Ralph Eshelman scrambled up the 27 granite steps and seven rungs of an iron ladder to the top of Pooles Island lighthouse. Like a kid with a new toy, he checked everything, peering into the exhaust vents for the smoke from oil lamps that once lighted the beacon and opening the hatch to the outside gallery.
"This is in good shape. I'm impressed," said Dr. Eshelman, former director of Calvert Marine Museum and now a free-lance consultant on lighthouses, as he took photo after photo of details of the 171-year-old conical brick and granite-block lighthouse.
"This is in a lot better condition than a lot of lighthouses I've been in," said Dr. Eshelman, making his first visit to the 40-foot-tall lighthouse on which the Army is set to begin a $30,000 stabilization and restoration program.
Built in 1825 and the oldest standing lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay, the Pooles Island beacon is important historically and should be preserved, Dr. Eshelman said.
Terri Kaltenbacher, project manager for Aberdeen Proving Ground's directorate of safety, health and environment, said an application has been filed to put the lighthouse on the National Register of Historic Places.
Even after restoration, however, the lighthouse will not become a tourist attraction -- except from a distance -- because of the dangers of unexploded ordnance.
The federal government bought the island in 1917 for the establishment of APG's Edgewood Arsenal and used it until 1970 as an artillery target zone. It is still restricted. APG boats patrol the surrounding waters and "No Trespassing" signs on the driftwood-strewn beach warn of unexploded ordnance.
The heavily overgrown island will remain an "inadvertent wildlife sanctuary" for bald eagles, ospreys, herons and deer that crossed when the bay was frozen, Ms. Kaltenbacher said.
Originally named Powell's Island by Capt. John Smith on his map of his 1608 exploration of the Chesapeake, Pooles Island lies about 1.5 miles off Robins Point, at the tip of Edgewood Peninsula, part of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Parts of Pooles Island were farmed in the early 19th century, and the British sacked the place during the War of 1812. Beginning in 1872, Pooles Island became famous as a peach orchard.
The beacon, on the northwest tip of the 280-acre island, was tended by a lighthouse keeper from 1825 until 1917, when the signal was automated. An 1865 bay chart noted that the light from the nine oil lamps was visible for more than 11 miles. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1939.
On the ground near the base of the tower lay a heavy, rusty iron object. Dr. Eshelman identified it as the pedestal that once held the lamps, and he manhandled it back inside the lighthouse.
"We have to protect it," he said.
A pile of dirt and debris cleaned out several weeks ago by volunteers from Aberdeen Proving Ground contained dozens of rusty and bent hand-forged nails that may have come from the shelves whose marks remain on the walls inside the door.
Sections of a brick wall, some circular, remain on the beach, which the consultant suggested were from the oil-house, which stored fuel for the lamps.
The door -- vertical planking backed by horizontal planking and with long strap-iron hinges -- is the same as on Concord Point Lighthouse at Havre de Grace, Dr. Eshelman said. Concord Point was built in 1827 by John Donahoo of Havre de Grace, who built 12 of the 72 lighthouses, including Pooles Island, that once guided ships up and down the bay, the consultant said.
Structurally, the lighthouse is sound, he said. The only major break is in the wall below a bricked-up window where stones have fallen out.
In a few weeks, experts from the National Park Service training center at Williamsport will repair the break and other cracks in the walls to restore them to their original appearance, Ms. Kaltenbacher said.
The two bricked-up windows will be reopened and refitted with sashes made in 19th-century style, and new panes will be put in the lantern, the cupola that housed the lamps, she said.
Volunteers from APG will follow up, cleaning the area and painting the lighthouse its original white, which improved its visibility for ships during the day.
Perched on the foreshore, in front of the lighthouse, is another relic, one of the two spidery observation towers erected on Pooles Island in 1940 in anticipation of U.S. entry into World War II, to guard against German U-boats sneaking up the bay to spy on the proving ground.
The island still holds one historical mystery for Ms. Kaltenbacher: the location of the keeper's two-story stone house.
The house appears in a 1910 photograph, but she has found no trace of the house or other outbuildings associated with the lighthouse. They might have been razed for the artillery range or when the observation tower was built, but she has not found a record of such demolition.
"It's bugging me that I can't find it. It remains a mystery, but I'll keep at it," she said.
Pub Date: 4/17/96