Today, other than when there’s an Open House or other special event being held, Maryland’s Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse sits quietly, void of human life, as the only remaining screw pile cottage-type lighthouse remaining on its original site in the Chesapeake Bay. Because of this, and for a wide variety of other reasons, the Thomas Point Lighthouse, now a National Historic Landmark, has achieved somewhat of a celebrity status among locals as well as lighthouse aficionados nationwide.
Although the lighthouse was once an active lighthouse station that had its last keepers removed in 1986 when the lighthouse was fully automated, the stories of life at the lighthouse of the many keepers who once lived there, as well as photographs of them, seem to remain, for the most part, somewhat elusive. Even the photographs of the first Thomas Point Lighthouse that was still standing as late as 1894 seem to have disappeared and been lost forever.
By the time the modern era of Coast Guard lighthouse keeping came to Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, modern technical changes made life at the lighthouse much different than the tales of heroism, hardship, and bravery of the old time keepers of the United States Lighthouse Service. Although in the last years, when the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was staffed by modern era Coast Guard keepers and their duties were much different than the keepers of old, it was still an isolated life.
But even in the modern era, someone had to make sure that the light and foghorn were always working and that the station was always in tip top military shape. But, modern technology meant that the two keepers who were always on duty often had lots of spare time on their hands and they had to keep busy to avoid boredom.
Paul Wallace, who was stationed there in the mid-1970s when he was in his early 20s, liked life out there and never minded the two week stints before getting time off on the mainland. He said, “It’s probably the best duty in the Coast Guard. There’s not as much hassle out here.” Although the bell bottom trousers of the time would have fit in with the style of dress at the time and were much different than the uniforms of the old time lighthouse keepers, most of the Coast Guard crew at Thomas Point Shoals Lighthouse preferred a much more casual form of dress, often times wearing cut offs, especially in the summer months when life at the lighthouse was warm. For the most part, life was good at the lighthouse, especially if you liked to fish or eat the fish that would swarm around the base of the lighthouse, which made for easy pickings for the crew, and some mighty tasty meals.
The winter months were the worst for the Coast Guard keepers. It was then that the 100 year old lighthouse really showed its age. Strong storms and heavy waves would cause the lighthouse to vibrate and the cold drafts would tax the heating system. The keepers would be prisoners to their quarters; going outside was unheard of in those conditions.
In the 1970s a local reporter, Michael Hill of the Baltimore Sun, visited the lighthouse and gave a pretty good description of what the interior looked like. He wrote that “Two of the keepers shared a room on the first floor, which also has a kitchen, the head, a storage room with an emergency generator and a large barrel which collects rain from the gutters for use as drinking water and the living room.”
Going on to further describe the first floor he wrote, “It is there that the radio calibration unit, which is what necessitates that the lighthouse be manned, is located. Right next to that is the color television, showing that things have improved since 1929 when President Hoover asked Americans to donate radios to keep lighthouse tenders entertained. The TV and several nearby shelves of books, along with fishing rods, make up the main line of defense against the inevitable boredom that this isolated work brings.
“Upstairs is another bedroom, further storage area and a room for batteries that would power the foghorn in an electrical outage. Up the steep stairs from that is the light itself, its small bulb is centered in the French-made Fresnel lens that magnifies its light through the abstract curves of glass and sends it out every few seconds through the six sides of the cupola to the bay beyond.”
At regular intervals there was a crew change when one man of the three man crew would return from shore leave and bring the week’s groceries, the mail, and other supplies. The man who was then leaving for shore leave would take the trash with him. The process would keep repeating itself.
When 19-year-old Coast Guardsman Mario Pininch was sent to Thomas Point in 1975, he said, “This is good duty for someone who wants to be alone for a while and meditate.” But he had a girlfriend and an avid interest in sports cars and would much rather have been stationed somewhere else. On the other hand, he conceded that the freedom and leave time associated with the assignment at Thomas Point were very generous. In greeting visitors to the lighthouse, he warned people to be careful on the narrow ladder going up to the lighthouse, saying that only one person has slipped since he’s been a keeper here and, “that was the captain’s son, and you’re not the captain’s son,” he would say to encourage the timid.
As automation took its hold on more and more lighthouses, there was a lot of controversy surrounding what would happen to Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse if were to be left unmanned. Locals were quick to point out the vast amounts of vandalism that had taken place at other lighthouses that had been automated and they didn’t want that to happen to their local icon.
In September of 1974, Maryland’s Lt. Gov. Blair Lee got involved in the heated debate, saying that if the Coast Guard was to abandon Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, the state would step in and buy the lighthouse and install a caretaker. But those words were simply political rhetoric.
But the light housekeeping, of lighthouse keeping, at Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse did come to an end in 1986 when the last Coast Guard keepers were removed to never return leaving the icon of the Chesapeake Bay sitting empty as a lonely sentinel still doing its job, but void of human life. But there were many people watching out over the historic beacon, people who would not allow the lighthouse to be lost.
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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