Volume XI, Issue 42 ~ October 16-22, 2003

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Lighthouses Have Plenty of Past
Now, Thomas Point Light Has a Future

For more than 125 years, Thomas Point Light has stood as a monument of survival, its relentless refusal to snap in the toughest times reminding us that permanence used to be a virtue.

by John L. Guerra

Knee deep in Chesapeake Bay about a mile off the entrance to the South River, the hexagonal white building screwed into the sandy bottom stood defiantly in the path of one of the most powerful hurricanes to threaten the Bay since the 1930s. It stood alone in its history. Nothing could be done to shore it up against the storm. It would survive or it would be wrecked — windows smashed, cupolas and wooden, trellised balustrade stripped and flung into the maelstrom. The living quarters — four rooms and a kitchen all packed into the 35-foot diameter building — faced destruction. Then there was the light inside—the Fresnel lens, which could fall into the Bay if forecast winds of 100mph or more held true.

The lighthouse that had warned ships off Thomas Point Shoal since 1875 was going to be tested as it hadn’t in a long time — not since Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 and the nameless but devastating hurricane of 1933.

It has stood alone through countless gales, Nor’easters and blasting chill winter winds. It had been tested before, in only its second year, 1877, when ice packs, thick and running with the tide, leaned it over with the keeper and his family inside. They fought burning coal spilling from a hot stove and juggled to keep dishes and other breakables from smashing on the floor made from random-width Georgia Pine.

As Isabel approached last month, Chesapeake citizens ashore from Smith Point to Havre de Grace raced to tie down belongings, secure boats, store outdoor furniture and other potential projectiles. The day before the storm, Thomas Point Light was battened down by Coast Guardsmen, who secured the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration weather equipment inside. After they boarded their boats and pushed off the base of her spider-like iron frame, Thomas Point Light, the last of the Bay’s working screw pile lighthouses, would stand or fall on its own.

Weathering Storms
By the time Isabel hit the Chesapeake Bay, she had slowed from the forecast Category Two hurricane to a lashing tropical storm. Even so, docks, bridges and homes ashore fell apart, flooded or took heavy damage. But Thomas Point Light stood firm. Some lower decking, a screen and some wooden boxes attached to the deck were lost, but the interior wasn’t breached. It stood tight and dry throughout Isabel.

The Thomas Point Light is an amazing structure. When the present-day structure was built in 1875 (the first Thomas Point Light, built on shore in 1824, was later dismantled) the screw-pile was an inexpensive way to secure a building to the shoal. Sandy shoals are a common hazard in the shallow Chesapeake Bay, especially off points and river entrances. Those points, whose names are familiar with Chesapeake Country citizens — Sandy Point, Cove Point, Blood Point, Drum Point — all had lights and fog bells.

The screw-pile type — where the pilings are literally screwed into the sandy floor of the Bay as a foundation topped by navigational aides and living quarters — proved the best design for the Bay’s shallow waters. Caisson-style lights — those stone towers that mark such Bay points as Cove Point, Piney Point, Cape Henry and Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks — were fine for solid ground or rocky shorelines but not very good out in the shifting sand below the shallow surface of the Bay.

There were perhaps dozens of screw-pile lighthouses built in the Bay over the years, according to the U.S. Lighthouse Society, but only one remains in place and at work: the one built on Thomas Point shoal to mark the long and dangerous shoal south of Annapolis described in the 1870s as a “defect long felt by the commerce of the Chesapeake Bay.”

More than 125 years later, Thomas Point light stands as a monument of survival, its relentless refusal to snap in the toughest times reminding us that permanence used to be a virtue.

The Coast Guard took over maintenance of lighthouses from the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939. Modernization has since dismantled the old lighthouses. As the nation’s aids to navigation, those unique points of light — each with its own beauty and mystique — have been replaced by the practical and mundane. The lights marking the channel and shoals of today’s Bay stand bolted to metal frames; small nun buoys and day markers signify channel entrances. Large rusty barrels leaning with the tide warn us of shoals these days.

Human bureaucracy has sent its gales against Thomas Point, too. The lighthouse would have been stripped down to a simple steel tower with a solar-powered light at the top if the Coast Guard had its way 30 years ago. In 1972, the same year Thomas Point was battered by Tropical Storm Agnes, the Coast Guard announced that it was evaluating 100 lighthouses for “cost effectiveness.”

Public outcry halted that idea. The battle to save the light became a rallying cry for politicians seeking office that year. They took well-publicized tours out to Thomas Point Light, declaring their allegiance to the lights’ preservation, according to Linda Turbiville, author of Bay Beacons: Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay. The Coast Guard changed its mind about the light. It was declared an historic landmark in its hundredth year, on January 23, 1975.

In 1986 Thomas Point became the last lighthouse on the Bay to be unmanned.

Saving the Lights
Now human forces are converging to ensure that the Thomas Point light shines on.

photo courtesy of K3L-AM Civilian Amateur Radio Station
The U.S. Interior Department — under the Federal Lands to Parks and surplus property programs — for years has been transferring ownership of lighthouses to state and local governments that would, it was hoped, renovate them as the centerpieces of parks.

