It’s hard to remain standing in one place for 141 years. Strong wind and waves could knock you down. You could float away on an ice floe. Your metal beams could rust and your screwpiles could pull away from the ground beneath you. Or, in the end, someone could take pity on you and move you to a nice safe museum.
But if you happen to be the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, you’ve made it. You’ve stood for 141 years at the mouth of the South River on the Chesapeake Bay. And you’ve done your job well, saving lives and vessels with your foghorn and your flashing light. There you stand, pretty as a picture, a mile and a half offshore, where your beam welcomes mariners eleven miles away.
The 43-foot high Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is an active Coast Guard navigation aid marking the long underwater sandbar, or shoal, that separates the South River from the Severn River. It is the only screwpile light on the Chesapeake Bay that still stands in its original location. The National Historic Landmark is an oft-photographed icon, a treasured symbol of the Chesapeake, and a mesmerizing tourist destination.
Take a Tour of the Lighthouse Interior
You can visit this hexagonal white cottage with its red roof, green shutters, and picturesque wooden railings. Two-hour tours depart by boat from the Annapolis Maritime Museum on Eastport’s Back Creek. Tours are available on summer Saturdays for $70 per person.
Step aboard the vessel Sharps Island for the thirty-minute boat ride southward from Annapolis. Surrounded by water and accessible only by boat, the picturesque lighthouse on spider legs glints white in the sun as the tour boat approaches.
Arriving at the lighthouse, you’ll reveal your fitness level as you disembark and climb up long ladders and through small hatches to see the cottage interior. As the tour operators say, if you hit your head on one of the metal tie-rods supporting the structure, the tie-rod will win. The tour is not for the feeble or faint of heart. The most common cause of death for lighthouse keepers in the old days was an accidental fall through an open hatch. Ouch.
For the hearty who make it into the lighthouse, a knowledgeable lighthouse tour docent describes the history of the light, the life of a light keeper, and the role of our modern-day Coast Guard. Historically significant eras are depicted in the lighthouse room restorations. The front parlor displays Victorian life, the kitchen is done in early 1900s style, and a converted bedroom is the 1970s Coast Guard navigation room. Manned day and night by the Coast Guard until 1986, Thomas Point was the last Chesapeake lighthouse to be fully automated.
Being a lighthouse keeper in any era was a lonely and dangerous job. Light keepers stayed in the lighthouse without TV or electronics for weeks on end in every kind of weather. In 1903, the assistant light keeper disappeared without a trace. And in 1905, another resident light keeper wrote of his assistant keeper, "I am sorry to have to report that the assistant … is losing his mind and I cannot trust him with the light."
More Cruises to the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse
If you’d feel better viewing the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse from a short distance, you can always try a lighthouse cruise with Cruises on the Bay by Watermark or with Schooner Woodwind Sailing Cruises. Watermark has two lighthouse cruise choices, with the first option taking you on a 90-minute cruise to Thomas Point and the second 2.5 hour option getting you up close to three lighthouses: Thomas Point, Sandy Point Shoal Light, and Baltimore Harbor Light. An interpreter dressed as a turn-of-the-century lighthouse keeper entertains you with humorous stories about lighthouse history.
On the Schooner Woodwind cruise, you can sail by the three lighthouses aboard the 74-foot wooden sailboat. A guest lecturer from the U.S. Lighthouse Society Chesapeake Chapter rides along to tell you about lighthouse history.
Three Lighthouses Marked this Shoal
The Thomas Point structure you’re viewing is the third lighthouse to mark Thomas Point. The first was a thirty-foot stone tower and cottage built in 1825 on a bank overlooking the Chesapeake. Erosion took its toll, and by 1838 the water was about to engulf the tower.
In 1840, a second tower was built just behind the keeper’s dwelling using stone from the original tower. The new tower’s inadequacy for marking the troublesome shoal became apparent by 1872.
By this time, the screwpile design originally developed in England was becoming a preferred method for constructing navigation aids on previously inaccessible shoals. Screwpiles are broad spiraled flanges that allow cast iron moorings to be screwed into the sandy bay bottom. They were the state-of-the art hope for resisting the ever-threatening ice floes and erosion that have destroyed so many Chesapeake lighthouses. And, yes, the Bay did freeze over in past decades.
Besides strong storms and heavy ice, the Bay’s extensive shoals are the greatest obstacle to safe navigation. The screwpile design provided opportunities to mark these shoals at their underwater extremes where it mattered most for shipping. They became especially popular after the Civil War when the Lighthouse Board adopted a policy to replace manned light ships with screwpile lighthouses. Before the advent of gasoline power, the piles were “screwed in” using the work power of mules or horses circling the pilings on floating barges.
If you’re fascinated by lighthouses and their histories, then head on out to see for yourself. Thanks to the hard work of many dedicated volunteers, government professionals, and lighthouse lovers, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse stands ready to greet you. We’ll keep the light on for you!
Photos courtesy of Ann Powell, feature image courtesy of Visit Annapolis