A beacon of hope shines for landmark lighthouse

Thomas Point: As its mission shifts to homeland security, the Coast Guard seeks a new owner to preserve the structure.

April 21, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

For more than a century, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse has watched over the Chesapeake Bay and helped define Maryland.

Miniature versions of the famous screw-pile lighthouse - the last one of its type standing in its original location anywhere in America - grace T-shirts and postcards, bookshelves and calendars.

"It's one of only a handful of things that, when you see it, you think Maryland," says Rodney Little, state historic preservation officer.

Now, this 128-year-old jewel is seeking a new identity.

As the U.S. Coast Guard focuses increasingly on homeland security, the agency wants to shift 300 lighthouses to private or public groups over the next decade. Federal officials are reviewing eight bids for Thomas Point, and a winner of sorts will be named this summer.

Although the lighthouse is free, the next owner will be responsible for building upkeep, which can run into thousands of dollars every year. Another caveat: The new owners must accept the property "as is and where is."

The "as is" isn't too bad, but the "where is" could be a problem. The lighthouse is a mile and a half offshore, and navigating its rocky base is tough even for experienced Coast Guard coxswains.

Even so, interest is overwhelming. Potential owners range from a coalition of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County groups eager to protect the landmark to the state Injured Workers Insurance Fund, which is interested because Thomas Point is its logo.

"We need to be careful about who wins this contest, if you can call it that," warns Little, who has an advisory role in the ownership change. "Some of these applicants may have really good intentions but really shallow pockets."

From shore in Annapolis, Thomas Point looks like a giant birdhouse - a wooden hexagon atop scrawny wrought-iron poles stuck into the bay.

Access is tricky. It's a precarious balancing act getting across the iron beams (there's no dock) to the ladders that lead to the lighthouse cottage.

The framework is what makes Thomas Point a screw-pile lighthouse. Seven 10-inch-wide beams called piles are driven, or "screwed," to a depth of 11 1/2 feet into the bottom of the bay.

The lighthouse entrance, trimmed in mint-green paint, is simple enough to be the front door to a suburban split-level. The door sticks a little from the salty air, but when a Coast Guard engineer on a recent maintenance trip leans into it, it creaks open.

"Welcome to Thomas Point Lighthouse," Petty Officer Garrett Barrows announces.

Even empty, the lighthouse feels a bit claustrophobic. "I've been on buoys bigger than this," says Rich Hebb, a Coast Guard engineer along to learn the maintenance routine.

There's a kitchen. A small box of Lucky Charms has been there for who knows how long.

There are several small bedrooms and offices. Backup generators, giant battery boxes and other equipment pop up all over the cottage.

And don't forget the toilet. Make that a "Model TR Incinolet," with instructions posted above. The tiny, odd-looking contraption incinerates waste after it is flushed to the underbelly of the lighthouse.

It's what is outside that makes this piece of real estate so valuable. Every window frames a postcard view. Out one small window, the Bay Bridge, thin as a feather, appears to be floating into the water.

As the Coast Guard members walk around, they spot a perfect white egg on the matted dull-green carpet - a clue that someone else is home.

Barrows cracks open a door to the top of the lighthouse. More than 40 feet above the bay, this room holds a powerful beacon that never stops rotating.

It also makes a fantastic bird's nest.

Steve Shipp, a Coast Guard firefighter, passes Barrows his police baton. "Want some pepper spray?"

Hebb offers this advice: "He's going to bite. Definitely. But it don't hurt that bad."

Barrows charges up, swatting at the flapping pigeon until it flies out a window.

"Birds and spiders love this place," he says.

Long before it became a premier roost, Thomas Point was home to scores of Coast Guard members who worked here, fished here, lived here.

Built in 1875 for less than $35,000, Thomas Point Shoal replaced a poorly constructed lighthouse on land. The U.S. Lighthouse Service took over light-keeping duties from private families in the late 19th century; the service became part of the Coast Guard in 1939.

Despite its storied relationship with Thomas Point, the Coast Guard has no qualms about transferring its deed to a new owner - one with more time and resources to devote to preservation.

"For their mission, the Coast Guard doesn't need these beautiful, expensive edifices to hang their lights off of," says Dan Smith, special assistant to the director of the National Park Service, which is helping coordinate the transfer program.

Teams of Coast Guard members were stationed at Thomas Point, usually in 21- or 30-day intervals, until the light was fully automated in 1986. It was the bay's last manned lighthouse.

Coast Guard veterans have fond memories - well, mostly - of the cramped cottage.

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