Life on the Water – Lighthouse

At the mouth of the James, a family and friends take history back from the seagulls.

by Roberta T. Vowell
photography by Keith Lanpher

Bob Gonsoulin is the happiest guy in the world right now.

His 21-foot fishing boat is flitting across the water on a clear summer afternoon. As he leaves dock in Hampton, he looks to his left, viewing the snarl of traffic on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. His sturdy boat settles into a steady pace. Ten minutes later, he glances over his right shoulder, checking out the matching backup on the Monitor-Merrimac.

Gonsoulin’s blue eyes sparkle against his deep-water tan. “There’s a little dot, right in front of us,” he says, pointing at miles of glassy blue water. “That’s where we’re going.”

His face relaxes into a broad grin. The happiest guy in the world is becoming even happier. “Going to the lighthouse,” he says.

Gonsoulin and his wife, Joan – and her sister Jackie and husband Dan Billingsley, who live up the coast in Annapolis – bought the lighthouse at auction from the federal government in 2005. It was a steal at $31,000. It was also a catastrophe; the last lighthouse keeper moved out in 1955 when the light was automated. The sea birds moved in. Gulls are lousy tenants. Every surface was covered with gull goo. Under that there was a layer of rust, and under that was a layer of rot.

Family, extended family, friends of the kids, friends of friends have come to the lighthouse. They’ve shoveled, scraped, painted and sanded. The light is at the mouth of the James River, and currents are crazy, shifting with the wind. There’s a ship-snaring shoal lurking underneath, which is why the Middle Ground Lighthouse was built in 1891, to warn away sailors.

“This right here is where the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac was,” Gonsoulin shouts over his roaring 150-horsepower Yamaha outboard. “One of the boats ran aground on the shoals to keep from sinking.”

He pauses, grins again. “I really oughta look up which one.”

But that can wait, because before us is the lighthouse. From the perspective of a commuter on the Monitor-Merrimac, it looks like a pudgy toy that a gigantic, petulant child has left squatting in the water. Coming upon it in a boat, it grows and grows until it is revealed as a massive metal structure looming over the boats, barnhouse red, ringed by black cast-iron railings and studded with white-rimmed windows.

The Gonsoulins originally planned to use the lighthouse as-is, as a camping spot for his children’s Sea Scouts troop (they’re a co-ed, teen branch of Boy Scouts). “We were just gonna put a Porta-Potty here, sweep the place out, pitch a tent in it and say, ‘We have a lighthouse,’ and that would be that.”

The “girls” – sisters Joan and Jackie – had other ideas, he says. “They wanted to make it nice.”

“Nice” proved to be an enormous amount of work. It helped that Bob and Joan Gonsoulin’s four children are all engineers, and Jackie and Dan Billingsley are engineers. Those “let’s-see-how-that-works” students had friends of a similar mindset, and their buddies came to help for a weekend, a spring break, part of a summer.

The pay for a day’s work is intangible, and unforgettable. A leap from grimy chores into cool water below, fish snatched from river to grill, sunrises, sunsets and fireworks from the best seat in the house.

Bob and son Brad – a 32-year-old computer systems engineer who lives and works in Hampton – dock the boat at a tiny wooden landing under a staircase. A knotted rope dangles; if wind and waves are hairy, you’ll grab it and swing across to the ladder. It’s a little adventure, just enough uncertainty to speed up the heart.

But once inside, oh, this lighthouse is civilized. It’s easiest to imagine by picturing yourself inside a wedding cake. The rooms are circular, stacked one atop another with spiral stairways and iron ladders inside. The rooms become smaller as you climb, ending with the room housing the light itself, which is just big enough for a bride and groom.

There’s a cellar that contains the freshwater cistern – rainwater streams in through a gutter system, and settles in the 2,400-gallon tank, clear as glass – and electrical stuff and tools and water toys, including inflatable tubes that tether to the lighthouse and drift with the currents, an activity that can take up an amazing amount of a summer day.

The main floor is the kitchen. Whitewashed walls painted with Jackie Billingsley’s charming folk art-style mural of a harbor scape. A semicircular table and bench hug half the wall in the round room; Joan and Jackie’s father, Eddie Prokop, crafted the set starting with filthy blackened wood ripped off lighthouse walls, which under his touch was revealed to be gleaming bald cypress. All the kitchen machines are lined up – stove, sink, fridge and microwave. A fish-shaped chalkboard offers a message, “Thought for Today: It’s all Bob’s fault.”

“Wrote that last time we were here,” he responds cheerfully.

There’s running water, pumped up from that cistern, and a shower and marine toilet and even central air conditioning. That AC came at a heavy price – 600 pounds, hauled up with an electric hoist, then man- (and woman-) handled around the curved outside deck and into the kitchen. Most everything in the house is hauled up that way, including bed, fridge and food.

