A 'Castle' of Their Own

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005

Behind them stretched the long, foamy "V" carved in the frigid water by the Coast Guard work boat, and the weekend drive from the Richmond airport, and the trip from Minnesota, and the three kids and the family business back home in Winona, a thousand miles away.

Ahead in the distance was Dave McNally's adventure, spotted on the horizon maybe eight miles off. "See the flash?" he said. "There! See it?"

There, indeed, was the tiny wink of the Smith Point Lighthouse at the mouth of the Potomac River.

McNally hurried out of the cabin to his wife, Teri, standing on the wind-blown deck. There it was: the squat, ramshackle, guano-stained, century-old brick octagonal tower with a crooked outdoor privy and 24-hour foghorn. Their lighthouse.

Not many people in Winona probably knew this, but the McNallys had just bought a lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay. Even though neither one had seen it in person before. Or been on the bay before. Or been to Virginia before.

Actually, it was Dave who bought it.

He saw it in a federal online auction in October and picked it up for $170,000. Having grown up near the Mississippi River in Minnesota, he has been a boater for years and has always loved lighthouses. He had mentioned it to Teri: "I'm thinking about buying a lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay."

"Oh, yeah," she thought. Dave got these crazy ideas. "Here goes another one."

But when he took her to dinner one night at the Hillside Fish House -- across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin -- and started spreading lighthouse pictures on the table, she thought, "Oh, my God, this guy's really serious about this."

It was ridiculous, she thought: "What do you do with a lighthouse?" Plus, they lived in Minnesota. Plus, this lighthouse was out in the water. "Where's the land?" she asked.

"There isn't any land," he said.

Then she realized: "Dave. You want to do this." Yeah, he said, he did.

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