The Sound of Light

The offshore working lighthouses along the Chesapeake Bay provide sights and sounds unique to the region.
By Patricia E. Dempsey
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sailing on a clear evening near Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse in 1980, you might have heard "The Gong Show" wafting out from the lightkeeper's quarters. The show was a favorite of lightkeeper Joe Brosius, a young Coast Guard recruit who was stationed at Thomas Point with a singular mission: "to keep the light on." This was in the waning days of the Coast Guard's manning of the bay's lighthouses; by 1986, all of the Chesapeake's lighthouses were automated, with Thomas Point being the last to make the switch. Today, this lighthouse, much admired for its design -- a red-roofed, white-clapboard cottage perched near the mouth of the South River -- has opened its door so that curious travelers like me can go inside.

I hoist myself up through the hatch. Standing on the lighthouse deck, it's hard to imagine that Brosius could hear the sound of his own voice, much less a television. A 15-knot wind whips around me. Waves smash from all directions against the rocks stacked high to buttress the "spider legs" of the lighthouse's screw-pile design -- cast-iron tie rods crisscross to support the 100-year-old cottage, anchored on pilings that have been driven deep into the soft bottom. The deck creaks; whitecaps slap, sending plumes of water into the air. I can barely hear the humming chug of a tug nosing a barge up the bay.

Some 30 yards beyond the rocks, waves slop across a large cast-iron wedge shaped like a harpoon head. This icebreaker points like a spear in the direction of tidal ice floes. In 1877, ice plowed into the Thomas Point lighthouse, shaking the structure, tipping over the lantern, spilling 200 gallons of oil. The keeper, a Civil War veteran, managed to escape in a rowboat. The lighthouse was repaired, and the icebreaker added, but freezing temperatures put even a modern keeper on edge. Brosius, now 50, who spoke to me from his home in North Carolina, remembers it well: "I could only go outside to check the ice for a little while. I had a small heater inside, but in a 100-year-old building, how warm could it get? So I was cold, hearing ice piling up on the rocks because of the tides pushing it. When the tide was going out, the ice was piling up from the north; when the tide came in, it piled up from the south. Yeah, there was an icebreaker, but still you worried."

Before 1939, when the Coast Guard began managing the nation's lighthouses, nearly half of a keeper's time was spent cleaning, polishing, scraping and painting. He or she wiped soot and grime off the lanterns, a residue of the whale and porpoise oil, and in later years kerosene, that lit them. The keeper also waged battle against the salt spray that corroded brass and paint and the gull guano that threatened the only source of potable water -- rain from the roof collected in a cistern. By the time Brosius was stationed at Thomas Point, the workload had softened considerably. The Coast Guard delivered fresh water in tanks, so Brosius had to scrub gull guano from the roof only when the clean water supply ran low. Also, the electric lanterns burned clean. Brosius, who shared his station with another keeper ("He was a biker and hated it; he missed riding the open roads"), says he spent about four hours during his solitary 12-hour watch cleaning -- mostly dusting the light and wiping the salt spray off the windows in the lantern room.

"I'd start my watch at midnight and by morning be in the lantern tower, watching the sunrise and reading, later listening to music on my eight-track. Jimmy Buffett's 'Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes' was the soundtrack of my life."

The wind gusts and flips off my visor as I stand on the deck watching the last two in our group climb up. We climbed from the boat to the dock to the supply platform beneath the lighthouse, then up the ladder onto this wooden deck that circles the hexagonal cottage.

"Does this lighthouse have a foghorn?" a huffing middle-aged woman asks, her bright-red hooded head rising up through the deck's hatch. "Will we get to hear it?" Our docent is out of earshot, but I'm eager for his answer -- after all, the foghorn is why I am here. As I grew up on a beach about a mile north of Thomas Point, the foghorn bellowed year-round. It still does.

MMuuu-o-o-o. That sound. I close my eyes and imagine the foghorn blasting through the cottage, causing it to rattle and shimmy like Jell-O or a vase teetering in an earthquake. Brosius told me he learned to sleep through it. "Loud. Loud. It was loud. I could feel it -- the sound. Being so old, the whole structure would shake and vibrate. But I learned to sleep through the foghorn when I was off my watch. You get used to it."

I never got used to it. Never slept through it, even almost a mile away. Its low hooting traveled to my bedroom window, letting me know the fog had drifted in thick as cream. The foghorn sounded a warning to mariners. Stay away. Danger. But to me it beckoned.

I've wanted to perch on the top floor of this lighthouse since I was a kid. I imagined that the foghorn was manned by a troll-like keeper with sinewy, tattooed arms and unsavory sea stories, but by the time I'd grown up, I discovered that the keepers were long gone, replaced by automated lights and foghorns. Yet the mystique of this lighthouse lingered.

As a kid, I visited lighthouses on land. We drove to lighthouses near Chincoteague, Va., and St. Michaels, but Thomas Point light, a mile and a half offshore amid strong currents, was unlike the lights on land: It had a foghorn. And by the time I was a young teen in the early 70s, I could try to travel there on my own, without parents at the helm. I taped nautical charts on the walls, filled my room with the clove scent of permanent markers circling lighthouses that line the bay's shipping channels, tracing a route to Thomas Point light. My head was full of tales from books and teachers who told me about Chesapeake lighthouses -- an alleged murder at Holland Island Bar Lighthouse in the 1930s linked to rumrunners; paranormal sounds and sights at Point Lookout light, which is on the grounds of a Civil War prison; another, Turkey Point light, manned by a woman; another wracked by fuel tank explosions. Fog and heavy weather sometimes sent stranded boaters banging on our back door for help; as rain dripped from their neon yellow slickers, they'd tell of a craft they saw scuttled -- "near Thomas Point." I wanted to join the rescue.

I was determined to cross the water to get there. I made many attempts: A homemade raft I launched early one spring made it several yards beyond a red channel marker, then sank. The following summer, my brother got his boater's license and skiff, and we circled a "spider buoy," the remains of a lighthouse that once marked Greenbury Point Shoal, but we never ventured into the deep shipping channels, wary of the rolling wakes of cruise ships, tankers and barges. We never went that extra mile south into the whipping wind to Thomas Point light, where, in our inexperienced hands, we were sure the skiff's hull would bob in the breaking waves and smack against the rocks. I just couldn't get close enough.


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company