“The Coast Guard has to keep an eye on its budget, and these structures are more costly than sticking a light on a metal pole in a channel” said Anne Puppa of Elkridge, who is president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

In the hands of bureaucrats and ruled by budget constraints, however, renovation projects often languished. Control of lighthouses by non-profits and local government was made easier by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.

The law for the first time put non-profit organizations on an equal footing with government agencies and state and local governments that sought to win lighthouse leases as the aged beacons were retired. Henry Gonzalez, chairman of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, testified in Congress on behalf of the society and other non-profits tired of seeing the lighthouses’ leases go to more powerful entities.

“If you were a non-profit, you had no recourse to take transference of a lighthouse — unless you could get Congress to pass legislation for you or wait for the auction block. There was no special provision for local non-profits to win those leases,” he said.

So the lighthouse community organized to lobby Congress to add non-profits to that list.

Once their law passed, Gonzalez says, the Coast Guard quickened its lighthouse-retiring schedule. Thomas Point Lighthouse was on the list.

Lighthouse enthusiasts had been waiting to see when the light would be offered up for lease. “There were all these groups that were interested in that lighthouse,” said Annapolis City Administrator Bob Agee. “Groups like the Lighthouse Society and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said they wanted to send a letter of interest to the Interior Department. We got together people who wanted to do that and we decided to put in a joint application.”

The city and the U.S. Lighthouse Society applied for the lease from the Interior Department in August. When multiple bids are submitted, Department of the Interior weighs them with a point system that measures ability to maintain the structures, plans for public access and other items. Thomas Point Light drew only a single bidder.

“The Bay Foundation and other groups didn’t write their letters because they saw that the city had a strong pact forming,” Agee said. Anne Arundel County sent a representative to one of the meetings of the interested parties and offered to set up lighthouse displays in county parks.

The Thomas Point partners hope to learn this month that they’ve won the lease.

At that point, the lease arrangement comes to the Annapolis City Council for approval, which seems likely. In early debate, only two of the eight council members — Sheila Tolliver and Louise Hammond — expressed reservations.

Tolliver still says she doesn’t believe the city understands the true cost of adopting Thomas Point Lighthouse. “The $5,000 estimate of the cost seemed an incredibly modest amount to me,” she says. “I’ve read about one private society that had to put $1.4 million into repairs for a light. I have no problem with someone doing that, but it’s not an appropriate thing for Annapolis to do as a city government.”

Insurance and liability also worry Tolliver, who voted against the city filing an application for the light before the August deadline.

Will she vote against the lease when it’s reviewed during a city council meeting after its awarding to the city?

“We’re in an uncomfortable position,” said Tolliver. “We’ve got a winning application for a lighthouse and we don’t know what the lease says. But it’s too late.”

In Good Company
The fate of the other lighthouses that once lit the Bay’s darkened coastline has been studied by the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

Still standing by president Anna Puppa’s count are some two dozen lighthouses in Maryland and 12 in Virginia. Of the 37 survivors, 22 are still active aids to navigation. At least nine of the Bay’s lights are on the National Register of Historic Places. Thomas Point Light is one of those.

Local groups, community associations and maritime museums around the Bay have adopted many lights, renovating them and staffing them with volunteers.

“A lot of local groups are willing to take care of specific lights,” Puppa explained. The lights are part of the local residents’ historic ties to the Bay as well as symbols of the fast-disappearing connection with the era of local maritime commerce. There’s a sense of pride knowing that the light attached to their community meant something to mariners in trouble.

That’s how it is down the Bay from Thomas Point in Calvert County.

“The Cove Point Beach community is very proud and possessive of their lighthouse,” said Douglass Alves, director of the Calvert Marine Museum, which owns both the Drum Point and Cove Point lights. “There are 600 grandmothers telling you how to do things. At the same time, it’s like having 600 friends helping you raise money, act as tour guides and pitch in as volunteers.”

Among Bay lighthouses with active guardians are Concord Light at Havre de Grace and the Turkey Point Light at Elk Neck. Others — such as Cove Point and Drum Point in Calvert County and Seven-Foot Knoll in Baltimore — are being cared for as museums. For some, like Drum Point at Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, preservation has meant a move from the shoal it once guarded.

Thomas Point’s Bright Future
The city of Annapolis and the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society want Thomas Point Light to stay where it is.

“The main concern was that it stays where it is in the original location,” said Agee. “The other lights have been moved or don’t exist anymore.”

Nor will Thomas Point become a museum piece, detached from its moorings and reconstructed elsewhere. Renovated, it will remain in place, protected as an historic site and maintained by lighthouse enthusiasts and volunteers. The light — its white ray visible from 13 miles and a red flash visible from 11 miles — and fog horn will continue as working aids to navigation. The Coast Guard will maintain the light and foghorn while others tend to the structure’s well-being.

Each new partner will have a defined role.

