Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pheby Richards and the Craney Island Lighthouse

If you've watched my Woodstock History PowerPoint presentation, then you are already familiar with Pheby and Elisha Richards. Pheby's name is on the 1878 deed for Woodstock Farm, so the Richards are probably the first family to call Woodstock home. 1878-79 was a time of great transition for the Richards family, which may explain why Pheby ended up selling the farm just a few years later. Despite their abbreviated tenure, Elisha and Pheby are part of the Woodstock story -- a story that recently became a little more personal.

During a routine Googling session I found Pheby and Elisha Richards names on U.S. Treasury Department payroll documents from 1877 and 1879. They were listed as keepers of the Craney Island Light at the entrance to the Elizabeth River. I was astonished that someone at Google took the time to digitize the U.S. Treasury Department payrolls for 1877 and 1879, and make them available online! Those particular documents seem almost random in terms of historical significance, but they provided a fascinating historical connection between Woodstock and the larger Hampton Roads history.I started an e-mail campaign to locate any documentation that might be available for the Craney Island Light. Several Virginia and North Carolina lighthouses have survived to this day; but unfortunately, Craney Island is not one of them. Probably for this reason much of the documentation from that period has been lost to history, save one item: a hand-written letter from Pheby Richards to the Secretary of the Navy.


Photocopy courtesy of the National Archives


Craney Island LH

July 22nd 1879

Honorable Wm Sherman
Secretary of the Navy
Sir: I have been assistant keeper at this station for nearly six years my husband Elisha Richards being principal. But it has now pleased God to remove him by the hand of death. I still wish to retain my position here and I have a son (W.B. Wilder by name) 26 years old who is quite capable and with your permission will come to my assistance and fill the place now vacant. There are many applications already in & I come to you to say that if I can retain my position here it will be of great service to me and to ask you to favor me in this matter. This station is near Norfolk and not far from shore and for many years past (even before the war) one of the keepers has been a female. The next station to this also has a lady assistant.Very respectfully your obedient servant,
P.D. Richards


As lightkeepers at Craney Island from 1873-1879, Elisha and Pheby would have maintained a residence there. Lighthouse appointments were generally restricted to persons between the ages of 18 and 50; but by 1878, Elisha and Pheby were both well into their 50's, with Elisha 4 years her senior (this might also explain why she mentions her son-in-law's age). They may have been looking forward to their next stage in life when they purchased farm land in Princess Anne county; however, plans changed in July, 1879 when Elisha died suddenly of a probable stroke.

As if to compound the tragedy of the sudden loss of her husband, Pheby's request to keep her position at the lighthouse would arrive just a few days too late. Written on July 22nd, it was received by the lighthouse board on July 26th; on July 23rd, the board nominated Robert B. More as acting lightkeeper at Craney Island, with Marshall Sand taking over as acting assistant keeper a few months later.

Pheby sold Woodstock Farm in 1882, at a 10% loss. She lived with her daughter Fannie and son-in-law James W. Bacchus in Norfolk for many years after, and by 1910 (just before her death) she was living in Portsmouth with another daughter Ella and son-in-law William Wilder (the one mentioned in the letter).

In the years that followed, The Craney Island Light fell victim to severe structural decline. In 1884 the 25 year old square structure was replaced with an entirely new octagonal structure. This second lighthouse is the one usually represented in pictures of the Craney Island Light. That structure was replaced in 1936 by an automated beacon. Today, only a signal bouy marks the spot once occupied by the Craney Island Light.



R.B. More is listed as the keeper of the Cape Charles lighthouse in the same 1877 payroll document, but he is not on the 1879 payroll, probably because he retired by this time. An Infantry Captain in the Civil War, More was 65 years old when he (temporarily) took over duties at Craney Island.

The "next station" that Mrs. Richards refers to in her letter is probably the Lambert's Point lighthouse, staffed by William L. Clegg and Mrs. J. V. Clegg.

There is some incongruity in Mrs. Richards addressing a "Wm Sherman" as Secretary of the Navy. Richard W. Thompson was Secretary of the Navy from 1877-1880. However, the national network of lighthouses was under the oversight of the Department of the Treasury, not the Navy. John Sherman was Treasury Secretary from 1877-1881. John's brother was William Tecumseh Sherman, the famous Union general during the Civil War.

This research thread has led to one correction in the PowerPoint presentation: a couple of family record references state that Elisha Richards died in 1878. However, the U.S. Treasury Department records indicate that he remained on the payroll at least through the end of 1878, and he is on the 1879 roster. It seems unlikely that the lighthouse board would wait an entire year to fill the vacancy, and it also seems unlikely that Pheby would wait a year to defend her position to the lighthouse board. 1879 seems like the more likely year of Elisha Richard's death.


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