Although Maryland’s historic 1908 Baltimore Harbor Lighthouse is now privately owned and is being lovingly restored, throughout its wide and varied history it was also once America’s only nuclear powered lighthouse.
In the 1960s nuclear age, it is somewhat unclear why the Baltimore Harbor Lighthouse was chosen as the government’s experiment to use nuclear power to maintain a light in a virtually abandoned and automated lighthouse. Perhaps officials determined that the thick walls of what was one of the most expensive and difficult lighthouses to ever be built and its remote location out in the water was the safest place for an atomic generator to be installed, especially if something should go wrong.
Fortunately, nothing did go wrong and the brick walls of the lighthouse do not light up, but the nuclear experiment, which cost gigantic sums of money to institute, was abandoned because of environmental concerns and yes, because the giant sums of money that it was supposed to save never materialized.
The federal government probably made a wise decision to finally get rid of the Baltimore Lighthouse that literally had been a financial drain on our nation’s treasury since the day it was first proposed in 1890. When the contractor hired to build the lighthouse abandoned what he felt was becoming an impossible project, the government filed a lawsuit that forced the insurance company that had bonded the contractor to finish building the lighthouse. By the time the Baltimore lighthouse was first lit in 1908, its cost overruns were tremendous, but the government had a first class lighthouse that offered tolerable, but very comfortable, living conditions for its keepers. But it was an expensive undertaking for a lighthouse that only used a 4th order Fresnel lens. In 1923 the Lighthouse Service was able to cut its expenses when they removed its last keeper.
In the new nuclear age some government officials believed that the tremendous cost of the nuclear experiment, which would keep the automated lighthouse lighted for ten years without maintenance, would be worth the risk and cost. But, the Baltimore Light, this time with its nuclear experiment was again a drain on finances. The project was abandoned in two years, and the nuclear power was replaced by solar power to now light a 300mm modern optic.
Unattended lighthouses can often cost more money than if a keeper had remained to care for the lighthouse and Baltimore Lighthouse was no exception. Vandals had a heyday. They shot out the windows, leaving the structure open to the elements and birds. Water soon seeped in, causing extensive damage, and bird nests and guano filled the structure. Vandals smashed in the wooden door and reportedly tried unsuccessfully to burn the interior of the lighthouse. None of this was an easy feat, the vandals had to take a boat out to the lighthouse and then climb the ladder. Perhaps they even brought axes or other tools with them to try and break in the door.
To better protect the lighthouse, the Coast Guard installed a steel door, bricked up the lower windows, installed acrylic glass in the lantern room, replaced a wooden floor with a steel floor, and shortened the access ladder so that it was beyond the normal reach of humans. In 1989 and 1990 other major repairs were made to the structure, and in 1998 the Coast Guard repainted the structure.
When the government offered the Baltimore Lighthouse for free to any nonprofit or community that might want it, none stepped forward. So in 2006 the government put the lighthouse up for sale at auction. The new owners, four couples, paid $260,000 for the right to rehabilitate and enjoy the lighthouse. One thing is for sure; they now own an amazing slice of history with a million dollar view, something the rest of us can only dream about. But the new owners have also inherited the expenses and hard work that is needed to restore the lighthouse, something that most people would shy away from. You can follow their progress at www.baltimorelight.org.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2013 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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