Lightship 116 was built in South Carolina at the Charleston Machine and Drydock Company at a cost of $274,424. The new vessel featured an efficient diesel-electric power-plant (superseding earlier steam powered designs), all-steel construction, and impressive signaling equipment capable of marking her station in all kinds of weather and light conditions.
Electricity for the ship's propulsion motor, lighting, and machinery was supplied by four 75-kilowatt diesel engine/generator units located in the engine room. Her signaling apparatus consisted of a 13,000 candlepower electric beacon lamp atop each mast (later consolidated on the aft mast), an electric foghorn (later replaced with a compressed-air diaphone), radio beacon, and fog bell mounted on the main deck. The ship was equipped with two 5,000-pound mushroom anchors (one main and a spare) designed to hold her on station in the roughest of weather.
Although Chesapeake was designed for a crew of up to 16, several crew members were usually away on shore leave at any given time. Crew accommodations included two-man staterooms for the enlisted men, a crew's mess, an electrically powered galley, and a refrigerator unit (which was considered an advancement for 1930). Officers (1st and 2nd Officer, Engineer and Assistant Engineer) had their own staterooms adjacent to their mess (dining room), and the Captain, or Master as he was called in the Lighthouse Service, occupied his own stateroom immediately behind the pilothouse.
The U.S. Lighthouse Service first assigned Chesapeake at the Fenwick Island Shoal (DE) Station from 1930 to 1933. After her first assignment was complete, she later marked the entrance to Chesapeake Bay until the beginning of World War II. During this time, most coastal lightships were withdrawn for security reasons and were often converted for wartime duties.
During 1942 and 1945, Lightship 116 was painted a battleship gray, armed with two 20mm cannons, and was used as a patrol and inspection vessel near the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal. In 1945, she returned to the waters off Cape Henry, Virginia, where her bright red hull, beacon light, and "Chesapeake" station designation guided maritime traffic in and out of the Chesapeake Bay for the following 20 years.