Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses - History, Facts

Bay Beacons: Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay
Lighthouses have saved many a Chesapeake sailor, now who will save them?
Past is Prologue / By Dr. Kent Mountford - Bay Journal

Chesapeake Bay’s history has been marked by hundreds of shipwrecks as commerce and fishing increased during the first two centuries of European settlement.

Pleas by commercial shipping and watermen led the U.S. Lighthouse Service to erect a number of shore-based lighthouses as well as other navigational aids beginning the light at Point Comfort, VA, in 1792. The light at Bodkin Point at the mouth of the Patuxent was built in 1822, the first in a flurry of lighthouse installations that lasted until there were manned lighthouses marking each of the Bay’s major promontories.

The earliest lights were short, tapered masonry structures on fast land like those at Bodkin, Havre de Grace, Turkey and Cove points. Point Comfort was tall, like lighthouses seen along the outer Atlantic coastline.

Later, the structural variety increased. Cedar Point’s light included a house and farm. Others, like those still found at Point No Point and Smith Point, were cylindrical, standalone caissons sunk into the bottom and protruding several yards above the surface. The light was erected atop this as a platform, and outhouses overhanging the water were added.

There were also the Chesapeake’s iconic screwpile lighthouses, like those at Thomas, Drum, Smith and Windmill Points. The screwpile lighthouse structure was built on iron pole supports tipped with broad screws that were twisted into bottom sediments to a stable depth. These crablike structures were usually hexagonal. Tue Marshes and several other lights were square.

The Lighthouse Service was a separate entity until 1939, when it was absorbed into the U.S. Coast Guard, which already oversaw the Lifesaving and Lightship Services.

In the ages of sail and steam, lighthouses were vital along the Bay, where they marked otherwise invisible river-mouth shoals or hazards that could take a ship out in moments. Their establishment was often a direct result of such wrecks.

(As technology improved, ships used radios to stay in contact as well as plot their course using radio direction-finder beacons. A subsequent coastwide network, LORAN, relied on known times of radio wave transmission to determine position.

Later, radar made it possible to display land features, buoys and other ships on a screen. Raycon beacons, which concentrate radar signals and give very sharp pinpoint radar reflections improved even this. Today, global positioning satellites cover the earth and locate the user within several yards.)

In the 19th century, lighthouses were often staffed by a keeper, assistant and even families in residence. By the mid-20th century, most Chesapeake lighthouses were operated by three members of the Coast Guard, with two aboard at all times. In the early 1970s, I met a young Coast Guard keeper and his family at Cove Point Light. They were among the last families to reside in a lighthouse.

Until the 1950s, the Chesapeake was largely a working waterway, and at the end of the 19th century, there were only a few pleasure boaters like the Philadelphia-based Barrie brothers, Robert and George, who made their way down to St. Michaels and Solomons Island. (Their adventures with other boaters, heat and sea nettles were recorded in a book, “Cruises, Mainly in the Bay of Chesapeake,” published in 1909.)

In October through December 1925, Slade Dale of New Jersey traversed the length of the Bay in a 12-foot Barnegat Bay sneakbox—an adaptation of a sailboat used in waterfowl hunting that included a small outboard motor to back up the wind.

Dale was a pioneer in what has become an annual river of thousands of snowbird boaters on their way to and from warmer southern climes.

Last autumn, I helped friends move Anne Caie, a 39-foot cutter, to her winter home near North Carolina’s Currituck Sound.

My shipmates sought to ease our course a few degrees to improve sailing, but I knew that as the wind built, the tide would turn against us and push Anne Caie inshore and among shallows. Thus, I was always trying to push her a degree or two more into the southeaster.

Each of the headlands we passed—Cedar Point, Point No Point, Smith Point and Windmill Point—has shoals well offshore from the mainland that must be passed to the east by deeper draft vessels like Anne Caie. It was nip and tuck as we took advantage of every favorable shift in the wind, passing each of the lights in turn. We could not quite weather Point No-Point and Smith Point’s caissons, and had to slip inshore between light and shoal.

