A grisly past continues to haunt Point Lookout

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October 27, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

"In terms of important historical associations with ghost stories and a grisly past, Point Lookout Lighthouse in St. Mary's County is right up there. It's five stars out of five stars," says Ed Okonowicz.

The Cecil County author and semiretired college professor is Maryland's premier collector of ghost stories, regional folklore and supernatural tales.

The lighthouse Okonowicz is talking about stands at the tip of St. Mary's County, where Potomac River waters swirl and mix with those of tidal Chesapeake Bay.

The 530-acre site, including the lighthouse, has been a state park since 1962. It was once one of the most feared and notorious Union prisoner-of-war camps, where more than 4,000 Confederate prisoners died during the Civil War.

The camp came into existence soon after the Battle of Gettysburg, when 9,000 prisoners arrived there for imprisonment. Designed to hold no more than 10,000 prisoners, by the end of the Civil War, 20,000 men were jammed into the 20-acre prison with wooden walls 14 feet high.

"The tale of the camp," writes Edwin Warfield Beitzell in his book, Point Lookout, Prison Camp for Confederates, "is a horrid story to tell. It is a story of cruel decisions in high places, a story of diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid and typhus, of burning sands and freezing cold in rotten tents. It is a story of senseless shootings by guards. It is a story of the despair and death of 4,000 prisoners, many of whom could have been saved."

Thanks to its association with the prison camp, the 1830 lighthouse has earned the designation of "America's Most Haunted Lighthouse," Okonowicz said. "I've visited the lighthouse twice, and it is a really spooky and isolated place. It feels as though you're at the end of the world.

"There is nothing but water and dark woods and the memory of the old prison camp. It is, without a doubt, a very eerie place, made more eerie once the sun goes down," he said.

The isolated site is buffeted by winds that roar off the Chesapeake. A park ranger told The Sun in 1993 that Point Lookout was "the darkest place I've ever been."

Bob Trapani Jr., an author and lighthouse historian and preservationist who is executive director of the Delaware Seashore Preservation Foundation, wrote in his book, Lighthouses of Maryland and Virginia: History, Mystery, Legends and Lore, "There is no other Chesapeake Bay lighthouse, and arguably none in America, which possesses such a connection to grisly suffering and death -- all of which occurred directly below its lifesaving beam -- than Point Lookout Lighthouse."

According to Okonowicz, the lighthouse's history is filled with unfortunate and mysterious happenings, as well as a large supply of spirits.

The first keeper died two months after taking up his post there. Another keeper's cat contaminated the lamp oil and broke a dozen lamps, and because of his clumsy behavior, the rambunctious tabby caused his owner to lose a year's pay.

In October 1878, the steamer Express sank off Point Lookout in a raging storm, and one of its officers, Joseph Haney, who attempted to row to shore for help, was lost.

Several days later, the body of the mariner washed ashore and was buried nearby. It wasn't long before Haney's ghost was reportedly roaming the lonely sands and beaches of Point Lookout.

"A resident of the lighthouse heard a knock on the door, and when he opened it, saw puddles of water as the apparition disappeared toward the bay," Okonowicz said.

In his book Haunted Maryland: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Old Line State, Okonowicz writes, "Perhaps it was the confused spirit of Mr. Haney, trapped in another dimension because of his sudden and violent death."

"Laura Berg, who lived alone in the lighthouse in the late 1970s and was its last resident, heard heavy footsteps outside of her bedroom door. She claimed that books would fly off of shelves and there were awful smells and stenches in various rooms," Okonowicz said.

When Okonowicz asked Berg, who now lives in Baltimore, if she thought the lighthouse was haunted, she told him, "I have no doubt that there are multiple spirits haunting this lighthouse."

"And there was another case of some teenagers who were driving out of the park near sunset and stopped a park ranger to tell them they saw a man who was dressed as a Civil War-era soldier carrying a long rifle on his shoulder with a bayonet," Okonowicz said. "They told him he was patrolling inside the fence near the lighthouse.

"What adds to the mysterious happenings at Point Lookout is the fact that it's out of the way. It's not visited like Fort McHenry or Gettysburg. But I can say one thing: It's one eerie place," Okonowicz said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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