The Washington Post

Lighthouses to visit

Lighthouses represent a romantic notion for many of us. The guiding lights along the Chesapeake Bay and nearby waters afford spectacular views and connect us to a time before a job could be accomplished with a flick of a switch and there were still such things as frontiers,where folks fended for themselves. These lighthouses are in varying states of preservation: Jones Point in Alexandria is undergoing restoration, but Hooper Strait in St. Michaels is entirely refurbished. Each stands as a testament to the men and women who tended the lights many years ago and to the countless volunteers and workers who have labored so hard to preserve them. | What it's like to own a lighthouse

Elk Neck State Park

4395 Turkey Point Rd., North East, MD 21901  | 410-287-5333  |  Web site »

The 35-foot-tall tower was built in 1833 to direct ships along the Elk River toward the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Perched atop a 100-foot cliff, the lighthouse remains the highest beacon on the bay. Its light can be seen for 13 miles.

Another thing that sets Turkey Point apart is that four of the keepers were women, which was remarkable for an era when the physical labor and extreme isolation were seen as conditions only tolerable for a man.

The last keeper, Fannie Mae Salter, was appointed after the death of her husband in 1925. In her early 40s, she initially was told she was too old for the job. It wasn't until President Calvin Coolidge stepped in that Salter was allowed to stay. She went on to serve until her retirement in the late 1940s -- a feat that earned her the title of last civilian female keeper in the country.

The light was automated in 1948 and now runs completely on solar energy. In the spring of 2007 the stairs were rebuilt in the same way they were in 1833, and visitors can climb to the top for a spectacular view.

Getting there: There are two paths that run from the parking area to the lighthouse. A shady gravel path meanders through the woods, and another slightly more strenuous path hugs the water. Regardless of which one you choose, it is a little more than a mile and a half round trip. Flip-flops are discouraged.

Interesting fact: The cliffs around the lighthouse appeared in Clint Eastwood's 1997 film "Absolute Power."

Make a day of it: The state park includes a beach and swimming area. The nearby town of North East is home to the Upper Bay Museum, which explores the area's maritime heritage.


Concord Point Lighthouse

100 Lafayette St., Havre de Grace, MD 21078  | 410-939-3213  |  Web site »

This 36-foot-tall tower of granite, with three-foot-thick walls at its base to the 27 steps in the spiral staircase, is not the quaint striped beacon many think of when they romantically picture a lighthouse. But it's absolutely worth a visit.

The tower was built by John Donahoo, a legend among Chesapeake Bay lighthouse lovers: He is responsible for building 12 lighthouses on the bay, including Concord Point in his home town of Havre de Grace in 1827. His lighthouse was built to mark the entrance to the Susquehanna River.

Despite Donahoo's request to be keeper, the honor went to War of 1812 hero John O'Neill. The responsibility was kept within the family with O'Neill's son, daughter-in-law, grandson and great-grandson each tending the light.

The keepers' residence, 200 feet from the tower, went through several reincarnations during its history, including stints as a bar and restaurant. It went through a renovation in 1990 to restore it to its 1884 glory and now serves as a museum and gift shop.

Interesting fact: The current light comes from a 100-watt bulb.

Make a day of it: Havre de Grace is home to maritime and decoy museums and ample shopping opportunities.


Seven Foot Lighthouse

S. President Street and Eastern Avenue, Pier 5, Baltimore, MD 21202  | 410-539-1797  |  Web site »

Seven Foot Knoll is a screw-pile lighthouse, meaning it was suspended above water on long cast-iron pilings screwed into the sea floor. It was built from 1855 to 1856 at the mouth of the Patapsco River and named for the shoal that it marked. Approachable only by boat, it also served as a home for the keeper and two assistants.

So how did the bright red, 220-ton circular goliath end up on a pier in Baltimore?

After the light was automated in the late 1940s, the structure succumbed to the elements and was retired. The Coast Guard donated the structure to the city, and in 1988, over the course of two days, Seven Foot Knoll was moved to its present location.

Original features have been preserved, while interpretive exhibits have been added. Visitors can climb to the watch room (ladder access to the beacon is restricted) and take in a view that includes Federal Hill, the Domino Sugar factory and boats docked in the harbor.


