National Archives Photograph 26-LG-25-54; photo by Major Jared Smith, 18 August 1885.
While the Annapolis area is known for its loyal ties to the Navy, there is also a strong connection to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Screwpile lighthouse that sits just off the city's shore. The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, a beacon to Annapolis and the Chesapeake Bay; was originally constructed in 1825 after Congress appropriated the funds for constructing a new Coast Guard station. Not only does the lighthouse give this area our connection to the Coast Guard, but also to the national effort to preserve and acknowledge the importance of lighthouses in our history.
The U.S. Coast Guard patrolling the seas. Photo courtesy of Brook Ondich, MKC, USCG Ret.
Founding the U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard is celebrating its 230th birthday this year! It was founded on August 4th, 1790 amidst our young nation's need to tackle international trade risks such as tariff and trade laws, smuggling, and of course enacting humanitarian efforts for mariners in distress off shore. While it's the smallest of the five armed forces, their mission and scope aides not only in the mitigation of these concerns, but also in the protection of the public, the environment, and the U.S. investment in international connections via the sea.
The Thomas Point Lighthouse, which has served as a Coast Guard station since its founding, has seen its fair share of troubles over the years. Assumed to be constructed using granite from Port Deposit, MD; this lighthouse was originally built on shore. However, owing to various issues including erosion and ice damage, it was ultimately relocated in 1875 to an offshore location.
Thomas Point Lighthouse at sunrise. Photo by Harry Fahl.
In its final home, the lighthouse was built as a screw-pile lighthouse. This means the pilings used as the foundation are screwed into the muddy bottom of the Chesapeake—12ft beneath the water. It's situated a mile and a half offshore in the mouth of the South River. Cottage-like in its structure, the operators of the station were able to maintain living quarters in the lighthouse itself.
Not only is this the last screw-pile lighthouse left on the Bay on its original foundation, but by 1964 it was also the last lighthouse in the area to be operated manually. It was not until just over 100 years after it was relocated offshore that the Coast Guard transitioned, fully automating the operations of the lighthouse in 1986.
Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Visit Annapolis.
U.S. Coast Guard Station, Annapolis
At present the, the Annapolis Coast Guard station continues to take advantage of the navigational utility of the Thomas Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse received its National Historic Landmark status in 1999, ensuring that the structure itself would be maintained and that it's legacy could be shared with the public.
In 2004 the City of Annapolis gained ownership of the lighthouse. Partnering with Anne Arundel County, the Annapolis Maritime Museum, and the local chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society; they continue to maintain the structure and offer educational tours. While the interior of the lighthouse is only accessible by tours during the summer, if you are lucky enough to have access to a boat you can admire the historic façade of this structure whenever you please.
U.S. Coast Guard Tall Ship training vessel, Barque Eagle on the Chesapeake Bay. Photo courtesy of David Sites.
While the Coast Guard is celebrating its birthday in August, it's no wonder the unofficial celebration of lighthouses follows directly after. The effort to designate August 7th as National Lighthouse Day has been active since 1989. It was on that day in 1789 that the Act for the Establishment and Support of Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers was passed. Since then, lighthouses have served as an integral part of maritime navigation, safety, and in turn; as an invaluable instrument to agencies such as the Coast Guard.
Interior photos of Thomas Point Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Visit Annapolis.
Historic inner-workings of Thomas Point Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Visit Annapolis.
Anne Arundel County is fortunate to be privy to such an incredible moment in our nation's history. Our city is indeed lucky to have the service of the U.S. Coast Guard and Thomas Point Lighthouse; shining beacons of light on our heritage and the Chesapeake Bay.