Still Lighting the Way

Vol. 8, No. 29
July 20-26, 2000
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At 172 Years Old, Cove Point Lighthouse Has its Job to Do
By Connie Darago

Cove Point Lighthouse coverFollow the southern corridor of Route 2/4 through Calvert County, and you make your way down the center of a peninsula. With the Chesapeake Bay to the east and the Patuxent River to the west, it seems only fitting to find a lighthouse near the end of your journey.

Not just any lighthouse.

For one thing, the Cove Point Light Station may be the only thing for which Congress ever paid less than it budgeted.

In 1828, Congress approved $5,685 to build a lighthouse at Cove Point, four miles north of the entrance to the Patuxent River, to mark the shoal that extended out toward the shipping channel. The Bay’s most renowned lighthouse builder, John Donohoo of Havre de Grace, was commissioned to build the 38-foot truncated tower and keeper’s house.

The original four-acre site cost $300. The light tower and house were built of local brick, keeping down the cost of the entire project to a modest $2,000. Both are still standing 172 years later. How’s that for getting your money’s worth?

For another distinction, Cove Point has a story to tell: a story of humans doing what we do best in an age of automation: making judgments and taking action.

For a third, Cove Point is Maryland’s only working lighthouse.

Looking All Around

You’ve turned off Route 2/4 onto Cove Point Road, winding through the small summer cottage homes to the road’s end. Even knowing what you’re looking for, the sight — the surprise — is blinding, for the white structures cast a glare as sunlight engulfs them. Their background is an azure blue sky above and Chesapeake Bay below.

The truncated tower, parged with concrete and painted white, stands between the main keeper’s house and the bell tower. Three small windows arch toward the top, adding natural light to the inside’s spiraling stairs. It is now hauntingly close to the water’s edge. Only a great barrier of stone protects it from the relentless pounding waves of the Bay.

The walls are solid brick, over 30 inches thick at the base. Inside those walls, triangular stairs wind 38 feet to the enclosed glass lantern that tops the lighthouse. Threaded into a central column, the outside of each tread is mortared into the masonry wall. As they spiral toward the top, the stairs reach a narrow ladder leading to the hatch door, which opens into the lamp room. Automated equipment surrounds the fourth-order Frensel lens, leaving little space for maneuvering about the glass-enclosed bubble. The entire structure is 51 feet high.

The view that awaits takes your breath away. The Cliffs of Calvert rise stately to the north, the Eastern Shore lures to the east and sandy beaches and islands dot the south. Sailboats glide past like ghosts carried on silent winds.

The circular lantern — with cast-iron mullions supported by a masonry wall and surrounded by an 18-inch stone deck and cast-iron railing — is set with triangular panes of glass. The interior floor is formed of a single iron plate.

The light, visible for 12 nautical miles, is elevated 45 feet above the tide, to lead vessels clear of the point on which it stands, where the water is only about seven fathoms. It also guides vessels clear of Cedar Point to the south and into the Patuxent River. Cedar Point Lighthouse was closed in 1928 and replaced with an automated post beacon.

Lighting Up

The original Cove Point Light used 11 Argand lamps with a like number of 18-inch parabolic reflectors. Oxygen flowed through and around the hollow circular wick, producing in each one an intense, smokeless light equal to seven candles. The superiority of this light delayed for 40 years the adoption of the even better device, the Frensel lens. The wick of the Argand, named after its inventor, was later modified for use with the Frensel.

Augustin Frensel invented the modern Frensel lens in 1822, but not until 1855 did Cove Point install a fifth order Frensel lens. This heavy, revolving lens worked by a system of cables and pulleys, pivoting on a platform to create the first blinking lights. The lens was changed to a superior fourth order Frensel in 1897. It works to this day, now run by electricity. The lens rests atop a glass and brass box housing the winding mechanism that once rotated the light to create the flashing effect. Its light is equal to 150,000 candles.

Keeping the Light

For 150 years, keepers manned the Cove Point Light and lived with their families in the next-door house.

Their work was never done.

They climbed the spiraling lighthouse stairs four to six times day and night, 365 days a year, carrying fuel to light the lamp, which burned from sunset to sunrise. The fuels that kept the light shining tell their own story of changing times.

