELAWARE" until replaced on that light station by a large automated light buoy in late 1970 and was placed out of service at that time. The lightship 116/538 was officially decommissioned on the 6th of January 1971.


In August of 1971, Lightship 116/538 was acquired by the National Park Service and was berthed on the Potomac River where it was open to the public. The Park Service also operated the Lightship, getting it underway periodically and conducting basic oceanography and seamanship training for students until 1981. Since 1981, the ship has been on loan to the City of Baltimore, who in turn has entrusted it to the then Baltimore Maritime Museum, now the Historic Ships In Baltimore museum, to maintain as a historic museum ship. She continues to serve as an important link with the history of the U.S. Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard Aids To Navigation in the United States. In 1989 Lightship 116/538 "Chesapeake", was designated a National Historic Landmark.

 The lightship 116/538 is moored at Pier 3 in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, adjacent to the ex-Navy Submarine Torsk and the aquarium. She still displays the light station name CHESAPEAKE, since she spent most of her operational career on that station. The volunteers who work to maintain and repair the Lightship hope to see her restored to the exact configuration that the ship was in on the 25th of September 1965, the day she departed the Chesapeake Light station for the last time.

 Updated 23 January 2024