The National Park Service has given preliminary approval to a plan that would convert Thomas Point Lighthouse, a long-uninhabited historic symbol of the Chesapeake Bay, into a tourist destination.
Thomas Point would be the first Maryland lighthouse transferred under a federal program shifting hundreds of lighthouses out of Coast Guard ownership. As many as 15 additional lights, including Baltimore County's Craighill Channel Lower Range, could be transferred this summer, according to park service officials.
The 129-year-old lighthouse's future caretakers - a partnership primarily of Annapolis and two nonprofits - want to restore it and open it to limited public tours, perhaps as early as this summer.
That's a challenge at Thomas Point, which stands about 1 1/2 miles offshore from Annapolis and has no docking facilities to speak of. Last fall, Tropical Storm Isabel ripped away the platform that visitors would have used when getting off the boat and climbing into the lighthouse.
The storm also damaged the docking facilities at the Annapolis Maritime Museum, from which boat tours were to be launched.
But repairs at the lighthouse and the museum's docks are expected to be complete by early this summer, paving the way for Thomas Point tours.
"The goal is to get people excited about the lighthouse as soon as possible, so that they see it as something that they might like to contribute to," said Henry I. Gonzalez, a vice president for the U.S. Lighthouse Society, which will oversee daily operations at Thomas Point.
A review of the lighthouse society's plans, outlined in the application for Thomas Point, outlines how lighthouse tours could work:
Visitors would walk through a planned exhibit at the Maritime Museum, inside the 9,000- square-foot McNasby Oyster Co. building, and board a chartered boat that would take them to the hexagonal lighthouse.
The lighthouse society wants to preserve and restore parts of the interior of Thomas Point to represent the early 20th century, when individual lighthouse keepers and their families lived there. Parts would recall the 1950s, when Coast Guard members lived there.
It would take three to five years to complete the restoration, which would cost about $300,000, Gonzalez said. That effort would be paid for by grants and through lighthouse society fund-raisers, he said.
The restoration work would be done mostly during the off-season, which would enable the lighthouse society to conduct a limited number of tours during the summers before it is finished, Gonzalez said.
Eventually, Gonzalez said, he expects about 5,000 visitors to Thomas Point each year. Tours would run through boating season. He said the cost of chartering boats to take people to the lighthouse would determine the lighthouse admission fee.
The lighthouse society can begin work on its plans once Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton signs off on the deed transfer, which park service officials expect her to do in the coming weeks.
Under the new ownership agreement, Annapolis would hold the deed to the lighthouse and the lighthouse society would operate it under a 30-year renewable lease. Anne Arundel County and the Maritime Museum also have agreed to make contributions - financial and otherwise - to the lighthouse.
The groups chose to work together, rather than compete for individual ownership, because they thought that would be the best way to preserve the cherished lighthouse, said Gonzalez, who wrote the application for Thomas Point.
"Every time I go there, I get goose bumps," he said. "It's a beautiful light in any kind of weather, under any condition."
Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said she felt the city had to be a part of the Thomas Point transfer to "ensure that the light stays where it is." It is the only remaining screw-pile-style lighthouse in the United States in its original location.
"We do not want it taken off its pilings and dragged ashore like so many other lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay," the mayor said.
Thomas Point would be transferred under a 2000 amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act. The Coast Guard will continue to maintain the navigational aids at each of the lighthouses, but care of the aging buildings would fall to their new owners.
Interior officials are holding up Thomas Point as an example of "an ideal lighthouse transfer" and are planning a deed transfer ceremony for May 1, to coincide with the Maritime Heritage Festival in Annapolis. One of the lighthouse transfers, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, triggered a two-year battle between a nonprofit and the county.
Dan Smith, a park service assistant who oversees the lighthouse transfers, said, "Thomas Point is going to be our poster child for how nonprofits should coordinate - not compete - with each other."