As Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse loomed ever closer in the brackish waters of Chesapeake Bay, John Potvin placed one leg on the edge of Audacious, a pristine white deadrise.
The fishing boat’s engine roared and sputtered as it neared the historic landmark: a towering, red-and-white circular house squating on crisscrossed metal beams.
Potvin watched the lighthouse inch closer. Seagulls screeched above, and a white sailboat with green sails drifted ahead, the crew gawking at Thomas Point. On the rocks, a blue heron peered into the distance.
Potvin had eyes only for the lighthouse.
“I’ve always had a passion for the lighthouse,” he said. “I look at it from my house. I’ve always wanted to make sure this thing lasts for my children, my great-grandchildren.”
As Howard Lewis, the captain, docked Audacious, Potvin wasted no time. He bounded onto the docks, and, after helping passengers out, approached the ladder ascending into the core of the lighthouse.
Potvin had been here many times before, but today was especially important. As the preservation foreman for the U.S. Lighthouse Society, he has sworn to protect and preserve this lighthouse.
And keeping Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse alive is no easy task.
The Cost of Survival
The cast-iron beams and tie rods that hold up the lighthouse are deteriorating. After more than a century in the water, waves, storms, wind and time have eroded the metal. Without some intervention, this historic Maryland landmark is in imminent danger.
“A sequential collapse,” Potvin said. “If you lose one or two of the tie rods, the whole structure goes.”
So Potvin has taken on the mission to restore it. To complete the task, he has hired a private company that has worked on the lighthouse before. Marine Solutions will replace all the iron beams and rods with steel ones, then coat them with a special powder that keeps saltwater from eating the metal. It’s a costly job, just under $250,000.
Right now, the U.S. Lighthouse Society is shy of the mark at $195,000. The lion’s share, $100,000, comes from the Maryland Historical Trust. An anonymous donor added $50,000. Davidsonville Ruritans raised $20,000, and the U.S. Lighthouse Society $15,000. A GoFundMe campaign added $8,000.
David Buck, the director of communications for the Historic Trust, said that donation to this restoration project was a no-brainer.
“In the past, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse has received two capital grants” from the Maryland Historical Trust, he explained, adding that the Trust “is pleased to support a project that will contribute to the long-term protection of this iconic Chesapeake Bay lighthouse.”
But Potvin knows he is still short on money, which is why he invited local media to the lighthouse: to get the story out and money in.
Visiting an Icon
After crawling up the ladder and opening the latch, Potvin guided me and a radio reporter through the lighthouse.
Most of its rooms are restored to pre-1939 conditions. The historic kitchen has a potbelly stove, parlors hold shelves with old books. Outside, the foghorn has been silent for two years. Atop the lighthouse, a large, solar-powered light that resembles a gargantuan gem replaces the historic Fresnel lens once illuminated by an oil lantern. The light still shines, casting a white beam 16 nautical miles and a red light 11.
Outside the lantern room, a small deck winds around the structure. Amidst spiders and webs, we looked out at the sprawling, dark waters of the Bay and the looming Bay Bridge. We are looking down from one of Maryland’s most looked-at sights.
“There are three things you think of when you think of Maryland,” Povin said. “You think of crabs, the Bay Bridge and Thomas Point Lighthouse.”
Many people care deeply about this lighthouse. Among them are Audacious Captain Lewis and his wife. Lewis’ work as a crabber keeps him on the water; trips to and from the lighthouse are part of his routine. Audacious flies a Thomas Point Lighthouse ensign.
The couple has been supporting Thomas Point for more than 15 years. They restored the deck and the lantern room, keep the lighthouse clean and often boat volunteers out to work on it.
“I was born and raised on these waters,” Lewis said. “My great-great-grandfather was a keeper in this lighthouse.”
In the dimly lit parlor room, Cathy Lewis reads a metal plaque naming all 11 lighthouse keepers, including her husband’s great-great-grandfather, Charles Hartmann.
“What a tiny part of the world we really are,” she remarked about the lighthouse. “It’s important to know where we come from and keep perspective on where we are going.”
Standing the Test of Time
Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse has a long history. Its two predecessors were built in 1825 and 1840, both overlooking the Bay from land. Constructed in the water in 1875, the lighthouse we know today has faced obstacles of nature and ice floes that threatened the understructure.
In 1939, the Coast Guard bought the lighthouse and staffed the structure just as the previous keepers did — until 1986, when the light was automated. In the mid-1970s, it survived dismantling threats and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2004, the Coast Guard transferred ownership to the U.S. Lighthouse Society, which opened the lighthouse for tours in 2007. Today
Thomas Point is one of only nine lighthouses to receive National Historic Landmark recognition, largely because it is the only cottage-style, screwpile lighthouse in the country that remains in its original location.
The Job Ahead
That status makes the project more important to many people in Chesapeake Country, including John Keenan. He is the dive operations manager for Marine Solutions, the company that will catch the Hail Mary and save the lighthouse.
“It’s an important part of the Bay history, and we’re really looking forward to it,” he said. After the job, “they shouldn’t have to touch it for another 80 years.”
The job begins in September and should last three to four weeks.
Keenan tasked a team of three engineers and five marine contractors. “You can’t hire guys off the street for this,” he said.
The contractors will travel to the lighthouse on boats loaded with construction equipment and focus on repairing three or four of the worst beams. Keenan plans to replace the failing supports piece by piece as money allows.
This is our Lighthouse
As Lewis casts off, a stingray surfaces. Another motorboat stopped to take a closer look. And Potvin reflected on his dedication to the historic structure.
When he retired in 2015 and was looking for something to do, a friend told him about the lighthouse. He signed on as a painter.
“When we first came here, it was a mess. There was too much lead paint and too much tar on the floors. It mushroomed from there,” he said.
Now he, like the Lewises and so many others, counts it a personal duty to keep it beautiful. Tours come out weekly to the lighthouse during the summer. More than 3,000 visitors a year pay $80 a ticket to visit.
“This is our lighthouse,” he said.
As Audacious departed, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse receded in the distance.
12th Maryland Lighthouse
Take the challenge and see Maryland’s historic lighthouses on a two-day driving tour. Visit the 10 lighthouses and one lightship in the challenge and receive a special collectible that proclaims you’ve seen the lights! Participating attractions each give complimentary souvenirs.
Sept. 21-22 (8am-6pm) visit Concord Point, Seven Foot Knoll, Chesapeake Lightship, Sandy Point Shoal, Hooper Strait, Choptank River Replica, Drum Point, Cove Point, Point Lookout, Piney Point, Fort Washington and bonus sites Millers Island and Blackistone Lighthouse.
Presented by the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, which aims to restore and preserve America’s lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay area. Full details: www.cheslights.org/maryland-lighthouse-challenge.