Admiral Ross’s Journey, part 4: The Lighthouse Tender Violet

The lighthouse tender Violet at the Great Bridge Lock on the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. A smudge of wayward rose tint gives its forward section a bit of a beauty mark. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

The lighthouse tender Violet at the Great Bridge Lock on the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. A smudge of wayward rose tint gives its forward section a bit of a beauty mark. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

This is part 4 of a series I’m doing this week based on an extraordinary collection of glass lantern slides that a teacher named Linda Garey shared with me. Her great-grandfather, Rear Admiral Albert Ross, took the images on a trip down the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal in 1901.

In our next glass lantern slide, we can see Commander Albert Ross’s lighthouse tender Violet at the Albemarle and Chesapeake (A&C) Canal’s lock in Great Bridge, Virginia. This was the only lock on the canal and served to compensate for the different water levels in the canal and the Elizabeth River caused by the canal’s wind tides and the river’s lunar tides.

The Violet was a coal-fired, paddlewheel steamer.  Built on Staten Island, N.Y., during the Civil War, she was originally named the Martha Washington, not the Violet.  One hundred and seven feet in length, she served as an excursion steamer in New York Harbor for a time.

Martha Washington (later the Violet), oil painting by James Bard, 1864. From The Athenaeum.org

Martha Washington (later the Violet), oil painting by James Bard, 1864. From The Athenaeum.org

The U.S. Lighthouse Board bought the Martha Washington and converted her into a tender in 1870. She entered the service as the Violet in 1871.

Lengthened to 143 feet, she was eventually assigned to the 5th Lighthouse District, covering lighthouses and other navigational aides all the way from Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout, N.C.

The lock at Great Bridge was considered an engineering feat when built in the 1850s. At the time, the lock was the second largest in North America, surpassed in size only by the locks at Sault Sainte Marie that connected Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

Built of stone masonry, the lock chamber was 220 feet long, 40 feet wide and 8 feet deep. When the lock doors closed, a system of underground culverts drained water from or released water into the chamber.

The Great Bridge Lock is a reversible-head, double-gated structure said to be the first in the nation.

A truly fantastic resource book, The Great Dismal Atlas, produced in 1998 by the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society, gives a good explanation of how the Great Bridge Lock worked (and still works) and why the innovative system of gates was so important.

“Like most locks in the world, Great Bridge Lock has `miter gates’ which when closed, meet at an angle pointing upstream to resist the water pressure. Ordinary locks have one pair of miter gates at each end, pointing upstream. For Great Bridge Lock, upstream can be in either direction, so it has an extra pair of lock gates at each end, facing the other direction.

“Great Bridge Lock works like an ordinary lock, but with the two pairs of gates facing the wrong way folded out of the way in gate recesses (niches) in the lock walls.

"How Great Bridge Lock Works." From The Great Dismal Atlas (Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, 1998)

“How Great Bridge Lock Works.” From The Great Dismal Atlas (Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, 1998)

“A boat going downstream enters the lock through the upstream gates, with the downstream gates closed. Then the upstream gates are closed. The water is drained off downstream through large underground culverts in the south side of the lock. When the boat is at the downstream water level, the downstream lock gates can be opened to let the boat out.

“A boat going upstream enters the lock with the upstream gates closed. Then the downstream gates are closed, the water is let in, through the underground culverts, and when the lock is full the upper gates can be opened to let the boat out.

“When the river and the cut are at the same level, all eight gates are kept open and no lockage is required.”

In another of Rear Admiral Ross’s glass lantern slides, you can see the easternmost miter gate open from the Violet’s stern. At this point, the steamer has passed through the Great Bridge Lock and is headed east on the Virginia Cut toward the North Landing River.

View from the Violet's stern of the Great Bridge Lock, Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

View from the Violet’s stern of the Great Bridge Lock, Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal, 1901. Image by Albert Ross, USN. Courtesy, Linda Garey

Fishermen and waterfowl hunters would discover how important the lock’s reversible-head gates were to local wildlife habitat in 1917, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which took over the canal in 1913) decided to remove the lock.

After the removal of the lock, saltwater passing through the canal, as well as possibly Norfolk’s sewage and pollution, caused widespread ecological damage to the freshwater marshes and fishing grounds in Currituck Sound. The Corps built a new lock in 1932.

Tomorrow, part 5– The Land of the Blueberry Bogs

 

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