Anne Arundel County — which is part of the lighthouse advisory group created by the city in the days after its decision to seek the lighthouse lease — promised to sponsor lighthouse exhibits at Thomas Point Park and Quiet Waters Park, at both shores of the South River, and to provide some of the expertise in historic preservation as volunteers work on the structure.

Annapolis will hold the title and play other roles as the lighthouse’s future and its funds become more defined.

The third partner, Annapolis Maritime Museum, hoped to mount an exhibit in its building on Back Creek and use its docks for boat tours to Thomas Point light. Isabel devastated the museum building but didn’t dampen those plans.

“The museum is still an important part of this,” said Agee. “They’ll be doing their own fundraising drive. They’re a city-owned building and it’s on our list to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for damage-cost reimbursement.”

The Lighthouse Society will maintain the structure both inside and out and restore the building’s working and living spaces to their original look. They’ve got some ideas about just what that is, but filling in the details will take some digging.

In one section the society hopes to recreate the look of 1900 to 1910, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service administered and staffed the nation’s lighthouses. In the other, they’re seeking the Coast Guard décor of the 1950s, when Coast Guardsmen manned the lights and decorated their habitats government-issue.

“Thomas Point doesn’t have the extensive records of what it looked like at that time,” said The Society’s Gonzalez, who is also chairman of the Chesapeake chapter of the society.

“You have to employ creative investigating to determine what the paint scheme was in 1910,” he says. “You have to carefully remove the paneling that’s there to the historic fabric below.”

The society has hired experts in historic wallpaper, researched its original outfitting down to the cloth, kitchen stove and other appliances of the times.

“You have to find out, ‘how far do I have to go?’ In other words, what did it look like then?” Gonzalez explained.

Sandra Clunies, who acts as the historian for the Lighthouse Society, searched archives for clues to the original décor and went as far as Philadelphia to retrieve drawings of lighthouse interiors.

Structurally, the lighthouse is in pretty good shape, according to city manager Agee, who motored out to the lighthouse in August.

“The interior has an old kitchen, and there are beautiful wooden floors. Some are covered in carpet, some covered in tile, and equipment has been haphazardly put up over the years. We’re going to want to paint it,” he said, making an early assessment.

One type of damage Agee saw is all too natural. “With all the birds out there, landing on it — well, you want to clean that up. Otherwise, it’s in very good condition.”

What more might be done depends in part on how the lighthouse will be used. The steel platform below the lighthouse and the iron stairs to the rocks are not tourist-friendly. But altering the landing by building a tourist-friendly dock or enlarging the stairwell might not be allowed. You can’t have alterations that change the structure’s historic architecture.

“The thing about the Bay lights is that so many of them are out in the water,” Puppa explained. “Safety is the first call. That’s going to be the hardest thing to deal with. Part of the provision you make is that you make [the lighthouse] available to the public, but you want to make it available to the public without altering the history or the architecture.”

Thomas Point’s Staying Power
Lest you doubt the structure’s staying power, lighthouse historian Clunies recounted this dramatic event from its early years:

“During a January storm in 1877,” Clunies said, “Lighthouse keeper Eugene Burchinal and his family had a nine-day adventure in the ice. They were trapped inside the lighthouse during the storm. The ice was piling up, and his report says that loose objects were flying around the dwelling. They had to lash the stove from spilling hot coals on the floor. The lens was broken from violent shaking, and the fog bell couldn’t be rung because it was leaning.”

The ice running down the Bay that winter toppled many of the screw pile lights. But On January 17, the Thomas Point lighthouse keeper and his family were able to get in a dory and make it to shore.

“On January 20, 1877,” Clunies continued, “The ice had moved on. Open water came up and the lighthouse popped back to a straight position. The lighthouse got a new lens and was back in business.”

What business will be for the 21st century Thomas Point Lighthouse remains to be seen.

Ideas tend to tourism. Agee talks of booking small fetes there, with wine and cheese and beautiful views. There might be boat trips. The living quarters have four bedrooms, and Agee even imagines a bed and breakfast.

If the Interior Department awards title this month, as is hoped, fundraising will begin in earnest.

An 128-year-old lighthouse has needs. The Coast Guard has told the city it may have to pay up to $5,000 a year to maintain the light. But Agee believes the city can raise that money without tapping its already tight budget.

“Even before official fundraising, we’ve had anonymous donations of about $14,000,” Agee says. “As we come up with different uses for the light, we put more money aside.”

Whether the city knows what it’s getting into, or whether the money will be forthcoming, it looks like Annapolis is getting a very important, historic Bay beacon.

Thus Thomas Point Light will shine on as part of the city and Chesapeake Bay’s future.

About the Author: A freelance writer living in North Beach, Guerra reports on the telecom industry, as well as other political issues in Washington. In the late 1980s he was the news editor of the Times-Crescent newspaper in LaPlata and the Prince George’s County Times in Clinton. He returned to Southern Maryland after 13 years of living in Miami, the Keys and West Virginia.

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Last updated October 16, 2003 @ 12:38am