Whale oil, which burned with a bright, even light, was used to light the first lens. Oil from the sperm whale was best, and summer’s strain was thick while winter’s was thinner. But by 1855, as American whalers began taking fewer sperm whales, sperm oil cost an outlandish $2.25 cents a gallon.

Looking for cheaper alternatives, the Lighthouse Board, which regulated all American lighthouses, experimented with canola or rapeseed oil, derived from wild cabbage and already a proven fuel in Europe. The Board found America had too few wild plants to keep its lights shining, so farmers were encouraged to raise the cabbage. They failed to heed the call, and again the search for fuel resumed.

By 1867, lard oil was the fuel of choice. It was plentiful and burned well if heated to a high enough temperature. But experiments continued and, by 1878, kerosene stepped up. The final step in refinement of the flame was the incandescent oil vapor lamp, which is similar to today’s Coleman lamps. As testing of electricity began in the 1900s, lighthouses began converting. Cove Point became electric in 1907.

Fueling of the light was only one of many keeper chores.

Their most important duty was to make the light shine brightly. They polished brass and trimmed the burnt lamp wicks so they didn’t smoke and dirty the lens. Trimming of the wicks, an essential part of the job, earned keepers the nickname ‘wickies.’ Cleaning and polishing the lens could take a whole day, for lantern room windows and lens had to sparkle so the light would not be diminished.

A wickie wrote this poem and entered it in the log of the Point Reyes Light Station in California:

Oh what is the bane of a light keeper’s life?
That causes him worry and struggle and strife
That makes him use cuss words and beat up his wife
It’s brasswork
I dig, scrub and polish and work with a might
And just when I get it all shining and bright
In comes the fog like a thief in the night
Goodbye brasswork

Keepers also checked the direction of the wind, wound the weights that worked the mechanism that turned the light and struck the fog bell.

Fog bells came into use in the 1820s. Cove Point was outfitted in 1834. At first, the bells were struck by hand, a taxing job since some weighed as much as 1,400 pounds. But in 1860 a system, similar to the workings of a grandfather clock, was invented to ring fog bells mechanically. The weights moved up and down on a chain controlled by a pulley. When they reached the bottom, they were rewound to the top. Foggy days and nights found the keepers winding the weights every two to four hours.

The original bell tower at Cove Point was torn down in 1891 and moved 16 feet inland when wooden shore protection was built to arrest the advancing water line. The bell now rests atop a small brick structure, built in 1901, which houses the blower siren and machinery.

In addition, keepers kept a daily log detailing the weather, fuel consumption and incidents. They tended the mechanisms that operated the fog signal and kept up the lighthouse and dwelling with basic carpentry and painting.

And they performed water rescues and gave shelter to those involved in shipwrecks – as Cove Point’s volunteers do in our very day, as we’ll soon see.

Keeping in Shifts

Mounting the wooden stairs to the full-length front porch, I wondered how many must have lived in the 172-year-old dwelling since James Somervile became its first resident in 1828. It, too, has changed, expanding and contracting with the times. From a simple 34-foot by 20-foot one-story brick structure, the keeper’s home was enlarged to a two-story house in 1883. In the late part of the 19th century, the lighthouse keeper’s job was so consuming that it occupied two keepers and their families. A smaller two-bedroom house was built around 1950 for a third keeper. The original house now appears as a modern, three-story, vinyl-sided duplex.

With two keepers aboard, the Lighthouse Board divided the work schedule into two shifts. The assistant keeper was in charge of the first shift. His job ran from sunset to sunrise. He cleaned and polished the lens, cleaned and filled the lamp, dusted the framework of the apparatus and trimmed or replaced the wick. Every two to four hours, he wound the mechanism that rotated the light. Finally, after the light was extinguished at sunrise, the night man drew a curtain around the lantern room to protect the lens. Like all keepers, he wore linen aprons to prevent scratching the lens.

