Maryland lighthouses are popular tourism destinations for residents and out-of-state visitors alike. The Maryland Office of Tourism Development has just published a Chesapeake Bay travel itinerary featuring these beacons of the bay, and the National Park Service Gateways and Water Trails Program is in the process of completing its own version of a Chesapeake Bay lighthouse travel guide.
Commission to Save the Lighthouses
Significantly, the survival and adaptive reuse of Maryland’s lighthouses would not have been possible without the work of the Maryland Lighthouse Commission which got its start on January 11, 1989 when former Delegate Ray Huff of Anne Arundel County introduced House Bill 148 before the Maryland House of Delegates. Entitled “An Act Concerning [a] Commission to Save the Lighthouses,” the legislation marked a concerted public effort to place historic lighthouses in the forefront of Maryland preservation efforts. The bill was passed by the Legislature and the Commission was formed in the fall of 1989, meeting for the first time on February 9, 1990. Chaired by Delegate Huff, the Commission was comprised of political leaders, lighthouse experts, and members of the public with a shared interest in historic navigational aids.
The Commission met on a regular basis and initiated a broad array of activities. These included a comprehensive survey of all surviving lighthouses in Maryland, documentary research among the voluminous records of the federal lighthouse service at the National Archives, and technical evaluations of many individual lights. Four products of the Commission’s work are particularly noteworthy. In 1991, a comprehensive study of stabilization and restoration needs was completed for fourteen of the most significant lighthouses. The following year, a companion study was undertaken by the U.S. Coast Guard to evaluate underwater structural conditions for the seven caisson lighthouses. In 1993, MHT staff member Dr. Elaine Eff completed an oral history project in which family members of former lighthouse keepers recorded their memories of life on the lights. Finally, in March 1997, the Trust published a comprehensive history of Maryland lighthouses. Written by nationally renowned lighthouse expert F. Ross Holland, Jr., Maryland Lighthouses of the Chesapeake has been a stunning success.
The Commission to Save the Lighthouses ceased operation in June 1996, and responsibility for lighthouse preservation was assumed by the Maryland Historical Trust. Following the Commission’s dissolution, the Trust remained responsible for administration of the Lighthouse Preservation Special Fund. While a number of Maryland lighthouses have been deaccessioned by the U.S. Coast Guard and are protected by historic preservation easements held by the Trust, the future of some landmarks remains uncertain.
Maryland citizens owe a debt of gratitude to the Commission to Save the Lighthouses and, most importantly, to the Commission’s founder – Ray Huff. The Commission’s visionary and dedicated labors secured the future of these remarkable landmarks for all Marylanders for years to come.
Historical Overview of Maryland Lighthouses
The Chesapeake Bay is a unique body of water characterized by safe harbors and shipping ports as well as treacherous shoals and winding channels. Since the early 17th century, mariners have recognized the necessity of navigational aids in this estuary. From the earliest guides, such as fires on beaches and lights in windows, came the development of the modern day lighthouse.
The first lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay was constructed at Cape Henry, Virginia in October of 1792. Maryland’s first light was erected in 1822 and the last in 1910. A total of 44 lighthouses were built in the Maryland Chesapeake during that 88-year period. The most common of these were masonry towers constructed on shore, screwpiles, and caissons.
The first navigational lights were built on land. The earliest form consisted of short stone or brick towers built in conjunction with a lightkeeper’s dwelling nearby. Surviving examples of these masonry towers include the Concord Light, Cove Point, Pooles Island, and Piney Point lighthouses. Later, between 1831 and 1852, less expensive brick or wood dwellings surmounted by a tower and a lantern were erected. Fishing Battery and Point Lookout demonstrate this style of construction.
As technology improved, builders constructed screwpile structures. The screwpile design consisted of wrought iron piles screwed into the bottom of the bay. A multi-room, often hexagonal dwelling was then constructed atop the pile support structure. A lantern surmounted the dwelling.
While dozens of the inexpensive, easily built screwpile lighthouses were constructed in Maryland’s Chesapeake, only four remain. Few survived since the iron pilings that anchored these structures to the floor of the bay were vulnerable to heavy moving ice. Some of the screwpiles were destroyed during cold winters; others were dismantled. Those that did survive include the Drum Point (shown above), Hooper Strait, Seven Foot Knoll, and Thomas Point Shoal lights.
The caisson lighthouse design was introduced to the Chesapeake in the 1870s. Although much more costly and time consuming to build, they were sounder and longer lasting than the screwpile. Their stability can be attributed to the cylindrical base, which was sunk many feet into the mud and filled with concrete ballast. The lighthouse structure was built upon the caisson base.
The first caisson lighthouse erected in the Chesapeake, and in the nation, was the Craighill Channel Range Front Light. Eventually, the sturdier caisson style replaced screwpile lighthouses at exposed locations throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Surviving examples of the caisson style include Bloody Point Bar, Baltimore, Hooper Island, Point No Point, Sandy Point Shoal (shown at the top of the page), Sharps Island, and Solomons Lump.
Today, there are only 25 lighthouses on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Automated lights began replacing the lighthouse keepers in the existing structures shortly after the last lighthouse was built in 1910. Many of the historic buildings have been dismantled by the Coast Guard since the 1960s and replaced by small automatic beacons. These beacons are accurate navigational aids and are inexpensive to maintain.
The existing highly significant historic structures are in varying states of repair and disrepair and their future is uncertain. Through private and public sector efforts at the federal, state, and local levels, some lighthouses have been preserved. Surviving lights, some of which are now accessible to the public, are listed here for your information.
If you would like to learn more about Maryland’s lightships, lighthouses and their builders and keepers, refer to Maryland Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay. Other books on Maryland’s lighthouses include Linda Turbyville’s Bay Beacons: Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay, published by Eastwind in 1995, and Pat Vojtech’s Lighting the Bay: Tales of Chesapeake Lighthouses, published by Tidewater Publishers in 1996.
Information on Maryland’s lighthouses is also available through the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. For information on the National Park Service’s National Maritime Initiative, see the National Park Service (NPS) web page. This site provides program background, contact information, and lists a number of useful publications produced by NPS.
This page updated: April 21, 2009