- The Enterprise
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Lighthouses, though not as necessary as they once were, still dot the shores in some parts of Southern Maryland and are draws for thousands of visitors each year.
Some lighthouses are long gone. Some have been preserved, and some have been moved. One even went up for auction a few years ago.
There are museums in the region that feature lighthouses still. The Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons has the Drum Point Lighthouse, oversees the nearby Cove Point Lighthouse and has some of the remaining material from the Cedar Point Lighthouse in storage. The Cedar Point Lighthouse cupola is at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum in Lexington Park.
The Piney Point Lighthouse has its own museum and the St. Clement’s Island Museum offers boat trips out to the replica of the Blackistone Island Lighthouse, as the island was called for many years.
Many people still have a romantic view of lighthouses, and they are popular among visitors, said Richard Dodds, curator of maritime history for the Calvert Marine Museum.
“Southern Maryland is pretty remarkable in how many lighthouses survived,” he said. In addition, “we have a good representation of the different styles” used around the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
There was the tower style, the house tower style, the screwpile style and the caisson style.
Existing still today are the Cove Point and Drum Point lighthouses in Calvert County. In St. Mary’s County, there are the Point No Point Lighthouse, Point Lookout Lighthouse, Piney Point Lighthouse and a replica of Blackistone Lighthouse.
Though now gone, off the coast of Charles County in the Potomac River were Cobb Island Bar Lighthouse, Maryland Point Lighthouse, Upper Cedar Point and Lower Cedar Point.
The Calvert Marine Museum acquired the Cove Point Lighthouse in 2002, which is open to the public and still in use as a navigational aide. It still uses an old Fresnel lamp, which is “fairly unique,” Dodds said.
Cove Point Lighthouse dates back to 1828 – making it the oldest of the Southern Maryland lighthouses.
It serves as a beacon to tell mariners where the northeast approach of the Patuxent River is. On the western bank of the Chesapeake Bay, it serves at one of the narrower parts of the bay and also marks its halfway point, Dodds said.
Cove Point is the fifth-oldest extant lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay, Dodds wrote in Bugeye Times, the Calvert Marine Museum’s newsletter, in winter 1997.
The lighthouse lamp itself is at the top of a 40-foot brick tower, which was built by John Donahoo, who built 12 of the first 17 lighthouses in Maryland. It was accompanied by a one-and-a-half story home for the lightkeeper and family.
Entering service in December 1828, its white light could be seen for 15 miles, Dodds wrote.
Cove Point Lighthouse served as a vessel reporting station, as well. In 1899, the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce petitioned the U.S. Lighthouse Board to place a telephone at Cove Point “for the primary reason of giving warning of the impending arrival of merchant vessels at Baltimore,” Dodds wrote.
The light station was also a radio beacon beginning in 1928 as another navigational tool.
“Cove Point was attractive duty for many keepers, as they could live with their families, unlike the more lonely offshore lights,” he wrote, though there was much more maintenance to do on the 11-acre lot.
The light at Cove Point was automated in 1986 and remains lit today.
Two years after the Cove Point Lighthouse came the Point Lookout Lighthouse in 1830 at the confluence of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. It, too, was built by Donahoo. That lighthouse still exists today and is owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which offers tours in the summer.
After a protracted legal battle over the 3 acres at the tip of the peninsula, the U.S. Lighthouse Service paid $1,150 to farmer Jenifer Taylor in December 13, 1832, two months after the Point Lookout Lighthouse was completed by Oct. 1, 1832. Its light was first lit September 20, 1830, according to the Maryland Historical Trust.
At one point during the arguing about the value of the land there, Taylor said he would lower the price per acre if he was appointed its lightkeeper.
Unlike Cove Point, which has a separate lighthouse tower, the tower was atop the home at Point Lookout, representing the house tower style lighthouse. The lamp had a focal plane of 24 feet above ground originally, until a second full story was added in 1883, which increased the focal plane to 41 feet.
After 1857, Point Lookout, north of the lighthouse, became a summertime resort. In 1862 during the Civil War, the Union built a hospital for its troops, and the next year a prisoner of war camp was added for Confederates. It took a while after the war, but the peninsula again became a resort area.
By the 1920s, the lighthouse was again isolated with few residents and no phone service nearby. The lighthouse was showing its age. Beginning in 1927, the house was renovated into a duplex, allowing two families to live there.
In 1939, the light station was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 1965, the state of Maryland began buying property around the lighthouse to become Point Lookout State Park. The lighthouse itself was transferred to the U.S. Navy via Patuxent River Naval Air Station and now belongs to the state.
The light at Point Lookout was turned off in 1965. Some believe the lighthouse is haunted.
