The museum has a ghost in the Lookout Tower. We don’t debate this fact any longer. A character has been seen in the tower by folks strolling on the boardwalk since the very first year the institution opened as a museum; 1981. Many dozens of sightings, perhaps it’s more than a hundred now, have been reported. We’ve never done an accurate count, but this tower ghost sighting has become a fixture of museum life in the 1903 building.
The ghost has been seen a number of places, actually. Sometimes the character is moving around inside the upper tower area. Other times the figure is reported moving past the windows in the tower stairwell. A man has been seen moving past the second floor windows, and though rare, he’s caught moving around in the lower level gift shop area. The most dramatic reports are those that share a figure that moves about on the outer tower catwalk.
A couple of years back, I met an out of town couple that spoke of watching the man walk around the catwalk on their boardwalk stroll back to the hotel room. It was shortly after 11:30pm. The middle aged New Yorkers came into the museum as we opened one morning, asking with wide, excited eyes, about what we were doing last night. They were naturally under the impression that the museum was doing some sort of midnight hour reenactment. They described the man as wearing a long dark rain coat, and wearing a large fisherman hat. He carried a lantern. He spent most of the time on the north side, looking into the 24th Street Park.
I didn’t know the couple. I still don’t know if alcohol was involved. They had hit a few bars after dinner that night. The story, though, seemed genuine. They didn’t seem very hung over. They spoke pretty clearly about what they saw.
Historically, the surfman on watch may or may not have had a lantern. I doubt a Coast Guardsman would have carried a light of this type. He would also have had a looking glass, a type of period telescope, or a pair of binoculars, depending on the era. I’ve never heard a story that reports the ghost carrying a looking glass. It’s always a lantern, or a light. I found it very interesting when the couple shared the ghost spent his time on the north side. Back in the day, when the Virginia Beach Station was active, that was the east side; the side facing the sea. Let’s never forget that the building was moved and turned for its preservation. There have been plenty of sightings, however, where the man lingers on the now eastern side of the narrow walkway.
In the later part of the 1990’s the museum’s director had a full size cut out made from one the collection’s historic surfman photographs. He and the other staff put this cut out in the Lookout Tower window, on the oceanside. It’s been reprinted a few times, but the cut out still remains in the tower. The photo is of a surfman that worked in this very building during the time of the United States Life-Saving Service; John Woodhouse Sparrow.
Surfman John Woodhouse Sparrow. United States Life-Saving Service Photo.
John was born in 1855, a local Princess Ann County farm boy that took to boats and fishing. He joined the already established Life-Saving Service in 1882. His first place of duty was the Seatack Life-Saving Station, #2. This was the building originally constructed in 1878 on the now 24th Street site. There wasn’t a 24th Street at the time, of course. The Seatack Station was one of the first buildings along what use to be a very empty, barren coastline. Out of that little boat house, John and his fellow Surfman responded to multiple shipwrecks during the height of storm season. He was on the crew that saved men from the now famous Dictator tragedy of 1891. In 1901, John Sparrow was awarded the Silver Life-Saving Medal for his work during the rescue of the Jennie Hall. Sparrow was on the first crew of the newly built Virginia Beach Life-Saving Station in 1903. That’s the building i’m sitting in at the moment, working on this blog.
Around 1910, someone took John’s picture. The photographer was a professional hired by the USLSS to capture service images for recruiting and public relations. We do not quite know why they picked John, or the Virginia Beach Station, but the photo used for our tower John is from that session. It became what is perhaps the most published photograph of the service, both then and now.
It was a a great idea to put this wonderful photo of John in the Lookout Tower. We see his USLSS rain gear. We see VABEACH written on the distinctive surfman rain hat. He’s got some movie star looks, and that classic broom handle mustache that identifies the period without doubt. It’s been a fun way to share the history with visitors.
However, the folks that put John’s picture in the tower also started the story that John was the ghost. Presented without doubt, without question, without reference, John was now the resident chap that stayed on watch. We’ve been promoting that idea, sometimes seriously, sometimes with tongue in cheek, for about 25 years now. It proves the notion that if you tell a story long enough, it gets to become a fact.
I share on my tours that I don’t think our ghost is John Sparrow. A couple of glaring facts bring me this conclusion, the main being that I know the idea came from the photograph. I assume if another Surfman was photographed that day, whether Bennett Simmons, or Bailey Barco, we’d be telling everyone that was the ghost.
Another important fact is that John would not have stood watch in our tower. John Sparrow retired in 1917. He had 35 years in the service. He had also made the transition from the USLSS to the United States Coast Guard in 1915. He was 62 years old at the time he finally took his medals home. Even in his early sixties, he was still rowing the surfboat through the breakers in the worst of storms. When you use the old phrase, “when boats were wooden and men were iron,” John Woodhouse Sparrow was one of those iron men.
In 1933, with new funding for the now aging coastal stations, the now called USCG Station #162, Virginia Beach, got an upgrade. The USCG kept the original structure, opting to widen the upper crew quarters with new dormers and windows. They also chose to remove and close the original lookout, sculpted then into the center roofline, with a 6 story Lookout Tower placed strategically on the building’s Eastern face. The tower remains the prominent architectural feature, and offered Coast Guardsman a clearer view of the coast and channel waters entering the Chesapeake Bay.
John still lived in Virginia Beach in 1933, and saw his beloved station make the transition to the modern day, and most likely climbed those tower stairs as an honored visitor. But he would have never stood watch in that tower.
After spending nearly 7 years working in this historic building, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that a ghost haunts the tower. I have personally never seen anything ghostly in the tower, though I most certainly have felt it. I have felt cold air, and had strange sensations in both the stairwell and inner upper deck. And I do believe a large number of the ghost sightings are genuine.
I don’t know who it is. There’s a chance it isn’t one soul. It may be what the paranormal investigators call residual energy. From 1933 to 1969, a lot of men have stood watch in that tower. The station was very active through the years of World War II, a period that offered a fair amount of tragedy and death along our coast. A lot of men spent a week or two here, waiting for their WW II deployments. An open mind may consider that, at times, we witness some of their energy again.
I also consider the chance that a single soul has stayed. Perhaps trapped, perhaps by choice, but the ghost is staying. Repeating the very normal service of climbing the stairs, of walking the catwalk, of hours spent watching for ships at sea.
We all say hello to John on our visits to the Lookout Tower. In my mind, in my heart, I don’t think John’s up there. I still say hello, though. And goodbye. And thank you. Every time. The lookout is a rare place to be. A special place to be. And you are never up there by yourself.