about the museum

LIGHTSHIP PORTSMOUTH

From April of 1820 to March 29, 1985, the coast of the United States was dotted with an odd collection of unique ships. Known as Lightships, these unassuming boats acted as lighthouses in places where building a conventional building was deemed impossible. A total of 179 ships were eventually built, manning 116 stations spread across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Great Lakes. With service lives as long as eighty-one years, these vessels saved countless lives until finally replaced with new deep-water lighthouse designs and modern technology.

LV-101, now known as the Lightship Portsmouth, began her life in the shipyards of the Pusey and Jones Corporation in Wilmington, Delaware with the laying of her keel on March 6, 1915. The lead ship of a two vessel class, LV-101, was unique in several ways. She and her sister ship, LV-102,, were built with a steel whaleback hull. This means that the hull is curved and rounded above and below the waterline, making the ship very stable in stormy seas. Additionally, the vessels used unique Hollow Masts to allow crewmen to maintain the light while protected from the weather due to a concealed internal ladder.

LV-101 undertaking a trial trip from the Pusey and Jones Shipyard on August 22, 1916.  United States Coast Guard Photograph
LV-101 undertaking a trial trip from the Pusey and Jones Shipyard on August 22, 1916.
United States Coast Guard Photograph

Once complete, LV-101 was crewed by four officers and seven men of the Lighthouse Service, a predecessor to the modern Coast Guard. She then proceeded to the Cape Charles Station off the Virginia coast, where she stayed until 1924. She received several upgrades during this time, most notably a radio in 1919. After a brief respite as a reserve “Relief” ship in Virginia waters, LV-101 was assigned to guard the Overfalls Shoal in Delaware from 1926 to 1951. It was here that she spent a majority of her service life, and where the most changes took place. From 1930 to 1950, LV-101 received a new fog horn, had its light electrified, saw her superstructure expanded, joined the newly formed Coast Guard, shifted to an all-enlisted rank crew, and received an upgraded diesel engine when her worn kerosene one broke down.

LV-101 under power in 1921, marked ‘CHARLES’ to denote her Cape Charles duty station.  United States Coast Guard Photograph
LV-101 under power in 1921, marked ‘CHARLES’ to denote her Cape Charles duty station.
United States Coast Guard Photograph
LV-101 in 1945, with a binocular-carrying crewman on the foredeck scanning the area.  The 1944 extension of her superstructure is clearly visible.  United States Coast Guard Photograph

LV-101 in 1945, with a binocular-carrying crewman on the foredeck scanning the area.
The 1944 extension of her superstructure is clearly visible.
United States Coast Guard Photograph

When it came time for LV-101 to change stations again, she moved to Stone Horse Shoal off Massachusetts, remaining there from 1951 until 1963. By this point, however, the writing was on the wall. A new type of lighthouse, the “Texas Tower,” was designed to take the place of several lightship stations, while automated buoys were created to replace others. So when LV-101’s engine broke down after her 1963 transfer to Cross Rip Shoal, the Coast Guard decided it was time for the ship’s forty-eight years of service to come to an end.

LV-101 on station off Monomoy Island the 1950s.  Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Photograph.
LV-101 on station off Monomoy Island the 1950s.
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Photograph.
A crewman lowers the Jack of the United States on LV-101’s bow as part of her decommissioning ceremony. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Photograph
A crewman lowers the Jack of the United States on LV-101’s bow as part of her decommissioning ceremony.
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Photograph

But fate spared LV-101 from the scrapyard. The City of Portsmouth, seeking to refresh their waterfront district, heard of an assortment of decommissioned Lightships gathered along the Massachusetts coast. After some discussions, control of LV-101 was given to Portsmouth on September 3, 1964 for use as a Museum Ship. The retired Lightship was then towed down to a specially built slip along Water Street and set in concrete, where it was restored and opened to the public in 1967. In the tradition of marking the sides of Lightships with the name of their duty station, LV-101 was rechristened the Lightship Portsmouth, and has remained so to this day. Her interior is now restored to depict a day in the life of the ship as it would be in 1955, several years into her service at Stone Horse Shoal.

LV-101 and LV-102 moored together after decommissioning in 1964, their sides stripped of all station markings.  Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Photograph
LV-101 and LV-102 moored together after decommissioning in 1964, their sides stripped of all station markings.
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Photograph
A view of the crowd gathered during the April 24, 1967 opening of the new Lightship and Coast Guard Museum, taken by local J. C. Emmerson.  Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Photograph
A view of the crowd gathered during the April 24, 1967 opening of the new Lightship and Coast
Guard Museum, taken by local J. C. Emmerson.
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Photograph
The Lightship in April of 2021 flying her Jack, Ensign, and Signal Flags.  Ross Patterson II Image.
The Lightship in April of 2021 flying her Jack, Ensign, and Signal Flags.
Ross Patterson II Image.