Lighthouse and Lightship 116 Chesapeake

E. Pratt Street and S. Gay Street, Pier 3, Baltimore, MD 21202  | 410-539-1797  |  Web site »

The Lightship Chesapeake is docked at pier 3, near the Seven-Foot Knoll lighthouse. First used in 1930, the ship was a movable aide used to direct maritime traffic everywhere from Fenwick Island Shoal in Delaware to the waters off Cape Henry. During World War II it aided in the war effort off the Cape Cod Canal. It was decommissioned and since 1971 has served as a floating museum.

Interesting fact: The lightship has a gallery of photographs of dogs that served as mascots on Navy and Coast Guard ships from the 1880s through the 1950s.

Make a day of it: Baltimore's harbor is home to other historic military vessels, including the USS Constellation, USCGC Taney and USS Torsk.


Fort Washington Park

13551 Fort Washington Rd., Fort Washington, MD 20744  | 301-763-4600  |  Web site »

It is easy to overlook the squat, 32-foot-tall wooden tower on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River. One's eye naturally goes toward the mammoth fort atop the hill looming behind it.

History views the structure in a similar light.

George Washington picked the location as a prime spot for a fort to protect the fledgling nation's capital. Subsequent forts were built around the same spot to reflect military advancements and to protect the city.

But as maritime traffic along the Potomac River increased and the size of ships grew during the 1800s, a light was needed to direct ships away from shallow water near the shore.

Before a beacon was installed, the military was calling the shots. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis approved the light so long as it was "not within any of the fortifications; and the light keeper shall be subordinate to the military command." Two other beacons preceded the one that visitors see today.

Interesting fact: The first beacon was an 18-1/2-foot-tall post with a light on it, installed in 1857.

Make a day of it: Tour the fort and watch artillery demonstrations the first Sunday of every month, April through October.


Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

213 N. Talbot Street, St. Michaels, MD 21663  | 410-745-2916

Hooper Strait lighthouse, now at home on the grounds of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, once guided ships through dangerous waters between Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, 40 miles to the south.

The screw-pile cottage was actually the third light used at that location. Beginning in 1827, lightships were used to direct the boats, and in 1867 the first screw-pile lighthouse was built. That lasted only a decade before icy floes carried it away in January 1877. The keepers nearly went down with the house, evacuating at the last minute on a small boat.

The latest lighthouse, built in 1879, almost met a similar fate. After being automated in 1954, the lighthouse began deteriorating. It was set to be demolished, but the museum rescued it and moved it to the museum in 1966.

Visitors can walk through the six-room house and explore what life was like for a keeper. Children are encouraged to explore and find tidbits of information hidden in everything from empty paint cans to desk drawers to a goose wing.

Interesting fact: Youth groups can spend a night in the lighthouse select Fridays and Saturdays in the spring and fall.

Make a day of it: The museum grounds include a boat yard and exhibits about tugboats, waterfowling, the bay's role in the country's history and oystering.


Cove Point

3500 Lighthouse Blvd., Lusby, MD 20657  | 410-326-2042  |  Web site »

Cove Point is another lighthouse on the bay built by John Donahoo, and, like his structures at Concord Point and Turkey Point, it is a basic white tower with black lantern room.

Built in 1828 to mark the entrance of the Patuxent River, the Cove Point lighthouse has been witness to two interesting pieces of history: the very early introduction of a telephone in 1899 and World War II practice landings and invasions. The keepers even once rescued a drunk man who, after losing the oars to his boat, tried to swim ashore.

From World War II until its automation in 1986, there was enough room for three keepers and their families to live around the lighthouse. The duplex is undergoing renovation and is scheduled to reopen for rentals soon.

Interesting fact: The light is the oldest continuously operated light in the state of Maryland.

Make a day of it: Visit the nearby Drum Point Lighthouse and the Calvert Marine Museum.


Calvert Marine Museum

14200 Solomons Island Rd., Solomons, MD 20688  | 410-326-2042  |  Web site »

At one point in time, you would have no trouble finding a screw-pile lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay -- 45 dotted the waterway. Now if you want to see one up close you need to visit Drum Point at the Calvert Marine Museum.

