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By Diane L. Cripps, Curator of the History Division, Portsmouth Museums
Starting Friday, March 6, the Lightship Portsmouth Museum opens for another operating season. The ship will be open Fridays and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and Sundays from 1:00 – 5:00 p.m., with a suggested donation of $2 per person.
The Lightship is the only one of the five Portsmouth Museums that would properly be classified as a “Historic House,” meaning it’s a structure preserved in its entirety to serve as a museum that tells its own story, and should evoke a sense of human habitation and activity in its original interior spaces, fitted out with period furnishings. Visitors who are familiar with naval ships, the Coast Guard, or maritime history have an immediate connection to this concept when it comes to a ship. But a lot of folks don’t have these experiences to relate to. Recent upgrades inside the ship will help them make more sense of what it must have been like to be a lightship sailor on this 104 year-old floating lighthouse.
Thanks to recent research by assistant curator Ross Patterson, we know a whole lot more about the ship’s crew in the middle of the 1950s, when the ship was serving on Stone Horse Shoal station off Massachusetts. Visitors can now view more images of the crew, connect individuals to their respective quarters, and understand more about the men who stood watch aboard LV101.
Upon entering the ship, visitors will see an introductory label that sets the “date” for their visit: March 4, 1955. This date comes from a picture of the crew in our archives, when it was stationed off Massachusetts, late in its commission, which lasted from 1916 until 1964.
While the functions of a lightship are often unfamiliar to visitors, the domestic areas of the ship are fairly self-explanatory. Like the enlisted crew’s quarters, which are visible upon entering the ship. The bunks make it easy to understand that this is a place for the crew to sleep. Now, however, we actually have a “crew member” or two occupying those bunks. Since there were round-the-clock watches on a lightship, someone would almost always be trying to catch some shuteye while the rest of the crew worked.
Also in the quarters, a reproduction 1955 Coca-Cola calendar smiles back at you to remind you of the date.
Just outside the crew’s quarters, visitors can now see what the 1955 enlisted crew members looked like, where they hailed from, and glance at a bit of information to help bring the crew to life1955.
In the officers’ quarters in the stern area of the main deck, there are also labels that show which officer occupied which space. Here, you can “meet” the Officer in Charge, Boatswain’s Mate Master Chief Petty Officer Ralph H. Joline. In the distance, on BMC Joline’s desk, there is now even a picture of his wife, which Ross discovered through archival research.
There’s another new crew member for visitors to discover, only this one isn’t napping. He’s hard at work in one of the storage areas below decks, storing a crate full of supplies. But when visitors see him, he will look like this, below the hatch grate in the aft passageway.
We hope this will bring attention to some of the areas of the ship that often go overlooked by visitors, but were vital parts of the vessel’s daily functions. The mannequin gives a sense of scale and lets people imagine the sailors hard at work all over the ship. We’re hoping to add another few “crew members” in areas that visitors can see, but can’t go themselves, like the engine room, or the boatswain’s storage area near the bow, to continue strengthening our interpretation of duties aboard a lightship.
Additionally, there are now convex mirrors in a couple of locations aboard the ship, so that people can look down the ladder into the engine room and see “around the corner” to the engine’s location, or see into the radio room which is up in the wheelhouse. We don’t allow visitors to climb the steep sets of stairs, but now they can satisfy a bit of their curiosity about these areas.
Those who come aboard eager to learn about the ship’s technical specifications will also find new diagrams to pore over, filled with information about the engine room and the wheelhouse.
There has always been a lot to learn about the Lightship. We’re hopeful these new improvements will make a bit more of that information accessible to everyone who visits. Welcome aboard!
Don’t miss this Coastal Virginia treasure with its collection of antique homes spanning three centuries, its eclectic assortment of hip shops, edgy nightlife, and saucy, one-of-a-kind restaurants. Olde Towne is walkable, from the Children’s Museum of Virginia to the historic park at Fort Nelson and everywhere in between. Just park the car or show up by boat and head out on foot to explore this funky and friendly little city. Looking for a photo op? Take a walk on the Seawall at night and check out the best urban light show in all of Hampton Roads. Portsmouth is a groovy little seaport with a happening art scene and an awesome music pavilion featuring the hottest touring bands. When you’re done with Olde Towne, take a ride to Midtown, Churchland, Truxton, Port Norfolk or any of our other historic communities and see what other offbeat places you can discover. Portsmouth is a laid-back old city and a fantastic place to hang out for a day, a weekend, or even a lifetime. Check it out!
Portsmouth Virginia is an Official Coast Guard City.