Lights of My Life
by Maureen Miller
The lights of my life have stood silently, for several centuries now, in approximately the same longitude. With a latitude adjustment of 12 degrees, one comforts me in summer, the other in winter.
Two beacons built as navigation aids. One lives totally as in the past, true to its history, while the other guards its past only in structure, its internal parts updated with modern technology.
One of these beacons stands in the Chesapeake Bay, just at the mouth of the South River, at a latitude of 38.54 N and a longitude of 76.26 W. Its official name is the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, but everyone calls it the Thomas Point Lighthouse. This historical marker I first met when I came to the Bay area in the 1990s. Now it is more than just a marker for, as I ply the Chesapeake waters in the summer, it is a waypoint, a reference, an indication that I am nearing home.
The second beacon stands on the west side of the Hope Town Harbour, on Elbow Cay in the Bahamas, at a latitude of 26.32 N and a longitude 76.58 W. It is officially named the Elbow Reef Lighthouse; however, its better known as the Hope Town Lighthouse. I was introduced to this lighthouse as a must-see tourist stop when I first visited the Bahamas last year. Today, it plays a prominent part in my life, as it greets me each morning as I step into my winter office and lulls me to sleep each evening with its bright flashes.
The physical presences of my two loves are quite extreme. The squat Thomas Point structure, set on pilings, rises a mere 43 feet above the Bays mean high waters. Just south of the historical city of Annapolis, it warns those who ply the Chesapeake of the dangerous shoal on which it stands.
photo by M. Miller
Hope Town Lighthouse.
In contrast, the red and white candy-striped Hope Town structure soars a majestic 120 feet. It warns seafarers of the dangerous reefs in the Atlantic to the east of Elbow Cay.
The lighthouse at Thomas Point was built to hold the lighthouse lantern and mechanism as well as its keepers, their garden, sheep and cattle, entirely within. In contrast, the Hope Town lighthouse contains only the lantern and mechanism. Its lighthouse keepers and their victuals are housed in separate buildings.
But the birthdates, lives and souls of these two are similar. Both were born in the 19th century and continue to ply their trade. The lighthouse at Thomas Point is the only screwpile cottage-type lighthouse still standing at its original site in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Hope Town lighthouse is one of the last three hand-wound, kerosene-burning lighthouses in the world. Their beacons of life were originally lit by whale-oil and simple wick devices. In time, these were upgraded to beautiful Fresnel lenses developed by a French engineer in 1821 and comprised of a series of crystal prisms that focuses the light source into a powerful beam.
My love at Thomas Point was, until recently, outfitted by a fourth order lens standing about two and a half feet tall with an inside diameter of 20 inches. Today its 250mm solar-powered white ray is visible from 13 miles and its red flash from 11 miles. The soul of my Hope Town love remains a first order Fresnel lens. Standing eight feet tall with an inside diameter of six feet, every 15 seconds it pulses out its five white flashes visible for 15 nautical miles.
So they live, two mighty structures braving the elements, which often first strike one and then the other, as did Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Isabel in 2003.
But what a difference that 12 degrees in latitude makes. For as the lighthouse at Hope Town basks, as I do, in sunshine and warmth during the winter months, that at Thomas Point is contending with freezing winds and ice flows.
In the summer, however, they are practically equals, beckoning boaters, photographers and tourists alike through warm, humid days with their brightly painted, picturesque structures, and keeping seafarers from dangerous shoals and reefs at night with their strong beacons.