To the Lighthouse
Discover maritime history tucked into many an inlet along the Chesapeake’s meandering coastline.
Tragic shipwrecks. Heroic rescues. A lonely man tending the light, guiding sailors safely home. Steeped in lore like this, most lighthouses exude their own brand of mystique, and the historic beacons in our region are no different.
Because the Chesapeake Bay is filled with treacherous shoals, a whopping 74 lights once marked the way for pleasure sailors, commercial fishermen and merchant ships en route to Baltimore, and for military vessels headed for Norfolk.
Fewer than half survive today, but southern Maryland remains a feast for lighthouse lovers. Four of the bay’s most intriguing lights cluster near Solomons Island, all within easy driving distance of one another. But be forewarned: Visiting lighthouses can be a little addictive, like gobbling pieces of saltwater taffy—you always think you’ll stop after just one more.
Piney Point Lighthouse
44720 Lighthouse Road, Piney Point, Md. 20674, 301-994-1471, www.stmarysmd.com/recreate/PPL.asp
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, April through September, and noon to 4 p.m., Friday to Monday, October through December. Admission: $3 adults; $2 military and senior citizens; $1.50 students 6 to 18; and free for children 5 and younger.
Any stretch of sand relaxing enough to attract past residents of the Oval Office can probably work the same magic on stressed-out Arlingtonians today. Piney Point Lighthouse guards the same beach where James Monroe built a cottage known as the Summer White House. Teddy Roosevelt also visited the area and nicknamed Piney Point “The Lighthouse of Presidents.”
Visitors to this quiet, sunny spot on the Potomac can even arrive by boat, tying up at the public pier. The pier spans a beach speckled with shells and makes an inviting spot for a picnic. A few yards inland, beyond the waving dune grass, the squat white lighthouse tower rises just 35 feet into the air, next to the old keeper’s house.
Built in 1836, Piney Point is the oldest lighthouse on the Potomac. Its curators like to note that it predates both the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument, and just like those structures, Piney Point is a great place for climbing to the top. Scaling the 20 steps isn’t taxing, but it definitely isn’t for anyone with claustrophobia or a fear of heights. The stairs form a dizzyingly steep spiral, and visitors must climb a ladder to reach the trapdoor of the lantern room.
A small museum next door tells the story of the lighthouse. During World War II, Piney Point served as a testing ground for the torpedoes built at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. After the war, a German sub with experimental rubber skin, designed to be invisible to sonar, was sunk a mile off the point in a military exercise.
Point Lookout Lighthouse
Located in Point Lookout State Park
11175 Point Lookout Road, Scotland, Md. 20687, 301-872-5688, www.pllps.org
Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first Saturday of the month from April through November. Admission to the lighthouse is free; admission to the park varies from $3 per vehicle to $7 per person.
If Point Lookout Lighthouse isn’t haunted, it certainly ought to be. Reputed to be among the most ghost-friendly lighthouses in the U.S., it’s reached by driving through the dark, piney woods of Point Lookout State Park to the tip of a needle-thin peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake. This lonely spot, literally at the end of the road, boasts a nearly 300-degree view of the water. The lighthouse itself—basically a square two-story cottage topped by a lantern—feels abandoned.
Aside from its spooky setting, Point Lookout packs an eerie history. The lighthouse got off to an unlucky start when its first keeper died just two months after assuming his post in 1830. His widow took over and apparently did a good job; a report written by the captain of the lighthouse supply boat noted, “Mrs. Davis is a fine woman, and I am sorry she has to live on a small naked point of land.”
During the Civil War, Point Lookout housed a prisoner of war camp for 50,000 Confederate soldiers. Some 4,000 died and were buried near the lighthouse. After the light was decommissioned in 1966, tenants of the house began to report hearing voices during storms and seeing strange lights. Park rangers have recorded numerous sightings of a man in old-fashioned clothes running across the road near the old Confederate cemetery, always traveling in the same direction, and always disappearing.
Point Lookout is a popular spot with ghost hunters. During Paranormal Nights, which are held twice each month, participants can conduct their own investigations of the lighthouse after dark for a $50 fee.
Drum Point Lighthouse
Located at the Calvert Marine Museum
14200 Solomons Island Road, Solomons, Md. 20688, 410-326-2042, www.calvertmarinemuseum.com
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission: $7 adults, $2 children 5 to 12.
The Drum Point Lighthouse defies all expectations of what a lighthouse should look like. A miniature six-sided cottage, built on pilings and trimmed with clapboard siding, dormer windows and a white rail fence, the place looks like it’s been lifted from the pages of a fairy tale. If a Disney princess had to live in a lighthouse, this might be the one she’d pick.
Technically, Drum Point is known as a screwpile lighthouse, a common style in the shallow Chesapeake Bay. These cottages were set atop cast-iron pilings that could be screwed directly into the seafloor. Because they were built offshore, their keepers commuted to work by boat, which only added to the isolation of lighthouse living. Built in 1883, Drum Point was cut from its pilings in 1975 and towed two miles down the Patuxent River to the Calvert Marine Museum, where it rests on the pier today.
The museum offers guided tours of the restored lighthouse, now filled with period furnishings, starting with visits to the downstairs bedrooms, sitting room and kitchen. A spiral staircase leads to a second bedroom and the 1,400-pound fog bell that keepers rang all night long when weather obscured the light itself. (A set of weights was rigged to ring the bell for two hours at a time; it’s said that when the ringing stopped, the keepers would be startled awake by the sudden silence and reset the weights.) Intrepid visitors can climb another winding stair to see the lens itself, which can focus light so powerfully that after it was electrified it made a 100-watt light bulb visible from 11 nautical miles away.
