U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton visited Annapolis yesterday to turn over the keys to the historic Thomas Point Lighthouse to a coalition of government and nonprofit groups.
The 129-year-old beacon is the first Maryland lighthouse to be transferred out of Coast Guard ownership under a federal program approved by Congress four years ago.
As lighthouse lovers and relatives of former keepers cheered and clapped, Norton signed the paperwork that gives Annapolis possession of Thomas Point, the only lighthouse of its kind in its original location in the United States.
"Wow, I accept," an enthusiastic Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said after she took the documents. She called the lighthouse "an unmistakable icon of the Chesapeake Bay."
The city will lease the building to the U.S. Lighthouse Society, which will work with the Annapolis Maritime Museum and Anne Arundel County to make Thomas Point accessible to the public.
The lighthouse society plans to restore the interior to represent two time periods: the early 1900s, when keepers and their families lived there, and the mid-1900s, when Coast Guard members were stationed there. That work will be funded by grants and donations, society members said. The total cost is unknown, they said.
Although it has not yet begun its official fund-raising campaign, the coalition has collected more than $20,000.
The city estimates that maintenance will cost between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. The Coast Guard will maintain the navigation aids, which are used by boaters in the Chesapeake Bay as they near Annapolis.
In attendance at yesterday's ceremony -- part of Annapolis' annual Maritime Heritage Festival -- were brothers Charlie and Jesse Martak, whose grandfather was a keeper at Thomas Point in the early 1900s.
Jesse Martak, an 84-year-old Eastport resident, clutched old letters and black-and-white photos of his family during the transfer ceremony. Both he and his brother said they believe the lighthouse will be in good hands.
Norton called the Thomas Point transfer "a wonderful example of public and private cooperation," a comment that drew heavy applause from the small crowd gathered at City Dock.
"The entire process is made so much easier," said Barbara Shelton, a General Services Administration regional official, "when potential competitors join together." GSA handles all federal property transfers.
Yesterday's ceremony came at a time when another lighthouse in the same federal transfer program -- Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla, N.C. -- is in danger of being shut down.
The deed to Currituck Beach was given last fall to Outer Banks Conservationists, the nonprofit group that restored the red-brick tower. But Currituck County, which lost a bitter two-year battle for ownership, has said the lighthouse violates county code by not having enough parking spaces and public restrooms.
"It has really turned personal out there," said Henry I. Gonzalez, president of the Chesapeake chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society and author of the coalition's application for Thomas Point.
Mindful of the feud over Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Gonzalez sought early on to work with Annapolis and the Maritime Museum, two entities that initially were seeking ownership of Thomas Point.
The Injured Workers' Insurance Fund dropped out of the competition to support the coalition's bid, Gonzalez said. Yesterday, the company, which is based in Towson but uses Thomas Point in its logo, donated $10,000 to the lighthouse.
Interior officials have pointed to the cooperation over Thomas Point as the antidote to ill will in Currituck that threatened to derail the federal plan, approved by Congress in 2000, to offload hundreds of Coast Guard-owned lighthouses over the next decade.
Transfers such as the one yesterday in Annapolis, Interior Department official Dan Smith said, show that the program is working.