Rappahannock Spit off Windmill Point stretches too far into the Bay to permit this and we scrambled to keep high enough and maintain our course. The screwpile light at Windmill has long been demolished and a concrete platform (often a roost for double-crested cormorants) sits atop its spiderlike iron legs, with the mechanical light and radar reflectors in the middle. As evening approached, we finally passed the structure and were heading toward the days’ objective: a narrow channel leading to Broad Creek and Deltaville, VA.

Our tribulations were not over. Tiny delays in our departure and decisions made under way meant that we left the Bay to enter the creek in total darkness. Bright lights ashore virtually blinded us and we were twice aground. All of the crew hung off the shrouds, heeling the boat slightly to get her off each time. Once secured near Schroeder’s Boatyard, boatbuilder Joe Conboy came down the dock to welcome us and share our dinner.

Conboy, the son of a Eastern Shore veterinarian, seemed born to be around boats. At 17, he’d already built his own skiff and helped his dad work on others. When the Smithsonian’s Howard I. Chapelle published his book on small boats in the United States, he wrote that he’d seen just two examples of what he described as “Sinepuxent skiffs.” The teenage Conboy wrote Chapelle to tell him that nobody called them “Sinepuxent skiffs,” he’d owned one himself and he knew of at least seven still around.

It wasn’t long before Chapelle contacted the youth, and as Conboy describes it: “God actually came to see me!”

In 1956, Conboy enlisted in the Coast Guard, expecting to work on a boat. Instead, because of his talent, he was assigned as a junior civil engineer under Harold Bartlett, an old Lighthouse Service veteran at the USCG District 5 in Norfolk.

Bartlett had earned his fame among modern navigators on the Eastern Seaboard through his innovation of channel markers.

Before his design, lighted markers on driven creosoted pilings stood at every channel turn and creek mouth. In any severe winter with substantial freezing, the ice would grab fast around these pilings and pull them from the estuary bottom on the rising tide. Or, when a mass of ice moved during a gale, it simply pushed them over. The cost of straightening or replacing these markers was considerable, let alone the loss of navigation signposts for mariners.

In 1933, working out of Boston for the Lighthouse Service, Bartlett designed a steel tube piling which, filled with sand or concrete, would resist all but the worst tide and ice conditions. A navigational marker was attached atop the tube, and in its final form, a platform and safety railing were attached with a clamp. The light and its batteries were mounted on the platform.

This design, now with an 18-inch diameter piling, has spread down much of the Intercoastal Waterway and is nearly ubiquitous for lighted near-shore markers on the Chesapeake.

There was a downside, though. For decades, as new batteries were replaced, the spent ones,—with their lead cores and sulfuric acid—were simply thrown overboard to accumulate on the Bay floor. (Imagine the cost of recovering these!) Environmental consciousness eventually led to these lights being operated for long periods using solar panels and recyclable batteries.

By the time Conboy was in the Coast Guard, rounds of cost-cutting were the rule. Radios were well-established in the commercial fleet and were spreading, albeit slowly, into the recreational boating community. Manned lighthouses were no longer likely to participate in the rescue of boaters in trouble along inland waterways, and costs were escalating.

Once electricity lit the manned beacons, there was no need for someone to daily trim wicks, clean the glass Fresnel lens prisms and refill kerosene fonts. What was essentially a Model A (Ford) gasoline engine—easily maintained by most Coast Guardsmen—ran a small generator that charged 32-volt, Edison-style batteries with glass jar cells. These ran the lights, and with an adapter, could also run a toaster and a television. “What more.” Conboy asked, “do you really need?”

But when an order for more glass jars crossed the desk of a forward-looking procurement officer one day, he exploded: “We’re in the 20th century! What…are we ordering glass battery jars for?”

Conboy was assigned to design a system around Western Branch diesels with backup generators purchased for each of the lights.

Of course, the Coast Guardsmen who fiddled with the simple engines were not ‘rated’ as diesel mechanics, and if they had one rated mechanic on station, there had to be a backup person. Costs went up, not down.