Cove Point Lighthouse
3500 Lighthouse Blvd., Lusby, Md. 20657
Open 1 to 4 p.m. daily, June through August, and on weekends in May and September. Admission is free.
For nearly two centuries, ships navigating the narrow center of the Chesapeake have looked for the flash of Cove Point Lighthouse—and they still do so today. The oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Maryland, Cove Point was built in 1828. (The first keeper, James Somerville, beat out six other applicants to snag the annual salary of $350.) A lens manufactured in Paris in 1897 still sends its beacon shining over the Bay. Although the Coast Guard now operates the light remotely, Cove Point was staffed until being automated in 1986.
The 51-foot brick and stucco tower is maintained by the Calvert Marine Museum. Visitors can tour the grounds, ring the fog bell and enter the base of the lighthouse, although access to its gracefully winding staircase is restricted because the light is still in operation.
Starting this summer, Cove Point will become one of the rare sites where visitors can experience the life of a lighthouse keeper, if only for a night. The newly renovated keeper’s house, equipped with bedrooms, a living room and full kitchen, will be available for rent for the first time. (At press time, rental rates were not yet available.) Overnight visitors will also have access to the beach.
IF YOU GO
The town of Solomons, Md., makes a convenient base for visiting all four lighthouses and is located about one hour from the Beltway. From I-495, take the exit for State Route 4 South. The Calvert Marine Museum is located on Solomons Island Road South. To reach Cove Point Lighthouse, drive north from Solomons on Route 4 for four miles, then turn right on Cove Point Road and drive 2.8 miles to the end of the road. Point Lookout is 25 miles south of Solomons, and Piney Point is 26 miles east of Point Lookout.
Where to Stay
The Back Creek Inn Bed & Breakfast (210 Alexander Lane, Solomons Island, 410-326-2022, www.backcreekinnbnb.com) is a 125-year-old house set amid gardens on quiet Back Creek. Bicycles and docking are available. Six rooms and a cottage. Rates: $110-$225; includes a full breakfast.
The Blue Heron Inn Bed & Breakfast (14614 Solomons Island Road, 410-326-2707, www.blueheronbandb.com) features a full breakfast cooked by innkeeper Amanda Comer, a chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Four rooms. Rates: $179-$249; includes the full breakfast and an evening glass of wine.
Where to Eat
Kim’s Keylime Pies and Lotus Kitchen (14618 Solomons Island Road, 410-326-8469, kimskeylimepies.com), located in a funky old house, makes a cheerful spot for breakfast or lunch. The menu includes sandwiches, soups and baked goods.
CD Café (14350 Solomons Island Road, 410-326-3877, www.cdcafe.info) is a casual café of just 11 tables that packs in locals and travelers alike with its wide-ranging menu and homemade desserts. Open for lunch and dinner.
Calvert Marine Museum: After you tour the Drum Point Lighthouse, step into the museum to visit the resident river otters. A collection of fossils from nearby Calvert Cliffs includes teeth from a giant extinct shark that are larger than an adult’s hand. Kids can also touch critters such as starfish and sea anemones in the aquarium tanks.
Point Lookout State Park: The lighthouse is only one of the attractions found in this sprawling park, which offers canoeing, camping, fishing, a swimming beach and hiking trails. In August and September, monarch butterflies migrate through the park.
A Civil War museum recounts the park’s history.
Calvert Cliffs State Park: If you think the giant shark teeth displayed at the Calvert Marine Museum would look good in your living room, try searching for your own fossils on the beach at Calvert Cliffs State Park. Few people leave empty-handed, although the most common finds are fossilized coral and small shark’s teeth.
MORE LIGHTHOUSES TO EXPLORE
Hooper Strait Lighthouse (213 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels, Md. 21663, 410-745-2916, www.cbmm.org) is one of the most popular attractions at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Open year-round, hours vary by season. Admission is $13 for adults, $6 for children 6 to 17 and free for children 5 and younger.
Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse (301 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, Md. 21202, 410-539-1797, www.historicships.org) stands at Pier 5 of the Baltimore Marine Museum in the city’s Inner Harbor. Open year-round, hours vary by season. Admission to the lighthouse is free to all museum visitors.
Lightship Chesapeake (301 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, Md. 21202, 410-539-1797, www.historicships.org) is berthed at Pier 3 of the Baltimore Marine Museum. Admission to the lightship is $11 for adults, $5 for children 6 to 14 and free for children 5 and younger. Admission fee may be less when combined with fees for visits to other historic ships.
Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse (Annapolis, Md. 21403, 410-295-0104, www.amaritime.org/thomaspoint.html) can be reached only by boat. Guided tours are available during the summer for $70 per person, which includes the boat rides to the lighthouse from the Annapolis Maritime Museum and back.
Sandy Point Shoal Lighthouse (Sandy Point State Park, located at the western end of the Bay Bridge, 1100 E. College Pkwy., Annapolis,Md. 21409, 410-974-2149, www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/southern/sandypoint.asp) can be reached only by boat and is closed to the public, but it can be viewed from Sandy Point State Park. The park is open year-round; hours vary by season. Admission varies from $3 per vehicle to $7 per person.
Concord Point Lighthouse (Concord and Lafayette streets, Havre de Grace, Md. 21078, 410-939-3213, www.concordpointlighthouse.org) is open on weekends, April through October, from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
Laurie McClellan is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Arlington and is itching to visit a few more lighthouses.