Like its screw-pile brother, Seven Foot Knoll in Baltimore, Drum Point fell into disrepair after it was decommissioned but was later rescued and relocated. In Drum Point's case, the 1883 lighthouse was originally at the entrance to the Patuxent River and was moved to the grounds of the Calvert Marine Museum in 1975, 13 years after it was decommissioned.

Based on lighthouse logs from 1883 to 1943 kept at the National Archives, the museum was able to lovingly restore the building to its early 20th-century grandeur, and visitors can walk through it.

Interesting fact: What passed for bathrooms on lighthouses like Drum Point were outhouselike structures that opened up over the water.

Make a day of it: Explore the museum and visit the nearby Cove Point lighthouse.


Piney Point Lighthouse Museum and Historic Park

44720 Lighthouse Rd., Piney Point, MD 20674  | 301-994-1471  |  Web site »

When most people think of lighthouses, they think of lonely towers isolated by water and rocks.

Not so with Piney Point, on the Potomac River. It was once a popular resort area for wealthy Washingtonians, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who would ride down on his yacht to go fishing. With amazing views of the water and sandy beaches, it remains a popular spot for vacationers.

The lighthouse was in use from 1836 until 1964, and in 2002 it opened to the public as part of the museum. The museum's historic park interprets the history of St. Mary's County with exhibits about Dory boats, World War II torpedoes and a separate building dedicated to a Potomac River Maritime exhibit.

Interesting fact: There is a sunken U-1105 offshore, marked by a buoy. One of the rooms in the museum is dedicated to the German submarine, which the United States claimed after World War II.

Make a day of it: Hop on a water taxi at the St. Clement's Island Museum to visit Maryland's first colonial landing spot.


Point Lookout State Park

11175 Point Lookout Rd., Scotland, MD 20687  | 301-872-5688  |  Web site »

While the Civil War played an important part in the history of many lighthouses along the Chesapeake Bay, perhaps none was more greatly affected by the conflict than Point Lookout.

The lighthouse was built in 1830, and during the Civil War, the Union used the land around it as a Confederate prison. It is estimated that 52,000 prisoners were kept there and more than 3,300 died.

The lighthouse keeper during the war had Southern leanings, and it is noted in logs that she was reprimanded at least once for aiding the South. It isn't clear what she did, but she was allowed to remain in her position.

The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1966, and for a while the duplex was rented as a home. After the last resident moved out in 1981, the lighthouse suffered from vandalism and neglect.

In 2006, preservation efforts began with the hopes of restoring the lighthouse to its last renovation in 1927. Visitors can take a self-guided tour during open houses, explore the unfurnished rooms and read interpretive posters. One of the former keeper's daughters, who grew up in the house, often visits during open houses to share her experiences during the '40s and '50s.

Interesting fact: Point Lookout is believed to be haunted. Former residents and visitors have reported hearing footsteps, smelling a strange odor in one room and hearing disembodied voices saying "abandon" and "get out."

Make a day of it: Bring a tent, bathing suit and fishing rod. The park features a campground and beach and is a popular spot for catching fish.


Assateague Island and Chincoteague Beaches

8231 Beach Rd., Chincoteague, VA 23336  | 757-336-3696  |  Web site »

Assateague Island is perhaps best known for its annual wild pony swim and as the setting of Marguerite Henry's novel "Misty of Chincoteague."

But a close second might be its iconic red-and-white striped lighthouse.

The 142-foot-tall tower was built in 1867 to warn ships away from the dangerous shore between the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. About seven years ago it opened to the public for climbing, and when the weather is especially nice a line forms out the door. Visitors are advised to come early and wear tennis shoes.

The parking lot is a short, shady walk from the lighthouse, and then the climb is 175 steps. There is a landing with a window every 25 steps just in case you need a break.

Also be sure to visit the oil shed next door to the house, where artists take residence and display their work. The band Three Sheets occasionally performs sea shanties.

Interesting fact: During the Civil War, the island sided with the north in order to continue selling seafood to Union states. The soldiers protected the light.

Make a day of it: Spread your towel on the beach or rent a bike and pedal around town.

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