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Volume 15, Issue 33 ~ August 16 - August 22, 2007

Shining a Light on Chesapeake History

Today’s visitors are enjoying Thomas Point lighthouse in a fashion never envisioned of old

by Reed Hellman, special to Bay Weekly

When the Thomas Point Shoals Lighthouse opened for public tours in early July, the response was immediate and enthusiastic. Even with a passenger limit of 18 per trip, “we had 140 visitors in our first three days of operation,” said Jeff Holland, director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, which operates the tours. “Advanced bookings are at 80 percent capacity through September.”

Adventure on the High Seas

Visiting the lighthouse is an adventure. Even the half-hour run out to the light is exciting. The MV Sharps Island, a brawny little ex-Special Forces tender skippered by Captain Mike Richards, departs the museum’s dock at the old McNasby oyster-packing house in Eastport. Reaching the mouth of the Severn, the boat punches through the rising chop, sending showers of spray over her foredeck passengers. This part of the Chesapeake is very heavily traveled by sport anglers and pleasure boaters as well as the commercial traffic out in the main channel and the military ships en route to Annapolis’ Naval Academy. There is a feeling of distance with vistas stretching to the Bay Bridge, Kent Island, even Talbot County’s Bay Hundred peninsula.

On the final approach, details of the lighthouse’s structure stand out in the afternoon sun. The almost foppish look of the graceful, two-story, six-sided Victorian cottage belies the structure’s solidity. Quarry-cut boulders stacked on the screwpile legs and a massive iron tooth projecting from the waves reinforce a web of metal support struts and girders against sheets of moving ice, the bane of the Chesapeake’s offshore lighthouses.

It’s a big step up from the Sharps Island’s heaving deck onto the lighthouse’s landing stage. Trained docents assist visitors and lead up a short set of stairs to a storage deck hung beneath the house. All of the overhead support bars and criss-crossing girders — head knockers — demand cautious attention, as does the ladder up through a notoriously narrow hatch to the main deck.  

The narrow walkway circling the main deck affords a staggering 360-degree view of the Chesapeake’s unparalleled maritime spectacle.

A Venerable Sentinel’s New Duty

Work inside the structure is still very much in progress. During the guided tour, lighthouse docents speak of the two eras in Thomas Point’s 132-year history: The Lighthouse Service Era and the later Coast Guard Era. Vestiges of both eras remain.

“We’ve got two more year’s worth of work,” said Henry Gonzalez, manager of the lighthouse for the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. Thomas Point needs almost constant maintenance to keep it safe for visitors.

A spiral staircase leads to the second level. Though the panorama outside may be expansive, both levels of the house comprise only 800 square feet of enclosed space. It was a potentially claustrophobic domain. Graffiti — names, dates — etched into the massive riprap shielding the lighthouse’s legs is mute testimony to the heavy weight of time on the light’s keepers, isolated for weeks on end.

A final, angled ladder leads up to the light gallery with a heavy, columnar glass lens rising up in the center of the cramped cupola. Ships 16 miles away can see the beam, and the view of the surrounding Bay from that lofty perch must have been one of the keepers’ compensations.

By revitalizing and renovating the structure, the all-volunteer staff has opened a piece of Chesapeake history.

Today’s keepers of Thomas Point are enjoying their lighthouse in a fashion probably never envisioned by their predecessors. Once again, people can lean on the ornately carved railings, watch the big freighters slip past and feel a part of the horizon.

Thomas Point lighthouse tours continue on weekends through September, three tours each day. Space is limited and reservations needed: 800-690-5080;; click on Tours. The Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society is also recruiting volunteers to work on the lighthouse and the many jobs that go into keeping Thomas Point open for public tours:

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