Ready to weather another cen­tury

Ch­e­sa­peake Bay light­house shines even brighter af­ter restora­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MARY CA­ROLE MCCAULEY Bal­ti­more Sun

The Thomas Point Shoal Light­house is as charm­ing as it is in­con­gru­ous.

The six-sided Vic­to­rian cot­tage is painted white and has a pitched red roof, dormer win­dows and bright-green shut­ters. There it sits on gi­ant stilts, 10 feet above wa­ter level, as if it had been plucked from its lo­ca­tion on land by a gi­ant hand and de­posited in the mid­dle of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

As an 11-year, ap­prox­i­mately $500,000 restora­tion pro­ject draws to a close, the 1875 light­house is more vis­ually ap­peal­ing than it has been at any time in re­cent mem­ory. “It’s el­e­gant, a clas­sic,” mar­veled Al Ponzio, 65, of An­napo­lis, who took a tour of the light­house last week. “It never goes out of style.”

Just as re­mark­ably, the light­house is still in op­er­a­tion, guid­ing ships to safety us­ing roughly the same tech­nol­ogy used for 140 years: a bea­con flash­ing in a tower that’s high enough to be seen 11 miles away. For the past three decades, the light­house has been fully au­to­mated. The last hu­man keep­ers left in 1986.

“The most fas­ci­nat­ing thing to me is that this light­house still is stand­ing,” said tour guide Mike Thorpe. “The­walls are the orig­i­nal tongue-and-groove con­struc­tion — no nails. All the iron­work is orig­i­nal from 1875. Af­ter all this time, the struc­tural in­tegrity of the light­house still is good.”

The Thomas Point Shoal Light­house has with­stood nearly a cen­tury and a half of storms, ice and ev­ery­thing that the bay can throw at it. In 2003, dur­ing Trop­i­cal Storm Is­abel, the bay wa­ters rose so high that the light­house docks and deck were sub­merged.

But even dur­ing the worst of the storm, the light­house didn’t budge. It re­mained an­chored in place, held fast by iron pil­ings that — way back in 1875— were drilled about 12 feet be­neath the bay’s muddy bot­tom. Nonethe­less, wa­ter doesn’t mix well with wood and me­tal. Over time, the el­e­ments be­gan to take a toll.

Some of the iron and steel parts above the wa­ter­line had be­gun to cor­rode and were badly in need of a clean­ing, ac­cord­ing to Henry Gon­za­lez, vice pres­i­dent of U.S. Light­house So­ci­ety and man­ager of the Thomas Point Shoal Light­house. In ad­di­tion, al­most a third of the wrap­around deck on the main level of the cot­tage and its sup­ports had be­gun to rot and needed to be re­placed. And lead paint had to be re­moved.

The light­house is one of just 12 na­tion­wide des­ig­nated as na­tional his­toric land­marks. In keep­ing with that sta­tus, which was con­ferred in 1999, pro­ject or­ga­niz­ers hoped to re­store the in­te­rior to its his­toric con­di­tion.

In the 18th and 19th cen­turies, wa­ter­ways were the highways of the young na­tion, so pro­tect­ing the ships that tra­versed them was key to safe­guard­ing the econ­omy. As decades passed, the Thomas Point Shoal Light­house be­came a kind of vis­ual sym­bol of Mary­land it­self, and it’s now one of the state’s most beloved and fre­quently pho­tographed struc­tures.

Ren­o­va­tions be­gan in 2004 af­ter own­er­ship and man­age­ment of the light­house passed from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to a con­sor­tium of public and pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tions: the city of An­napo­lis, Anne Arun­del County, the An­napo­lis Mar­itime Mu­seum and the Light­house So­ci­ety.

Ini­tial es­ti­mates put the length of the pro­ject at five years. But be­cause the light­house has only two heated rooms — the front par­lor and the kitchen — re­pairs were made al­most en­tirely by vol­un­teers who re­al­is­ti­cally could work only from mid-May un­til early Novem­ber, when the weather was mild, Gon­za­lez said.

Fin­ish­ing touches on the restora­tion are ex­pected to be com­pleted by La­bor Day, he said.

Dif­fer­ent parts of the light­house have been re­stored to eras that were his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant. The front par­lor is a mon­u­ment to Vic­to­rian life, with a pot-belly stove and a dis­play case of pe­riod brass in­stru­ments.

The kitchen is re­fur­bished to its early 20th-cen­tury style, with an oil lamp and an old-fash­ioned flat­iron for cloth­ing. And one of the bed­rooms has been con­verted into a nav­i­ga­tion room used when the Coast Guard manned the light­house in the late 1970s.

Dur­ing the tour, Burt “Ed” Chi­dakel and his wife, Su­san, of Gaithers­burg lin­gered over clues in the cot­tage, in­clud­ing the an­nual pro­vi­sions list, that con­veyed what life was like for the keep­ers.

The keep­ers al­ways were men who served three-year ro­ta­tions; for much of the light­house’s history, women and chil­dren weren’t al­lowed to set foot on the premises. The men would spend three weeks at a time in­side the light­house, which is a mile and a half from shore, and then re­turn to the main­land for a week’s leave.

The only real leisure ac­tiv­i­ties in the light­house were read­ing and fish­ing. Bob Steven­son, ed­u­ca­tion co­or­di­na­tor for the Light­house So­ci­ety’s Ch­e­sa­peake chap­ter, said it wasn’t un­usual for ten­sions to run high be­tween two men con­fined 24/7 in per­haps 800 square feet of space.

In 1903, the light­house’s main keeper, Daniel A. White, went ashore for gro­ceries. By the time he re­turned, the as­sis­tant keeper, Henry Ad­dicks, had dis­ap­peared.

“No one ever found out what hap­pened to the guy,” Steven­son said. “Did he drown or com­mit sui­cide? Did he get a pass­ing fish­er­man to take him away? To this day, no one knows.”

And in 1905, keeper John B.T. Suit wrote this let­ter of com­plaint about his as­sis­tant keeper:

“I am sorry to have to re­port that the as­sis­tant Mr. Peter S. Earle is los­ing his mind and I can not trust him with the light.”

Soon there­after, Earle was re­placed as as­sis­tant keeper, Steven­son said.

Although the keep­ers were iso­lated from vir­tu­ally all hu­man con­tact, they nonethe­less were ex­pected to main­tain mil­i­tary stan­dards of ap­pear­ance at all times, Steven­son said. Keep­ers wore uni­forms and ties that had to be im­pec­ca­bly clean and pressed. In­spec­tors would make spot checks and note ev­ery un­pol­ished brass but­ton, un­folded blan­ket and speck of grease.

Although the his­toric doc­u­ments con­tain many ref­er­ences to the prob­lems of light­house liv­ing — in 1908, light­ning struck the smoke­stack and nearly tore the kitchen in two, and later that year, the as­sis­tant keeper lost $900 in pro­vi­sions af­ter he ran his boat into the rocks, tear­ing a hole in the hull — one thing is no­tice­ably ab­sent. There a real most no ac­counts of pass­ing ships that had run aground and no re­ports of dra­matic res­cues of pass­ing sailors.

“The fact that there aren’t a lot of sto­ries like that means that the light­house was do­ing its job,” Gon­za­lez said. “The mariners saw the light, knew where the shoals were lo­cated and were able to steer clear of the haz­ards and re­main safe.”


Restor­ing the 1875 Thomas Point Shoal Light­house, lo­cated in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, took 11 years and cost about $500,000. The walls and iron­work are orig­i­nal, said tour guideMike Thorpe.

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