Rebuilt Lighthouse To Crown St. Clement's

(St. Clements Island-potomac River Museum)
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

The lighthouse that guided ships safely past St. Clement's Island in the Potomac River for more than 80 years will rise from the island's shore once again, half a century after it burned to the ground.

Two barges hauled building materials to St. Clement's Island yesterday so construction crews can begin rebuilding the historic structure at the island's southern tip. The lighthouse will be a replica of the original, which operated on the "Birthplace of Maryland" from 1851 through 1932 and burned down in a mysterious fire in 1956.

Dick Gass, president of the St. Clement's Hundred, the nonprofit group that oversees preservation of the island and the rebuilding of the lighthouse, said the only thing different about the new landmark will be its location -- about 150 yards away from the original site, which has been undermined by erosion. The new lighthouse is scheduled to be completed this summer, he said.

"It will be literally identical because we were able to find the original request for bidding from the 1820s with every single detail included," Gass said. "There's not much mystery here like in St. Mary's City, where you have to try to figure out what these buildings looked like." St. Clement's Island was the site of the first landing by European colonists in Maryland.

The St. Clement's Hundred, which began as a spinoff of the local 7th District Optimist Club, started with a mission of planting flowers and picking up trash on the island. When Josephine Mattingly, the granddaughter of the longest-serving lighthouse keeper on the island, died, she left $5,000 -- half her assets -- to the group.

"We talked about a park bench or planting a tree with the money," Gass said. "It just kind of grew to the point that we were now looking at this huge project."

The plan to rebuild the lighthouse also came with a huge price tag, especially compared with the $3,500 it cost in the mid-1800s. The project's contractor estimated it will cost about $600,000, which will be funded through a combination of county, state and privately raised money.

The financial hurdle was so great that Gass said he initially was not sure the lighthouse could be rebuilt.

"We've had our doubting Thomases that we could actually do it, including yours truly," he laughed. "I never envisioned the number of issues that had to be overcome; I counted 15 bureaucracies involved."

The project finally started to come together when Don Cropp, a general contractor with Colony Builders, volunteered to help. Cropp attended a lighthouse conference to learn about historically accurate building materials and found other people who would donate time and materials to keep costs down, said Sam Brown, a member of the St. Clement's Hundred.

Once completed, the lighthouse could be a major source of revenue for the county, Gass and others said. Piney Point Lighthouse a few miles south draws 8,000 visitors a year, and the Cove Point and Drum Point lighthouses in Solomons are also popular tourist attractions.

Deborah Pence, director of the St. Clement's Island-Potomac River Museum, said the lighthouse will help attract more people to the museum, which operates a water taxi between the island and the mainland.

"Having a physical structure that represents an important part of the history of the island will be great for us," Pence said. "It gives us another teaching and tourism opportunity."

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