Beacons of Coastal History

Sunday, May 17, 2009

WHY: An illuminating ship, step master and a haunted lighthouse.

HOW FAR: About 160 miles from start to finish.

This spring, head for the light . . . houses.

After hibernating during the colder months, Maryland's lighthouses are opening their doors to let in some fresh air and the visiting public. Fans of maritime history and structures that shine day and night can view two dozen light stations sprinkled along more than 7,000 miles of coastline. The majority still operate, casting their long, white light across the waters of the Chesapeake and assorted bays and rivers.

"People visit the lighthouses for the architecture, and for photo ops, and especially for the history," says Karen Rosage, a coordinator at the Chesapeake chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, adding, "The reason why Maryland is such a great lighthouse state is because we have so many different varieties."

The lifesaving structures come in myriad shapes and styles: lamps on ships, vertiginous towers, boxy houses. The oldest was constructed in 1825 on Pooles Island, in the northwest section of the upper Chesapeake. John Donahoo, one of two developers on the project, went on to become a prolific lighthouse builder during the early 19th century; for example, the granite tower in Havre de Grace, where he is buried, is his creation. Donahoo specialized in conical towers of brick and stone, yet Maryland is equally well known for the screwpile light station, an offshore beacon built on an underwater platform that was screwed to rocks and sandy shoals, paradoxically the main hazards of ship navigation. The screwpile, as well as the more common caisson, resemble cottages topped with cupolas containing powerful lamps and glass or acrylic lenses.

To be sure, part of the allure of lighthouses are the accompanying stories that often contain a touch of romance, mystery or, in one case, female empowerment. Turkey Point Light Station was tended by more women than any other lighthouse on the Chesapeake, with Fannie Mae Salter serving as keeper from 1925 to 1947, when the light was automated. For a spine tingle, Point Lookout Lighthouse is said to be haunted by the ghosts of Confederate soldiers who died in a Civil War POW camp that once occupied the same parcel.

Every year, viewing lighthouses (10 sites in all) turns into a marathon sport with the Maryland Lighthouse Challenge, a two-day driving tour scheduled for September. With lighthouse season upon us, now is the perfect time to start training, one lighthouse step at a time.

-- Ben Chapman

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