Digest>Archives> March 1996

Coast Guard Eyes Lighthouse for Demolition

Officials say, Sharp's Island beacon may cost more than it's worth

By Douglas Hanks III


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The U.S. Coast Guard is considering tearing down Maryland's Sharps Island Lighthouse, saying the tilted historic tower may have outlived its usefulness.

The rugged and rust covered lighthouse was built in 1882 on the now completely eroded Sharp's Island - an eerie reminder of a once vibrant, if remote, stretch of land. Heavy ice during the 1970's shoved the lighthouse tower into a list, and it stands today at about a 20 degree tilt.

The Coast Guard has begun to question whether the unmanned lighthouse, in operation for more than a century, is still needed for navigation on the Chesapeake Bay, said Lt. J.G. Edward Westfall, head of the Fifth Coast Guard District's lighthouse program.

The lighthouse is due for its seven year paint job and maintenance job soon, which typically costs about $8000, Westfall said. The Coast Guard is trying to decide if the beacon is worth the investment.

"Before we do that (work), we want to make sure we're spending the money wisely," Westfall said. "We get into the question of should we maintain something that isn't being used."

The submerged Sharp's Island sits about three miles south of Tilghman Island, near the mouth of the Choptank River, and today is known as a popular fishing spot.

While the tower's leaning has not gotten noticeably worse over the years, a second Coast Guard official said some engineers fear the 54 foot tower could fall completely in the future.

"If any more stress is put on (it), we're afraid it might topple while one of our people is in it," said John Walters, chief of the Coast Guard's planning and waterways management section in the Fifth District.

Lt. j.g. Westfall said safety is not driving the Coast Guard's recent focus on the Sharp's Island Light, which appears stable at least for the near future.

"As far as we can tell, there is no immediate danger" of it falling, he said.

If the Coast Guard does tear down Sharp's Island Light, it will be removing one of about 22 historic lighthouses on the Chesapeake Bay still in working order, according to a Maryland survey.

John Valliant, director of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, said losing the lighthouse would be "a shame" because of its historic value.

"It's not only a part of our heritage, but it's a well known landmark in the Bay. For some it's an icon of a vanishing way of life," he said. "We certainly would like to see it remain where it is."

The Coast Guard is asking public comment on the possible demolition before deciding on the lighthouse's fate. It could just let the lighthouse stand, just turn off the light and stop maintaining the tower, or tear down the entire structure, Walters said.

The lighthouse has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982 according to the Maryland Historic Trust.

F. Ross Holland, one of the nation's leading experts on lighthouses, said Sharp's Island Lighthouse holds little historic value and it might be practical to tear it down soon.

"I'm not sure it would be a great loss if it were taken down. It's a nice old lighthouse, but there is nothing special about it or its history," said Holland, who has written several books on lighthouses and is working on another one about lighthouses on the Chesapeake Bay.

The Sharp's Island Lighthouse is similar in design to the lighthouse at Bloody Point off Kent Island, Holland said, in that they both have a "coffee-pot" shape with a squat base and relatively small tower."

"If one is to be taken away, there would still be one in existence," he said of the two lighthouses.

Holland noted that the lighthouses would pose a navigational hazard should it fall, and that "I suspect it would be better to take it down now, rather than in the future."

"Once composed of 700 acres of woods and farmland, Sharp's Island was home to families in the 1800's and housed a resort through the turn of the century. By the early 1960's, however, this island had washed away, leaving nothing but underwater base for its lighthouse.

"The lighthouse actually is the third built on Sharp's Island. The first, built in 1838, was movable. Even then the island was eroding rapidly and the tower was hauled inland in 1848," said Lillian Wray who is editing Holland's Chesapeake Bay lighthouse book for the Maryland Historical Trust.

That lighthouse was replaced by a cottage style structure in 1866, but it lasted only about 15 years. On February 10, 1881, a powerful ice floe knocked the lighthouse off its foundation and swept it away.

The lighthouse keeper clung to the walls of the up-turned structure, and it eventually moored itself on land. The keeper survived.

Sharp's Island's third lighthouse, the one that stands today, was built the next year. Lighthouse keepers manned it until 1950, when the Coast Guard replaced them with automation.

A white light blinks constantly at the tower's top, alerting boaters to the shallow waters surrounding it. The Coast Guard would have to place something there as a depth warning if the lighthouse were to be dismantled, Walters said.

The public comment period will end this month, Westfall said, and so far, no one has weighed in on the Sharp's Island Light question. But the Maryland Historical Trust will oppose tearing down the lighthouse, an official there said.

Federal law requires government agencies to consult with groups like the trust before demolishing historical structures, but the government is under no obligation to follow the group's advise, said Beth Hannold of the Trust.

"The law does not prevent agencies from going forward with adverse actions (against historical sites) if they insist they must," she said.

Westfall said the Coast Guard would like to hear from any historical organizations interested in moving the lighthouse inland, or, possibly, keeping it where it stands today.

Story courtesy of The Star Democrat, Easton, Maryland

Editor's Note: We thoroughly disagree with F. Ross Holland's statements as they appear in this story. Every lighthouse is important and every lighthouse does have historical significance. We do agree that F. Ross Holland is one of our nations foremost experts on lighthouses and their history, but, we also firmly believe that every lighthouse has historical significance and should be saved. While it may be improbable, every effort should always be made to save every lighthouse. There are some supposed lighthouse people in this country that have advocated saving only one lighthouse of each basic style. We know, we have received letters from them. Lighthouses are a vital link to the maritime past of our nation, and we believe every possible effort should be made to save every lighthouse. In the case of Sharp's Island, it would probably cost the Coast Guard as much money to save the lighthouse as it would to demolish it. If the tower is unsafe where it is we would suggest they take it out of the water and put in on land. If they can't find a local group to maintain it, they can feel free to bring it to Maine, and we would be happy to display it in front of our offices.

If you would like to protest or write any other letters of comment about the possible demolition of Sharp's Island Lighthouse, you can address them to: Commander, U.S. Coast Guard, Fifth District, Federal Building, 431 Crawford Street, Portsmouth, VA 23704-5004.

This story appeared in the March 1996 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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