Caisson lighthouses sat atop huge cylindrical bases, which were cavernous, if dank, storage areas. Conboy, on one assignment, looked into complaints from the maintenance guys. The diesel would bang away in the caisson, which acted as a huge sound reflector. Plus, the space was about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “Nobody,” Conboy said, “could work down there for more than a few minutes.”

It wasn’t long before the Coast Guard undertook automating the lights with big replaceable storage batteries, which had a recharge cycle of about 15 months, and operated both the light and fog signals. The staff were permanently removed, and a mobile crew would check the aids monthly.

The lighthouses and structures atop the screwpile foundations still had to be maintained and painted, and any damage repaired. Crews were put aboard the buoy tenders at Norfolk and dropped off on one light after another while the tender went upriver doing other work. The crews could sit for a long while, in foul or hot weather, dealing with bird guano and the work of vandals until they were picked up. This was unpopular duty, Conboy said.

He eventually got the job of planning the demolition of some of the more high-maintenance lighthouses, including the Windmill and Stingray Point screwpile Lights. Wolftrap Light, farther south was a caisson and would be spared.

Conboy was also charged to plan the demolition of Tue Marshes screwpile Light marking Tue Point just south of the York River mouth. Contractors were to come out with barges and a clamshell grab or wrecking ball to take off the entire upper works, barging away the wreckage. An automated replacement light was to be installed.

“Tue Light was maintained like a yacht,” Joe said. “Everything was perfectly shipshape, and it broke my heart to see it go. The contractor said that he’d put it ashore for me on any land I chose for $1,500. Of course I’d just gotten married and I didn’t even have 1,500 cents!

“I’d recently met Bob Burgess (then curator of exhibits at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News) and I decided to write him a letter saying that the light was to be demolished and might be available from the Coast Guard.

“Shortly thereafter I was called by Mr. Bartlett and his superior officer, and told there was a meeting next day that I was to attend with them, before the ‘Broad Stripe’: Rear Admiral Commanding, 5th District, U.S. Coast Guard. I knew something was up. We were ushered in and there, on a bare desk before the admiral was a single sheet of paper: a letter from Burgess. He’d been advised that the light might be available, and was requesting it be donated, together with $200,000 for its maintenance, thank you.

“‘Young man,’ the admiral said, ‘keep Engineering Section business in the Office. Do you understand?’

“‘Yes, sir, I do.’” Conboy responded.

Tue Marshes Light’s upper works were soon demolished and barged away. Burgess later wrote that these structures were hard to destroy, being extremely well-built with mortise and tenon joints. One was ripped apart and burnt on a sand-covered barge moored next to the lighthouse. Sometimes, the wood was made available to watermen who’d bring their boats alongside, while others were taken ashore for landfill or burning. By 1965, Burgess recorded that 16 lighthouses in Maryland and Virginia had been razed.

A few of the screwpile lights survived—and as Conboy had proposed earlier—were donated by later, enlightened Coast Guard administrators to organizations intent on preserving their history. Drum Point Light was moved to Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons and Hooper Island Light, to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD. Seven-Foot Knoll Light is at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in the care of an educational foundation.

While small boat sailors use GPS widely today, many continue to rely on the familiar silhouettes of the old lighthouses, even in daylight, for dead reckoning navigation. I still rue the loss of Cedar Point Light, removed years ago, that unlike the thin steel pole installed there now, could be seen, and steered for, across a hundred square miles of the middle Chesapeake.

All around our coasts, the Coast Guard is auctioning off some of these old structures into private hands where they may serve a different clientele. Thomas Point Light still sits on her original legs, although armored against ice and storm with stone riprap. It belongs to a partnership of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, Annapolis Maritime Museum and the city of Annapolis. Data for one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake mariner’s weather reports originates there.

Bloody Point Light, gutted by fire in 1960, was purchased by a Nevada lawyer who intends to make it available for public visits within a few years.

And Smith Point, the lighthouse that Anne Caie sailed past, was sold to a Midwesterner who intends to turn it into an offshore summer home.

Dr. Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and estuarine ecologist.

Lighthouses have saved many a Chesapeake sailor, now who will save them?

Article from Bay Journal Jan 2007

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