The Chesapeake Bay, at 180 miles in length, is one of the great protected waterways of the country. Because of its natural configuration, to become the home of many of our earliest ports of call: Norfolk, Portsmouth, Annapolis, Baltimore and, farther up the Potomac, Alexandria and Washington. These were all bustling seaports early in the beginning of our nation.
But for all its size, Chesapeake Bay is shallow in many areas, with limited deep water channels. The need for aids to navigation was evident early on, yet the government was slow to respond to the needs of commerce.
Although the first lighthouse authorized by our fledgling government in 1789 was for the Cape Henry Lighthouse (at the entrance of Chesapeake Bay), it wasn’t until 1819 that Congress appropriated funds for a lighthouse in the Bay, at Bodkin Island on the south side of the entrance to Patapsco River leading to the Port of Baltimore. This lighthouse was first lighted in 1822.
Thomas Point Shoal’s hexagonal cottage has a diameter of thirty-five feet and rests upon seven piles, a single central pile and six perimeter piles, each of which has a diameter of ten inches. The dwelling is picturesque, exhibiting such careful touches as carved balusters on the walkways encircling both the first level and the lantern, and six dormer windows interrupting the dwelling’s sloping roof at regular intervals.
The cottage’s first level is divided into five rooms: a mechanical room, bedroom, bathroom, dayroom, and kitchen. Although the original privy is still cantilevered over the bay from the lower gallery, the Coast Guard installed an indoor “incinomode,” an electrically superheated toilet that incinerates waste, around 1971. A central, spiral staircase leads to the second floor, where another bedroom and a room that formerly housed the fog bell striking mechanism are located. The lantern room, accessed by a ships ladder from the second level, is situated forty-three feet above mean high tide. After having been replaced by a modern beacon, the historic Fresnel lens formerly housed in the lantern room was removed to the Commander’s Office of the Coast Guard in Baltimore.
By 1964, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was the only staffed offshore station on Chesapeake Bay. Four coastguardsmen divvied up lighthouse duties, with each taking a week of shore leave every four weeks. A lightship tender made a monthly delivery of fresh water, fuel, and supplies. This state of affairs lasted until the 1970s, when a three-man crew, with a two-weeks-on, one-week-off rotation took over. The crewman arriving at the station would bring groceries and mail for the week, and the one leaving would tote away the trash. Scott Kaufman, stationed at the lighthouse in the early 1980s, commented that living at the station gave him plenty of time to think. “All the problems you have. You can just sit out here and think out all the angles. I’ll even sit here and think about my friend’s problems. That’s how much time I have.”
In addition to the offshore Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse serving as an active aid to, the sentinel also serves as a NOAA marine weather station, providing hourly data such as wind speed, water and air temperatures and atmospheric pressure for mariners transiting or boating on the Chesapeake Bay. NOAA’s interior-based weather equipment was previously stationed on the structure’s second level, but with future tours being planned to the historic beacon, the partners and NOAA implemented a pro-active plan to ensure the protection of the sensitive equipment by relocating its operation to the area where the Coast Guard maintains their ATON equipment.
The partnership’s work at the lighthouse with the Coast Guard, NOAA, and the architects aren’t the only progress being made at Thomas Point. The Chesapeake Chapter’s preservation program, led by Vice President Anne Puppa, is one of the most active and effective volunteer group efforts in the lighthouse community. Their dedication to helping Chesapeake Bay lights through hands-on maintenance contributions was recently responsible for a much-needed improvement at Thomas Point Shoal Light as well. “Chapter Education Coordinator Tom Wade and preservation volunteer Al Pearson replaced the existing entrance hatch that had deteriorated badly over recent years,” said Gonzalez. The new hatch door will aid in the security and safety at the lighthouse. The volunteers have also given the lighthouse a sorely needed and very thorough cleaning.
Historically, Thomas Point Shoal is a lighthouse with few peers when it comes to its stature as a beloved icon of the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks to the passion, dedication and effectiveness of its new keepers, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is now positioned to endure into the 21st century and beyond – ensuring that like the lighthouse, the partnership and its volunteers will also have few peers.