The head keeper handled the second shift. During the day he cleaned all the copper and brass fixtures as well as utensils used in the lantern and watchroom. Next he cleaned the walls, floors and galleries of the lantern, swept and dusted the tower stairs, landings, doors, windows and passageways to oil storage areas. He also cleaned the glass on the lens, which was the most time-consuming job of all. He, too, wound the mechanism and filled the lamp when foggy weather demanded day usage of the light.

Painting of the towers and dwellings fell under routine maintenance. Those jobs were split between the keeper and assistant and eventually assigned to the third keeper.

But time stands still for no one, and in 1986, keepers were automated out of Cove Point. The house now stands empty, looking surprisingly normal. The living room has both carpet and a ceiling fan. White cabinets with oak trim fill one half of the huge eat-in kitchen. A modern bathroom and laundry room, a later addition, sits at the back corner of the house. Carpeted stairs lead to the upstairs bedrooms.

That tidy, normal house that’s seen so much history won’t be empty for long — which is another of Cove Point Light’s many distinctions.

Unmanning the Light

A computer at Coast Guard Headquarters in Baltimore now ‘keeps’ Cove Point Light.

New electronic equipment was installed in the lantern in 1986. A fog detector now automatically activates the fog horn when visibility drops below three miles. An automatic lampchanger replaces burned-out lamps in the lantern. It’s all connected by computer to Baltimore Coast Guard Headquarters, which monitors all the controls.

Nowadays, the entire Cove Point facility is run off commercial electric power. If the main light at the top of the lighthouse burns out, Baltimore headquarters is electronically advised, and a second backup light, of somewhat lesser power, automatically comes on. If power is lost, the diesel generator, located in the radio control building, automatically comes on-line to power lighthouse, foghorn and radios.

The Human Touch

But no Baltimore computer could pull shipwrecked mariners from the Bay — let alone keep them out of trouble in the first place.

In safety, the Coast Guard had a problem they couldn’t automate.

As owners of many of the Bay’s existing lighthouses, the Coast Guard must also ensure the waters around them are safe. It’s their job to keep Maryland’s Bay waterways safe by patrolling, removing debris, monitoring ships using the shipping channels and — as keepers have always done — performing water rescues.

The waters under the Cove Point jurisdiction — the Bay north toward Taylor Island and down the center of the Bay to Cedar Point plus all of the Patuxent River — encompass a vast and popular area.
More than ever before, people are taking to the waters of the Bay and the Patuxent to fish or cruise for pleasure. Weekend captains, not seasoned veterans, operate most boats.

It’s easy for an unseasoned captain to become disoriented. It takes only minutes to become lost. When storms race in, there’s little time to read charts that are often complicated and confusing.

Losing track of time is also an enemy to the weekend captain. Darkness takes away landmarks and visual sightings and leaves the boat and its occupants at the mercy of the water.

To keep today’s mariners out of a world of trouble, the Coast Guard remanned the lighthouse, setting up a radio station and bringing in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the volunteer arm of Team Coast Guard, to work the radios on weekends and holidays during the busiest time on the water.

During weekends and holidays in the boating season, one or two boats patrol the waters around Cove Point, alert for calls like the distress call reported on a beautiful Sunday early this June.

Calling was a female crewmember aboard a privately owned 30-foot sailing vessel. With her were her husband and two children, one nine years and the other only 11 months. Her voice broke up with static, but the Coast Guard in Baltimore pieced together what their rescuer would need to know. The crew were novice boaters whose engine was running hot and shutting down. Prompted along, the crew was able to report their latitude and longitude to Baltimore.

When the transmission broke up, Cove Point radioed information along to Baltimore. Tracking and copying the transmission was John Cosgrove, the watchstander at Cove Point that day, who plotted the distressed sailors’ position on the search-and-rescue charts. The position given by the crew placed them in the mouth of the Choptank River, while Cosgrove placed them just north of Point Lookout. Baltimore was sending help from the Annapolis station to the Choptank River. Meanwhile, Cosgrove used the radio direction finder at Cove Point to locate the distressed sailboat south of Cove Point Light and on a line from the light to Point Lookout.

He called Baltimore, and a 41-foot vessel from St. Indigoes, the closest Coast Guard Unit, rushed to assist the distressed boat. Without people at Cove Point, that rescue could have taken many hours of searching.

