The Chesapeake's guiding lights Lighthouses: In the mid-1800s, the bay had 68 structures providing beacons to help mariners stay on a safe course in the estuary. Maryland got its first lighthouse in 1822.

On The Bay

January 30, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

I PREFER my nights on the Chesapeake Bay dark, the better to see stars above and phosphorescence below, and have little good to say about the proliferation of illumination along its shores.

But there was an evening several years ago, running an emergency medical mission across the black and stormy waters of Tangier Sound, that I was very, very happy at the sight of a familiar light that put me back on course.

We can only glimpse how earlier mariners must have longed to see any guiding light in this estuary of winding channels and treacherous shoals extending miles from land.

It was 1792 before the bay's first lighthouse was finished, at Cape Henry, to mark the entrance from the Atlantic. Maryland did not get its first lighthouse until 1822, on a dab of land, since eroded away, off Gibson Island in Anne Arundel County.

Before these, there was no light to go by except for sporadically maintained fires of pine knots in metal baskets kept burning at places on the shore (like Cape Henry).

In Maryland, Jesuit priests near the Potomac regularly placed a lamp in the window of their manor house to mark safe harbor in St. Clements Bay.

From such humble beginnings the Chesapeake would, by the middle 1800s, become the nation's best-lighted body of water, boasting 68 full-fledged lighthouses along its 200-mile length.

My familiarity with lighthouse history all comes from Pat Vjotech's fine book, "Lighting the Bay" (Tidewater Press, 1996). The Centreville writer, also author of "Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks," combines striking color photography with a lively anecdotal history of these structures that were among the great public works projects of their day.

"Nothing indicates the liberality, prosperity or intelligence of a nation more clearly than the facilities which it affords for the safe approach of the mariner to its shores," said an early report of the national Lighthouse Board created by Congress in the 1850s.

The author brings to life the old lighthouses, many still functioning. They were so much more than beacons.

They were home to families, and the residences of some of the best-stationed observers in bay history to the passage, not only of ships, but of the seasons, historic freezes and storms and rescues -- even bombings by naval aviators who mistook them once for a target and once to be uninhabited.

Through 1852, all Chesapeake Bay lighthouses were built on land, an unsatisfactory arrangement because shoals in the Chesapeake often extended thousands of yards. (To compensate, the bay became the first place to employ lightships, but these permanently anchored, manned vessels were expensive.)

Then came the invention of the "screw pile," essentially one or more great, metal screws twisted into the bay bottom by strong men using levers.

It furnished a stable base for offshore lighthouses, and ushered in a new era of construction. Seven Foot Knoll light, off the Patapsco in 1855, was the first. (Today it's on exhibit in the Inner Harbor off Pier 5.)

If these were good for navigation, they could be harsh places for their keepers, vulnerable to being snapped off in winter ice. Lighthouse keepers endured several of the worst ice-ups in bay history during the late 1800s. Vjotech describes, from keepers' reports, a "nine day assault" by ice on Thomas Point Shoal Light near Annapolis.

Thomas Point was designed to be the Titanic of screw pile lighthouses, impervious to being bulldozed by the worst ice floes. It was, but then there was the human element:

"The ice breaking against the piers at night sounded like the crackling of fire. [T]he lighthouse shook so violently [the keepers] could not sleep except for very short intervals at slack tide. The house vibrated with such violence that the lens, weighing five hundred pounds, was broken. Machinery was thrown about and the house was in shambles."

The lighthouse held firm, but the family abandoned it, keeping an alternate light burning from the shore.

Lighthouse keepers also left fascinating records of events. The great August Storm of 1933 raised tides to levels not recorded around the bay before or since.

On Aug. 31, 1886, the keeper of the Old Point Comfort light in Virginia noticed the stars were strangely bright and the sky was full of meteors. Giant seas began to rise up, though there was no wind, just a deep rumbling. The tower trembled so violently the keeper barely could hang onto a railing.

What the keeper had experienced was the shock from one of the worst earthquakes in U.S. history. It began in South Carolina at 8: 58 p.m. and traveled up the coast at lightning speed (the clock stopped in the Point Comfort station at 9: 55). Tremors and vibrations continued for several months.

Keepers were not always well-treated. Vjotech chronicles cases of a particularly callous government inspector who dismissed men for failing to wait almost until too late before deciding to abandon their post as ice tilted the lighthouse.

Life could also be good, as in the vignette the author gives of the Bolling family, who turned Seven Foot Knoll's bottom platform into a barnyard for hogs, goats and chickens.

The Bollings, who delivered several of their 13 children on the lighthouse (one named Knolie), raised vegetables in big pots they laid out on the decks, caught fish off the sides, and enjoyed eating ducks and geese that crashed into the light.

There's a lot more to this book, from a nice appendix to accounts of an unexplained murder, hauntings, bombings and the bay's first woman lighthouse keeper.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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