A sturdy beacon to lighthouse fans

Attraction: The 176-year-old Concord Point Lighthouse weathered Tropical Storm Isabel.

October 26, 2003|By Luciana Lopez | Luciana Lopez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AMID THE wreckage of the Havre de Grace promenade in the wake of Tropical Storm Isabel was one structure that remained unscathed by the battering wind and rain. That's not much of a surprise, though: The Concord Point Lighthouse, a conical stone tower about 36 feet high, was made to withstand nature's worst.

Built in 1827, the lighthouse is not only a draw for sightseers and historians, it's also a monument to the shipping lines that helped build Maryland. Still standing at the junction of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay, Concord Point is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Maryland.

The lighthouse was built by the federal government for $4,000, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Havre de Grace native John Donahoo, who had built several other bay lighthouses, won the contract with a $3,500 bid and constructed the tower from Port Deposit granite. The remaining money was used to buy and set up the lighthouse apparatus, nine lamps combined with a 16-inch reflector.

Donahoo built the lighthouse on land, the common practice at the time, according to the Maritime Heritage Program of the National Park Service. Only in the mid-19th century did the first offshore lighthouses appear in the United States.

The stone material was another popular choice, used from coast to coast, particularly in conical lighthouses with thick bases and tapering walls, the National Park Service says. Stone was used everywhere, from the 63-foot New Dungeness Light in Washington state to North Carolina's 197-foot Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the country's tallest.

The state's lighthouses at the time were a necessity for the shipping trade that helped make Maryland a commercial force. "The ones that are here in the Maryland Chesapeake date to the 1820s to about 1910, and they were certainly absolutely essential to the economic vitality of Baltimore City in particular," said Orlando Ridout V, an architectural historian for the Maryland Historical Trust.

The shipping trade not only brought goods to the state, it also brought people, building up a labor force that eventually helped attract companies such as Bethlehem Steel and, later, Western Electric, each of which hired tens of thousands of people.

The first lighthouse keeper was himself an immigrant. John O'Neill, appointed by President John Quincy Adams, was an Irish immigrant who was best known at the time for his role in the War of 1812. On May 5, 1813, O'Neill was injured while defending the town against the British. He was arrested and sentenced, but his daughter, Matilda, intervened and he was freed. A small monument outside the lighthouse details his capture and release.

Members of the O'Neill family continued as the Concord Point Lighthouse keepers, living in the house across from the tower, until 1920, when the lighthouse was automated. It was no longer necessary for someone to climb the 27 stone steps and the steel ladder into the lantern room.

Decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1970, the lighthouse has recently undergone more changes. Now run by the Friends of Concord Point Lighthouse, a volunteer group whose members help keep the lighthouse open to the public, Concord Point has become more of a lure for tourists than a beacon for trade.

"These lighthouses have come to be cultural symbols. This one in particular is part of the town identity, what gives a sense of place to the town of Havre de Grace," said Pete Lesher, the curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.

Lighthouses draw crowds across the country for several reasons, Lesher said. There's probably "no other structure that's been so romanticized as the lighthouse," he said, partly because of the "the solitary life of the lighthouse keeper whose function is, if you will, very altruistic. His function is to save lives at sea."

And, he added, there's a more prosaic reason for the strong pull lighthouses exert on sightseers: The beacons are often in beautiful locations.

The Concord Point Lighthouse has become a regular stop for school tours, including the new building preservation program at Harford Community College, said John Narvell, co-president of the Friends of the Concord Lighthouse. It is also the site of weddings, about 30 a year, and even marriage proposals, such as a recent one in which the groom hid a bottle of champagne in the lantern room for his now-fiancee.

While the lighthouse weathered the passing years well, the keeper's house had a different fate. After the automation of the light, the keeper's house passed into private hands and went through a succession of changes, including a stint as an inn and another as a restaurant.

The keeper's house is being restored to its appearance circa 1884, when a second story was added to the building.

Although the heavy rains from Isabel caused some flooding in the house - the water turned the sunken dirt floor of the old kitchen into muck - damage was minimal, and the water not unprecedented. "There's no way to tell how many times the building has been underwater," Narvell said.

He added that the house is still on track to open to the public in April, after the Friends have set up historical displays throughout the house.

For now, at least, the lighthouse's prospects look to be on firm footing. "There's something about lighthouses that attracts people," Ridout said. "I think it has a real solid future."

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