Donahoo also built the Piney Point Lighthouse on the Potomac River, about 14 miles north of Point Lookout. Dating to 1836, it was the first lighthouse built on the Potomac.
The light was needed to advise mariners to “stay away from the coastline. There was a spit of land,” that jutted out there, said April Havens, site supervisor of Piney Point Lighthouse, Museum and Historic Park. Before the lighthouse was built, light ships were used to warn other vessels of hazardous shoals.
As there was at Point Lookout, there was another land dispute at Piney Point. William Suter, a local tavern keeper, refused to sell the property for a lighthouse unless he was named its lightkeeper. He died before officially given that job, according to the Maryland Historical Trust.
Piney Point, like Cove Point, is another standalone tower with the keepers quarters next door. The Piney Point tower is 35 feet high with a 15-foot cupola. Its light was visible for 12 miles.
Piney Point Lighthouse’s nickname is the “Lighthouse of Presidents.” St. Mary’s County folklore says a number of chief executives stayed there during summers. The (Baltimore) Sun did note that President John Tyler spent the weekend at Piney Point in August 1844. Otherwise, there is not much documentation to make such a claim, Havens said.
The lighthouse has stood the test of time despite frequent flooding from the river. “It looks great,” Havens said.
It has gone through some restoration work, which included the discovery of 24 layers of paint on the lighthouse tower, she said, probably applied through the years by the U.S. Coast Guard.
In older days, the lighthouse keeper would have to go up the tower’s narrow spiral staircase several times a day to feed oil for the lamp and keep the windows clean inside and out. “They maintained it 24/7,” she said.
In 1964 the lighthouse was decommissioned, and St. Mary’s County government took ownership in 1980.
With 16,276 counted visitors last year, Havens said of the park and museum at Piney Point, “We’re kind of a well-kept secret. A lot of people don’t know this lighthouse is here.”
Farther north up the Potomac River, a lighthouse was built in 1851, another by Donahoo, on the island where Maryland settlers first landed to establish a new colony. St. Clement’s Island, the birthplace of Maryland, was also called Blackistone Island through the years.
The lighthouse was raided by Confederates during the Civil War, who knocked its light out but did not destroy its lens.
Like Point Lookout, the lighthouse was atop the keeper’s quarters at Blackistone Island.
Even after the U.S. Navy bought the island in 1919 as part of a proving ground, the lighthouse continued to serve as a navigational aid on the river.
The lighthouse was automated in 1932, and the island, which was once home to vacation cottages in the late 1800s, was all but empty by 1950. The Sun noted that only a horse, some turkeys and a flock of sheep were living there at the time.
The lighthouse met its demise July 16, 1956, when it caught on fire with much of the island’s acreage. The Enterprise, based on witness accounts from those living in Colton’s Point, reported the fire was started by vandals, a lit cigarette or by a Navy shell explosion. The cause of the fire was never determined, said Christina Barbour, site supervisor of the St. Clement’s Island Museum. “No one knows for certain how the lighthouse caught fire. The Navy blew it up with a load of dynamite after the fire so the building would not present a hazard to island visitors,” she said.
A community group, St. Clement’s Hundred, had a replica of the Blackistone Lighthouse built on the island in 2008. Last year, the St. Clement’s Island Museum recorded 9,647 visitors with 3,265 who went out from the mainland to see the replica.
Farther up the Potomac River, two lighthouses were built in the same year off the shores of Charles County — Upper and Lower Cedar Point — not to be confused with the Cedar Point Lighthouse later built in the Chesapeake Bay.
Both Upper and Cedar Point were screwpile lighthouses, with the lights atop the keepers’ quarters, built out in the water using stands.
On July 20, 1867, the Upper Cedar Point Light started service, and shortly afterward, Aug. 6, 1867, the Lower Cedar Point began, according to “Lighting the Bay: Tales of Chesapeake Lighthouses,” by Pat Vojtech.
The Upper Cedar Point Lighthouse was off of today’s Blossom Point Field Test Facility, while the Lower Cedar Point light was near today’s Route 301 bridge over the Potomac River.
Upper Cedar Point was decommissioned in late 1876 when Mathias Point Lighthouse was built off the Virginia coast but relit six years later, Vojtech wrote. It was dismantled in 1963 by the Coast Guard.
At Lower Cedar Point, the lighthouse was destroyed by a fire on Christmas Day 1893, Vojtech wrote, and the cause was never determined. A replacement structure was built and lit Sept. 5, 1896. That was torn down in 1951, according to “Forgotten Beacons: The Lost Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay,” by Patrick Hornberger and Linda Turbyville.
A light had been called for at Drum Point on the Calvert County side of the Patuxent River since at least 1838, Dodds wrote. It wasn’t until July 17, 1883, that work began on the hexagon-shaped screwpile lighthouse just offshore at the mouth of the Patuxent.
