So many lighthouses -- not so much time

Enthusiasts scurry to visit 10 beacons in two days

September 17, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

ST. MICHAELS -- The Dibbs family was on a mission.

The car was packed with snacks. The route was mapped out. The goal was clear: nine Maryland lighthouses - and one lightship - in two days.

But while most of the hundreds of people aiming to complete the entire annual Maryland Lighthouse Challenge bunked in area hotels and inns during the weekend, Mike and Monica Dibbs layered one more obstacle onto their family's undertaking. They drove home to Lancaster, Pa., on Saturday night between the two legs of their tour.

"We thought it would be a good challenge," Monica Dibbs, 26, a nurse's aide, said yesterday as the family scurried from the Hooper Strait Lighthouse in this quaint Eastern Shore town to make their last two stops on the tour in Harford and Cecil counties.

The family even made it into the record books of one lighthouse on the tour. Their son, 11-month-old Tristan, was the youngest person ever to visit Cove Point Lighthouse in Solomons.

Organizers estimate that a few thousand people participated in this year's lighthouse challenge, traipsing up the winding staircases of the state's 10 beacons and learning about the keepers who operated and maintained them over the decades. Only a few hundred complete the entire route each year.

It is the only weekend of the year when all the lighthouses are open simultaneously to the public.

The steps of one lighthouse - Turkey Point in Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County - were restored this year, enabling visitors to climb the beacon for the first time in 50 years, said Karen Rosage, the coordinator of the tour with the Chesapeake chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.

And another lighthouse - Fort Washington on the Potomac River in Southern Maryland - opens its doors to visitors only during the weekend of the lighthouse challenge, Rosage said.

"For hardcore lighthouse enthusiasts, that's a real thrill," she said of the 125-year-old bell tower that was converted into a lighthouse in Fort Washington National Park. "The first year we had the challenge, all the park personnel ran over because they had never seen the inside."

Volunteers who staffed the lighthouses for this weekend's tour logged visitors from places up and down the East Coast and beyond, including Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Washington D.C. Groups from Florida and Michigan flew in just for the tour, said Sandy Clunies, a historian with the Chesapeake chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society who was posted at the St. Michaels beacon.

Saturday's visitors included three generations of descendants of John Cornwell, who served as lighthouse keeper of the Hoopers Strait beacon when it was destroyed by ice.

"He told them, `If you rebuild it, I'll return,'" Clunies said. "And he did - even after the harrowing experience of having a lighthouse fall down around you. So in addition to dealing with beautiful structures, there are people involved - generations of Maryland families."

Tour organizers logged nearly 7,000 lighthouse visits during last year's challenge weekend, and 438 people finished the whole route in the two days allotted. Statistics for this weekend's challenge were not yet compiled. But Rosage said she expected that the spectacular weather might have boosted this year's attendance.

The Maryland tour - which is expected to continue next year on the third weekend of September - was modeled after a similar event in New Jersey. And three years ago, a tour of the lighthouses of Long Island, N.Y., was organized.

Bob and Marianne Bricker of Pittsburgh finished the 10-stop Maryland tour about 5 p.m. yesterday at the Seven Foot Knoll on Pier Five in Baltimore. The barn-red, circular screwpile lighthouse originally sat at the mouth of the Patapsco River but was relocated in 1987 to the Inner Harbor, where it stands on legs that resemble stilts.

"It was kind of taxing to get to them all in two days," said Bob Bricker, 62, a retired construction worker. The couple got stuck in traffic from the Navy football game in Annapolis on Saturday and hit similar congestion yesterday near Baltimore as Ravens fans headed to the stadium for the team's home opener.

"If we had known that, we would have done the tour in the opposite order," he said, chuckling.

A pair of New Englanders - Ron Foster, 58, of Groton, Conn., and Ron Drummer, 71, of Seymour, Conn. - made their tour a bit less grueling by beginning it Thursday afternoon.

"We cheated a little," Drummer said.

The two lighthouse enthusiasts visit beacons around the country, sometimes with their wives and other times with fellow members of the many lighthouse groups to which they belong.

"Lighthouses stand for strength and safety and welcome home," said Foster, whose family vacationed near Cape Neddick Light in York, Maine, when he was a child. He and his wife honeymooned there. They returned with her father when he was dying.

"Some people say there's something very spiritual about them," Foster added.

The Dibbs family learned about the lighthouse challenge while hiking two weeks ago at Turkey Point Lighthouse, which is about an hour from their Lancaster home.

It was pouring when they left the house at 6:30 Saturday morning. But by the time they reached their first stop - Point Lookout in St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland - the rain had stopped and the ground was only damp.

That lighthouse ended up being the family's favorite of the tour. Paige Dibbs, 10, particularly enjoyed the ghost stories about the beacon, which is said to be haunted.

Her father, Mike Dibbs, 29, the manager of a tractor-trailer repair shop, added, "Each one has a history that you wouldn't know unless you visited."

jennifer.mcmenamin@ baltsun.com

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