A staircase runs in a spiral up a wall of exposed brick, leading to the bedroom. This room is brick, too, with a country-style bed of brass and weathered white paint. Again, the decorating is simple: paintings of local lighthouses given to the family.

Up again, another spiral staircase to the Porthole Room. Funny thing: The room didn’t have portholes, just tiny windows. When the family couldn’t find replacement windows in the odd square shape, they found brass portholes on eBay, and Jackie’s father created framing for them.

The room is kind of perfect. The nautical feel of the portholes is matched by a semicircular stretch of couches and giant hassocks in brilliant turquoise, totally island against the white walls. A short row of large starfish hang on one wall, a mermaid is painted on another, and the rest of the decoration is sky and water from the portholes.

Joan and Jackie made the curving couch, right there in the Porthole Room. Jackie and her son-in-law built the wooden frame, and Joan crafted the cushions. Under the couch seats are bins of bedding, and the whole room is considered sleeping space. The seating faces a flat-screen TV – excellent local reception – that is seldom used. Because the best part of the lighthouse is the three metal decks circling outside, offering a 365-degree vista, places to fish, to jump into the river, to read, or just to daydream. In fact, the family lives mostly on the decks. “It’s not so great in winter,” Brad Gonsoulin says. “All the fun is outside.”

 Joan Gonsoulin pulls open portholes and cool air rushes in. She is 60, a dental hygienist who likes order.

“What you have to know about me,” she says, “is that I get seasick. I’m a person who doesn’t like to get dirty. I used to be scared of heights.”

The lighthouse changed all that.

“The first time I was here,” she says, “I crawled from the hatch to the front door. I got over it when they had me hanging over the roof, 50 feet above water, putting in rivets.”

Bob estimates they’ve spent $200,000 in materials on the vacation home. It’s double what he expected.

But for $231,000, they have a hangout that will withstand a hurricane, or a hundred hurricanes. “It’s made it through storms for over 100 years,” he says. “That includes big stuff, like the Hurricane of ’33, the Ash Wednesday storm, and Isabel.”

Jackie and her son and friends rode out one hurricane in the cozy confines of metal and brick. “They said it was boring,” Joan says. “On deck, they’d get blown away, but inside, they couldn’t even hear the wind.”

Not even a little shaking; the lighthouse stands firm. It’s a little disconcerting, at first, to be surrounded by sea but not dipping like a boat. “Some people,” Joan says, “wear their lifejackets the first 20 or 30 minutes they’re here.”

The couple lives in Williamsburg, where Bob, 63, works for the state health department. He grew up on the water, though, on Willoughby Spit. His father died when he was young, his mother was absent, and he was brought up by grandparents.

“I grew up without much of a family,” he says.

So he created one of his own – three daughters, one son – and embraced his wife’s extensive clan of brothers and sisters and children. His father-in-law, Eddie, became the dad he never had.

“When we first bought the lighthouse,” Bob says, “he was old, and he felt old. He was a World War II vet, and he’d been an engineer. His wife had just died and he was depressed. He’d pulled away from everyone, into a shell. But he had worked with wood all his life, and he couldn’t resist all this.

“Joan’s dad died last year, and the most rewarding thing about owning this lighthouse was to see him come back to the world, to see him throw himself into this.”

Prokop died at age 88. He hopped on and off the boat to the lighthouse up until age 87.

Like ships that pass in the night, hundreds of people have come aboard Middle Ground Lighthouse. Up another steel ladder is the Watch Room, where lighthouse keepers stood watch, clanging the fog bell in heavy weather. The Watch Room is a small circle, where only about three people fit comfortably, and it is made all the smaller by the lingering presence of guests, who sign the curving walls. It’s a ship’s log of parties, work details and weather:

“I am the Gonsoulin’s #1 fan!” Susan Hay, 1/15/10

“Feel the Love!! Memorial Day Weekend,” 2010, Susanna

“1st Hurricane Party Survivor” – Scott G, 9/6/2008

“Is it time 4 poker yet?” Kelsey, ‘06

“Had a great time chipping rust here…” Heather, 4/25/10

There is one more ladder to be tackled. It leads to the Lantern Room, which is still maintained by the Coast Guard. It’s all Plexiglas-enclosed, just the big red light and sky and sea.

“Storms come out of the blue,” Bob Gonsoulin says, leaning over the black-painted railing. “From glassy calm like this to rough, the weather can change in five minutes.”

He lets out a deep breath, his eyes taking in water and sky, stained a crayon box-full of colors by the setting sun.

“People think we’re crazy,” he says. “Then they come out here. There’s nothing like this.”



  1. Kathleen says

    Wonderfully written and photographed story about the Middle Ground Lighthouse. I first learned of the Gonsoulin’s undertaking via an article in the Daily Press. If memory serves, I thought they were going to treat the lighthouse as much as an investment as a vacation home. Is it available as a bed and breakfast… or bed, and I’ll make my own breakfast? If so, I would love to learn more!

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