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Chesapeake Lighthouses- Landmarks on shore and offshore

The Thomas Point Shoal lighthouse made some headlines in Chesapeake publications last year when it went up for auction. As charming- or unappealing, depending on your interest in money pits- as the story goes, recent transfers of lighthouse ownership by the federal government over the past 20 years have been an increasingly common opportunity. The Thomas Point Shoal was not the first, nor will it likely be the last to change hands in the Chesapeake, as the need for them as navigational aids dwindles.

Smith Point Lighthouse

Just like the Chesapeake itself, Chesapeake lighthouse are unique in just how heterogenous they are. From small riverside lights to towering harbor beacons, they come in many shapes and sizes. Some stand on the shore in waterfront towns, while some mark sandy shoals a few miles out in the middle of the bay. And again, like the Chesapeake itself, we all have that special place we identify as our own.

By some estimates, over 80 lighthouses once dotted shorelines and shoals up and down the Chesapeake. In my mind, what makes the story of Chesapeake Lighthouses so unique is the number of them built off the shore itself. Early engineers dreamt up impressive solutions for dealing with the shifting, often unpredictable and soft bottom of the shallow Chesapeake Bay. Lighthouse construction boomed across the 1800’s and into the 1900’s before being replaced by more modern navigational methods and automation. Unfortunately that early ingenuity in offshore lighthouse construction hasn’t passed the test of time. The number of lighthouses still standing in the Chesapeake is less than half of what it once was, and the number still standing in their original locations is smaller still.

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching the lighthouses of the Chesapeake as a part of the latest One Hundred Shores initiative. Much of the research has come through publications and books from the last part of the 20th century, as well as from lighthouse societies which maintain surprisingly accurate records of these iconic structures found across our coasts and much of the Great Lakes as well.

Which makes the story of these lighthouses, like so many other stories in the watershed, a story of the changing Chesapeake. Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be sharing with you stories and histories of these lighthouses while traveling to them for the One Hundred Shores initiative. As a primer, we’ll start with a brief overview of the main styles of lighthouses we’ll be exploring.

Screwpile Lighthouse

Some might argue the screwpile is the most iconic lighthouse construction in the Chesapeake. Original screwpile lights or replicas can be found at many museums and education centers across The Bay, and often serve as icons or symbols for regions and organizations as well. The well-known Thomas Point Shoal, the Hooper Strait Light at Chesapeake Maritime Museum and the Drum Point Liight at Calvert Marine museum are a few of the remaining originals.

Piles refer to the many structural elements driven down into the substrate which, with an open skeletal structure, allowed waves to pass through the foundation as opposed to smashing against it relentlessly. The “Screw”pile specifically referred to the method in which the piles were “screwed” into the substrate as opposed to pounding them straight in, as is common with dock pilings. This was the common lighthouse construction for offshore lights from the mid-1800’s through into the 1900’s.

Caisson Style

Sturdier than the Screwpile, A caisson style light consists of a large cast cylinder foundation sunk into the sea floor (often pneumatically). The cylinder is filled with rock or often concrete, creating a very stable foundation even in heavy waves, ice, or shifting bottom. Many of the commonly seen lighthouses along the western shore of the Chesapeake have survived as caisson style lights, including Hooper Island, Point No Point, and Sandy Point Shoal. While by no means luxurious, the recent trend of private lighthouse ownership in the area has been for caisson style lighthouses.

Baltimore Harbor Light, via National Archives/ NPS

Masonry Tower

The iconic shoreside lighthouse, often gracefully tapering upward to the light itself. Interestingly the span of Chesapeake lighthouses is anchored from north to south with two iconic masonry tower lighthouses. To the north, Concord Point Lighthouse is the centerpiece of the Havre de Grace public waterfront. To the south, Cape Henry Light is one of the first symbols marking the entrance of the Chesapeake near Virginia Beach, and tells an early American story of civil engineering in itself.

Turkey Point Lighthouse, Elk Neck, Maryland

Looking for more Lighthouse Love? Get the One Hundred Shores Shore Stories Newsletter in your inbox. Or, get out there and find your nearest light!

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