Beacons of the Bay
Lighthouses illuminating the region’s maritime history
Writer: Mikaela Clark; Summer 2021
Southern Maryland shores were once lit by 17 lighthouses that guided ships around shoals and through storms while navigating the waters of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Six of these lighthouses, or replicas, still stand as beacons of local maritime history.
The Piney Point Lighthouse in St. Mary’s County was the first lighthouse constructed on the Potomac River; it was completed in 1836.
John Donahoo, a prominent lighthouse builder based in Havre de Grace constructed the Piney Point Lighthouse (and later the Blackistone, Cove Point and Point Lookout lighthouses) to replace a light ship and guide mariners around Piney Point and Ragged Point.
As was the case with many of the local lighthouses, Piney Point was originally lit by oil lamps, replaced by a fifth-order Fresnel lens, eventually automated, and then deactivated as better warning systems became available.
While most of these historic lighthouses no longer serve an active role in navigation, two remain important to passing ships. Point No Point Lighthouse serves as a boundary marker for the U.S. Navy’s aerial firing range, and Cove Point Lighthouse serves as the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay.
Lighthouse keepers were a hearty lot.
The bay would often freeze around Point No Point Lighthouse which was built in 1905 two miles offshore and accessible only by water. William Yeatman Jr. was known to build sleighs to cross the frozen waters to restock provisions — one particularly brutal winter he ran out of food after being stranded for a month.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers raided Blackistone Lighthouse on what is now called St. Clement’s Island. After confiscating the oil, the soldiers threatened to set fire to the lighthouse, but keeper Jerome McWilliam’s wife was due to give birth any day, and he was able to persuade the marauders that their actions could put their lives at risk.
The Confederate general decided instead to make off with the stolen oil and destroy the lantern but left the keeper’s family unscathed.
At Cove Point Lighthouse (built in 1828), the keepers had to be vigilant about manually winding a weight-driven clockwork mechanical bell to sound the fog signal round the clock. And though the lighthouse was a favorite station for keepers with families, changes in land mass eventually grew the four-acre parcel to 11 acres — no small feat for a keeper’s family to handle the upkeep!
The keepers at Drum Point Lighthouse kept meticulous logs, many of which are preserved at the National Archives. According to these records, the lighthouse survived being hit by a sloop steered by a drunk crew, an earthquake in 1886, collision with an ice floe in 1895, and in 1933 the waters flooded the lighthouse living quarters — fortunately, keeper John J. Daley was able to safely swim ashore.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Lighthouse keeping was a family business in Southern Maryland; children who grew up living and learning about lighthouse mechanics and care often followed in their parents’ footsteps.
Point Lookout’s first keeper, James Davis, died just three months after taking the job. Daughter Ann Davis assumed his role and his $350 annual salary, becoming the first female keeper at Point Lookout. Davis’ early contract prohibited her from selling liquor; after petitioning to have that clause removed. She went down in history as a well-regarded keeper.
Members of the Yeatman family served as keepers at both Piney Point and Point No Point lighthouses.
Marion Humphries, whose father Loch Humphries, served as Piney Point’s keeper from 1911 to 1912 said his father took the task very seriously, “it was beat into your head that what you were doing was for the protection of the lives of people.”
Southern Maryland’s lighthouses didn’t just serve an important safety role.
Piney Point was popular with high-brow vacationers including Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Monroe, thus earning the moniker “Lighthouse of Presidents.” Dignitaries aren’t the only popular visitors at local lighthouses.
At both Piney Point and Point Lookout lighthouses, paranormal investigators, staff and visitors detail experiences with the ghosts of inhabitants past. During the Civil War, Point Lookout (built in 1830) served as both a military hospital and prisoner of war camp. The conditions were said to be horrid, and to this day some say the souls of thousands of Confederate soldiers haunt the grounds.
To take a step back in time and see what these keepers saw in their lighthouses, grounds and surrounding waters. •
TAKE A TOUR
Visit these websites for the most up-to-date visitor information on visiting local lighthouses.
Drum Point Lighthouse
Cove Point Lighthouse
Piney Point Lighthouse
Point No Point
St Clements Island Lighthouse
National Lighthouse Weekend
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 7-8. 301-769-2222, 301-994-1471
Blackistone Lighthouse in Colton’s Point open house. Tours of the lighthouse, a replica of the original lighthouse that stood at the same location, will be available free of charge. The last boat to St. Clement’s Island will leave at 2 p.m. Museum admission fees apply.
Piney Point Lighthouse Museum in Piney Point free open house. The keeper’s quarters and lighthouse will offer special tours featuring interpreters who depict lightkeeper and his wife, who will tell visitors more about life at the lighthouse.
The official day as designated by Congress, Aug. 7, 1989, is the anniversary of the signing of the act signed in 1789 “for the establishment and support of lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers” and the date of the first commissioned federal lighthouse.
Drum Point Tours
10 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. daily. 410-326-2042
Drum Point Lighthouse in Solomons is open year-round, weather permitting, except for when the museum is closed on certain holidays. Calvert Marine Museum admission fee also allows visitors to tour the lighthouse.
Noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, May-September. 410-326-2042
Cove Point Lighthouse in Lusby is a beautifully restored and re-purposed active lighthouse and keeper’s home that sits on a seven-acre point of land in one of the narrowest parts of the Chesapeake Bay. The keeper’s house can be rented as a vacation home and sleeps up to 16 guests. The grounds and visitors center are open to the public during the summer to enjoy a view of the Calvert Cliffs, explore the base of the lighthouse tower, and learn about the history of the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland Lighthouse Challenge
Sept. 10-11, 2022. Cheslights.org/maryland-lighthouse-challenge/
Ten lighthouses in two days. This event was last held in 2019.
No event scheduled in 2021.