A Chesapeake Bay lighthouse is in trouble, but you can help

August 2, 2019

WTOP/Michelle Basch

Maryland’s most recognizable lighthouse, built in 1875, is in disrepair, and you can help out with money or time.

A one-of-a-kind Chesapeake Bay lighthouse is in danger, but through an online fundraising drive, you can help save it.

The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is Maryland’s most recognizable lighthouse, and as much a symbol of the state as blue crabs and black-eyed Susans.

The hexagon-shaped, red-roofed, screwpile lighthouse sits off Annapolis at the mouth of the South River, with large piles of rocks on two sides to help protect it from ice.

Built in 1875, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is one of only 10 lighthouses in America designated as National Historic Landmarks.

In 2004, the City of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, the Annapolis Maritime Museum and the nonprofit U.S. Lighthouse Society teamed up to buy the structure from the federal government and ensure that it was preserved for future generations.

For 15 years, U.S. Lighthouse Society volunteers have been meticulously restoring the Thomas Point lighthouse to how it looked before 1939, when lighthouse keepers with the U.S. Lighthouse Service began to be replaced by members of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The metal structures underneath that hold up and stabilize the lighthouse are in urgent need of replacement.

After a bidding process, a contractor was hired to do the work; meanwhile, a cracked wooden beam was found on the first level that also needs to be fixed.

So far a total of about $200,000 in grants and donations has been collected to pay for repairs, but it’s not enough. John Potvin, of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, the lighthouse’s preservation foreman, said it will take about $325,000 “to get the tie rods and the structure replaced.”

Potvin added, “We have a private donor who wants to remain anonymous who has agreed to put up $50,000 in matching donations, so every dollar that is coming in right now is being matched by him.”

The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is the only screwpile lighthouse left in its original location. Three others survive as part of Maryland museums in Baltimore, St. Michaels and Solomons Island.

“Screwpiles are 20-foot-long poles that go into the bay bottom with a two-foot diameter screw on the end of it,” Potvin said. “In the bay, it’s pretty much a sandy or muddy bottom, so they’re not going to run into any rocks. Whereas in the New England area, they have to build caisson lights because there are really no sandy bottoms for them to screw into.”

There used to be 40 screwpile lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay. The design was chosen because it was inexpensive.

“Back in 1875, this lighthouse would have cost about $18,000 to construct and put in place. In today’s dollars, that’s close to $880,000, but it was far less expensive than a caisson lighthouse that was about $30,000 to $35,000, which would be more like $1.5 million today,” Potvin said.

The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was automated in 1986, and is still in use for navigation today, even though most ships rely on GPS.

“If you see this lighthouse from a distance and you’re seeing red, that means you’re about to approach a shoal. If you see white, that means you’re in clear water,” said Potvin.

Public tours of the lighthouse, including boat rides to and from, are available in the summer and fall and leave from the Annapolis Maritime Museum. Money collected from the tours helps with the lighthouse’s preservation.

You can also help by joining the volunteers who work at the lighthouse. “We always encourage people to come out as a volunteer; in fact, we’ve picked up a lot of new volunteers this year,” Potvin said.

Preservation work is usually done on the third Saturday of each month, and boat transportation is provided. Volunteers can do jobs such as cleaning, painting and minor carpentry at their own pace.

“The more people that get involved, the better off we’re all going to be,” Potvin said.

If you’re interested, you can email him.

Boat captain of Audacious Howard Lewis talks about his great grandfather who was a lighthouse keeper in 1903. Watch the video.

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Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter and anchor at WTOP.

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