A lighthouse that will shine

Volunteers are helping restore and preserve Thomas Point for future generations of duty

Maryland Journal

June 19, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Lynn Biancavilla was drawn to the task of scraping paint off the old lighthouse by the simple beauty of the Maryland landmark.

"I have passed this many times, and one of my goals was to get out here and step on the lighthouse," says Biancavilla, a resident of Stony Beach, on the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse porch on a recent Saturday afternoon, surrounded on all sides by blue water.

Boat captain Howard Lewis of Eastport says he joined the cause because his grandfather was once a keeper of the light at Thomas Point.

The volunteers come, for a variety of reasons, each weekend - waves and skies permitting - to mend cracks and chips on the beloved structure, which was built in 1875 and remains as recognizable an icon of the Chesapeake as the blue crab or skipjack.

The light still shines from dusk till dawn, but no keepers are left at the automated Thomas Point, which is also a government weather station. Resembling a Victorian cottage out to sea, the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Restoration, prompted by plans to open the lighthouse this summer for small guided tours, is frequently dirty and difficult. Lead paint has to be abated, wood has to be varnished, the roof has to be replaced and old Coast Guard carpets ripped up - revealing the original floor in the keepers' living quarters.

The biggest preservation challenge, organizers say, is restoring the iron and steel foundation of the screwpile structure, drilled into the floor of shallow bay waters, which are only about 8 to 10 feet deep.

The offshore beacon was the last staffed light station on the bay. The last keepers left in 1986.

A century ago, two to four men living in the lighthouse kept an oil lantern burning from sunset to sunrise. The silhouette of the lighthouse standing solo, etched on the horizon, has since become a symbol of Chesapeake maritime culture.

"Not too many people have been to see the lighthouse, except the Coast Guard," says Henry Gonzalez, 48, a federal agency executive who is vice president of the nonprofit U.S. Lighthouse Society.

"What you see today is a work in progress," he says as he supervises the work.

The unique restoration effort is the result of the Bush administration turning over, in May 2004, the lighthouse to a coalition of two government and two nonprofit partners.

The coalition is counting on volunteers to save the weathered lighthouse. Early this spring, small bands of helpers - about 25 active ones so far - began showing up from all parts of the state and even Virginia.

C. Jane Cox, 34, of Annapolis, a cultural resources planner, preservationist and sailor, often visits the lighthouse on her own time on "upkeep" trips, she says, to survey the scene and the project's progress. A board member of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, part of the lighthouse coalition, Cox sets off by speedboat from Eastport, where the tiny museum is nestled by the bay's brackish waters. "When the door closes behind you, it's so solidly built that you forget you're in a little house out there the middle of the bay," Cox says.

"It's amazingly well-built, with genius screwpile construction. But it needs work to make sure it will remain another 131 years."

The screwpile design called for pilings - stilt-like legs with corkscrew ends - that were turned deeper and deeper into the bay's muddy bottom during construction.

"At one point there were 41 screwpile lighthouses on the bay, dotted all over," Cox says.

The coalition's lead partner, the volunteer U.S. Lighthouse Society, estimates the Thomas Point preservation project will cost about $500,000 and take five years, funded by grants and gifts. The coalition also includes Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. Annapolis owns the lighthouse and last year funded a new wood loading dock on Thomas Point.

Since the 2004 transfer, Jefferson Holland, who directs the city's Maritime Museum, enlisted in the complex effort. He narrated a recent documentary on Thomas Point's character and history, which asserted that absolute isolation and rough storms could wear down the keepers' psyches, according to letters they wrote.

Within the coalition, Gonzalez is chief among the self-appointed keepers of the light at Thomas Point.

"The original lens is a work of art," Gonzalez says in the octagonal lantern room, about four stories above the waterline. "I still get goose bumps every time I come out here."

Standing in bright sunshine, he points out the latest optic beacon not yet ready to beam and rotate for sailboats and ships as far as 11 miles away. And, he says, there's a reason why he's in his element.

"In 1997, I found out my great-grandfather was a lighthouse keeper on the northern coast of Spain ... so it was in my blood," he says.

Thomas Point is not all about sentimental value -the lighthouse still has a job to do in the nation's largest estuary.

Mariners still depend on the lighthouse and its automated weather sensor station to navigate shallow waters around it - hence the word "shoal" in its full name.

On the boat back to shore, Gonzalez points to the bare skeleton of a screwpile lighthouse sticking out of the water close to Annapolis.

Gonzalez, who's driving the boat, slows and pauses to look at the remnants of the former Greenbury Point Lighthouse.

"This is why we're preserving Thomas Point," he says. "This is why we do what we do."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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