Its light was visible for 13 miles in clear weather, and in fog, and the bell would ring a double blow every 15 seconds, Dodds wrote.
Anna Weems Ewalt was born in the Drum Point Lighthouse on July 13, 1906, and recalled her childhood memories there in an article in The Sun on Nov. 18, 1979. “The scene I remember best is Granddaddy cleaning the lenses on the lighthouse lamp. It was a daily ritual,” she wrote. “I can hear him swearing even now. He didn’t sit down to breakfast until the job was done.”
Drum Point was decommissioned in 1962. The shoreline came ever closer to the lighthouse, and trespassers began going in, vandalizing and removing what they could from the lighthouse. “A lot of wood paneling inside the house was just gone. It had been pretty well stripped,” Dodds said.
In 1975, the lighthouse was picked up by crane and transported just up the river to the Calvert Marine Museum where it stands today and is open to visitors. “People like Drum Point because families could live there,” he said of the visitors to Calvert Marine Museum. Last year, the museum had 72,981 visitors. How many of them visited the Drum Point Lighthouse wasn’t tracked, but 1,350 visited the Cove Point Lighthouse, said Traci Cimini, public relations manager for the museum.
Back in the Potomac River, another screwpile lighthouse was built in 1889 in the shallows south of Cobb Island, called the Cobb Point Bar Lighthouse.
Despite the light, sailing ships would still get stuck on the sandbar there, according to “Forgotten Beacons.” In December 1939, the lighthouse was destroyed by fire, supposedly by a lit cigarette dropped into a cord of wood, and its remains were torn down in 1940, replaced with a standalone light.
Further up the Potomac, the Maryland Point Lighthouse off Charles County was built in 1892 in 12 feet of water in the middle of a shoal. Another screwpile, the light there was automated Oct. 15, 1954, according to The Washington Post. Two men with the Coast Guard were finally able to leave the “lonely tour of duty.”
The Cedar Point Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay did not serve a very long useful life. It stood for much longer as a crumbling building.
“Erosion was its bugaboo,” Dodds said.
Established in 1896, the lighthouse was on Cedar Point at today’s Patuxent River Naval Air Station, serving as the southern marker noting the entrance to the Patuxent River. Its light could be seen for 12 miles in clear weather.
A gravel company which owned the land at the point only sped up the erosion there, and it wasn’t long before the lighthouse became separated from the mainland. The light, atop a three-story brick cottage, was abandoned by 1928 and replaced with a buoy.
“It was abandoned, sitting out there for years,” Dodds said. In 1981, its cupola was removed and now resides at the Navy museum in Lexington Park.
Sitting on the verge of collapse for years, salvage work began in 1996 when the Navy allowed the Calvert museum to save what it could. “We took it apart piece by piece,” Dodds said, and 11 tons of materials, mostly yellow pine, were retrieved. “They’re in storage for the most part” at the museum, he said. The rest of the lighthouse is crumbled beneath the water’s surface.
The most recent lighthouse to be erected off the shores in Southern Maryland was off Point No Point in the Chesapeake Bay. In 1893, authorities called for a light in the area because there was “at least 30 miles between Cove Point and Smith’s Point without a light, rendering the passage in that locality extremely dangerous and affecting the commerce of Baltimore,” The Sun reported.
Point No Point is a caisson-style lighthouse, part of which was built at Solomons Island before it was shipped to its current location, about two miles offshore from Ridge in about 20 feet of water.
To install the lighthouse, a wharf was built in order to sink the caisson into the bottom of the bay with 500 tons of concrete.
On April 3, 1903, a gale came up, and the wharf, with its 125 tons of concrete, was torn away from its accompanying schooner, according to an account in The Sun from April 8, 1903. A dozen people on the wharf were thrown into the water, and the caisson itself filled and capsized. Upside down, it was carried by wind and tides about 40 miles south down the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rappahannock River in Virginia.
Point No Point Lighthouse was eventually built and commissioned April 24, 1905; the light was automated exactly 57 years later.
The St. Mary’s Beacon newspaper reported Oct. 6, 1914, that William Yeatman, the assistant lightkeeper, brought his 5-year-old daughter out to Point No Point. While trying to get from the boat to the lighthouse’s ladder, both Yeatman and the girl were washed overboard by heavy surf. When he resurfaced, the girl was about 30 feet away, trying to swim. “She had floated all the time, and when he reached her she was laughing and seemingly enjoying the novel situation,” the paper wrote.
The lighthouse still sits out in the bay, and the U.S. General Services Administration tried to auction it off in 2007. It received expensive bids — the highest reached in October 2007 was $135,000. But the Navy interceded and had the auction canceled in 2008 as the lighthouse sits on the border of its Chesapeake Bay test range.
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