Stretching for seventeen miles along the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, from George Washington’s historic family home to the city of Washington, D.C., the Mount Vernon Trail has as much history per mile as just about any other trail in the entire country. And one of the often overlooked highlights along the trail is the Jones Point Lighthouse, which is located on a short peninsula of land just south of Old Town Alexandria, directly west across the river from National Harbor on the Maryland shore, and immediately north of the confluence of Hunting Creek and the Potomac River (MAP) in Jones Point Park. It was this lighthouse that was the destination for this lunchtime bike ride.
In August of 1852, the United States Lighthouse Board received a Congressional appropriation to purchase land and construct a lighthouse at Jones Point. Three years later, the money was used to purchase a narrow tract of land, measuring only 30 by 100 feet, from the Manassas Gap Railroad Company. The building was constructed in 1855, and the Jones Point Lighthouse was first lit on May 3, 1856. The lighthouse consisted of a small, one-story, four-room house with a lantern on top that contained a fifth order Fresnel lens, the most advanced lens technology available in the 1800’s. The lens produced a light beam which could be seen nine miles away. The light was designed to function as a navigational aid to help ships avoid shifting underwater shoals on the river, and originally served primarily naval ships approaching the Washington Navy Yard, as well as the numerous merchant, passenger, fishing ships traveling into Alexandria, which was at the time was one of the largest centers for shipping, manufacturing, and transportation in the nation.
In 1918 a massive shipyard was constructed at Jones Point to build ships for World War I. As a result, the lighthouse’s beacon light was obscured, making it less useful as a navigational aid. It continued to function in its diminished capacity for a few more years, but was eventually discontinued in 1926, and replaced by a small steel skeletal tower located nearby with an automated light to cut the costs of a manned lighthouse. After being discontinued, the house and property were deeded to the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which maintained the structure as a museum. Then a decade later, in 1936, the Army Signal Corps built a classified communication facility on the former shipyard and closed it to the public. At that time the Jones Point Light went dark, and would remain so for more than half a century.
Although the lighthouse was now closed, the Army reopened Jones Point to the public in 1953. But by that time there was significant damage to the lighthouse from weather, tides, and vandalism. Soldiers had even used the building for target practice during World War II. And after the public was allowed to enter Jones Point again, the damage to the lighthouse only got worse, with vandals further defacing the building, looting it for artifacts and materials, and even burning down part of it. At that point the Daughters of the American Revolution, lacking the funds to restore the lighthouse and not wanting the historic structure to end up being completely destroyed, they chose to deed the property back once again to the Federal government.
With the Jones Point Lighthouse back under the ownership and control of the Federal government, the Daughters of the American Revolution worked with the National Park Service to establish a park on the site and restore the lighthouse. In 1964 Jones Point Park opened, and although the restoration of the lighthouse took longer, it was finally relit in 1995. Today the Jones Point Light is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of only a few remaining riverine lighthouses in the entire country, and it is the last one remaining in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Although it is only a short distance from D.C., the feeling of stepping back in time makes the Jones Point Lighthouse seem much further away. So even though it was only a lunchtime trip, it seemed like I travelled much, much further.