“We’ve come a long way here,” Cosgrove boasts. Retired Past Rear Commodore Cosgrove is Cove Point’s division staff officer for communications. Though he’s in charge, he also stands a watch.

Crackling noises chatter over a radio call from Hampton, Virginia. With a tiny adjustment, volunteer Ron Sauer, an Air Force retiree, squelches the transmission as clear as the lighthouse bell that once tolled beside the station.

He’s at work in a control center that looks like a monopoly board, where each move carries you to a new destination. Radios that monitor the waters are mitered into a wooden board with a ledge on one side of the small room. A huge area map and chart covers another wall. A computer shares a large handmade desk with still more charts.

“Ron’s an expert in electronics,” Cosgrove says. “He set up the station. There was a time when our equipment was all used. We took old police radios — anything we could get — and made it work. Now the Coast Guard supplies the radios and they are replaced as needed.”

Weekend auxiliary members from as near as Lusby and as far as Pennsylvania take six-hour turns patrolling the radios and checking distress calls. When they leave, Baltimore headquarters takes over.
“It’s amazing what these volunteers do,” says Steve Bloss, who volunteers as public information officer.

“The Coast Guard supplies fuel. The volunteers supply the boats and their time and do the rest: night classes, safety checks on individual boats, patrolling the water and manning the control station.”

Full Circle

Patrolling waters, manning the radio station and teaching aren’t the only things the Auxiliary does. They also make wishes come true, according to Coast Guard Auxiliary Press Corps volunteer Connie Cosgrove.

When Pat Bernstein, granddaughter of former assistant lighthouse keeper David Wadell Collison, asked the Auxiliary for a tour, her wish was granted.

While fighting a battle with cancer, Bernstein began researching her family heritage. She started with the Calvert Marine Museum. They referred her to the Department of Commerce and Labor. There, to her delight, she found the entire story of her grandfather’s career with the Lighthouse Service.

Bernstein’s grandfather, born in Oxford, Maryland, married Ellen McCready of Solomons. Together they had six children. Bernstein’s mother, Olive Collison Vina, was born in Annapolis, where she now lives. Her aunt Ethel, who lives in Davidsonville, was born on the floor at Cove Point Light.

Bernstein found that Collison’s service began in 1907 as assistant keeper at the Seven-Foot Knoll Light Station, now relocated to Pier 7 in the Baltimore harbor. His yearly salary was $420. Other assignments carried him to Greenbury Point Shoal, across the bar and now replaced with a light marker; Thomas Point Shoal, still standing south of the Bay Bridge just beyond the U.S. Naval Academy; and two assignments at Cove Point. He resigned his commission in 1917 after receiving an appointment at the U. S. Naval Academy.

Pat has returned twice, bringing her mother, Olive Vina, and a cousin to share in her journey to the past.

And what did the Auxiliary gain by granting a wish?

“The visits have been a rewarding experience for us all,” said Connie Cosgrove. “Pat’s wish came true by visiting the place her grandfather had spent many years, and the rest of us had a look back into the history of Cove Point Lighthouse.”

Home Again

In 1995, Cove Point became one of America’s 21 remaining lighthouses preserved through a joint effort of the U. S. Coast Guard, the National Park Service, Department of Defense and the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

The next year, the Coast Guard and Calvert County began negotiations on how to add Cove Point to the Calvert Marine Museum family, already home to Drum Point Lighthouse and the remains of Cedar Point Lighthouse. Red tape has slowed down the turnover, but it’s still scheduled for sometime this year.

When that finally happens, the Coast Guard will retain the lighthouse itself and they will continue to operate the radio center. But Cove Point Light will once more have a resident keeper, who’ll settle into the small, 1950 keeper’s cottage. The fence and locked gate will remain in place to protect the grounds.

Soon anyone who loves lighthouses will be able to pass through those gates, walk the grounds and visit the larger home, for the Museum promises scheduled bus tours.

And as for Cove Point Lighthouse itself?

It will continue to shine on Chesapeake Bay as Maryland’s only working lighthouse.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly