In January 1870, lightship LV-25 was stationed at the junction of the Tred Avon and Choptank Rivers. This was the northernmost station in Chesapeake Bay for a lightship and also one of the shortest lived. The 1871 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board provides details on the Choptank Lighthouse, which replaced the lightship.
It is designed, under the general law, to replace the Light-vessel at this place, which serves to mark the entrance to the Choptank River, by an iron screw pile Light-house, similar in construction to those at York Spit and Wolf Trap, on the Chesapeake Bay, omitting four of the fender piles. The Light-house will stand in eleven feet water, mean tide, on a bar at the mouth of the river, distant about one and a half mile in a southwest direction from Benoni’s Point, and marking three channels. After due public notice a contract was made in March with the lowest bidder, for the construction of this Light-house. The iron-work has been prepared and the superstructure framed. It is expected that this Light-house will be completed by the last of October, and enable the Light-vessel to be permanently withdrawn.
When heavy ice floes in 1881 damaged three of the four pile fenders set up to protect the lighthouse, the keeper, concerned for his safety, abandoned the station. After an inspection revealed that the foundation piles under the lighthouse were not significantly damaged, the keeper was asked to resign for having acted in panic. The lighthouse wasn’t so lucky in January 1918, when mountainous ice floes with a height of thirty feet built up around the structure and swept it off its pile foundation. The keeper was able to remove the valuable lens, but the structure was a total loss.
Rather than build a new lighthouse, the Lighthouse Service opted to move the Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse, which had been serving near Cape Charles City, Virginia since 1859, roughly 100 miles up the bay to Choptank River. On December 15, 1919, Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse was placed on a lighter and towed to Cape Charles City, and an automated light and bell, reportedly the first to be used in the country, took its place.
On April 1, the former Cherrystone Lighthouse was towed up the bay to its new home. Keeper Walter S. Hudgins, who had all of his personal belongings in the structure, continued to live in the lighthouse after it was discontinued and even made the trip up the bay in it. After the lighthouse was shifted from the scow to its new foundation, the light at Choptank River was re-established on June 9, 1921. A fifth-order, Henry-Lepaute lens was employed in the lantern room to produce a fixed white light, with red sectors showing between 187° and 199°, and 316 ° and 345°. A 750-pound bell, manufactured in 1858, continued the station’s fog signature of a single stroke every ten seconds.
The lighthouse had four rooms and contained three cisterns, two cypress and one iron, to store water collected from the roof. Harold Messick was the last keeper of Choptank River Lighthouse, which was dismantled in 1964 and replaced by an automated light mounted on the screwpile foundation. Harold’s son Jack fondly remembered stays at the lighthouse during the summer when he would hunt for crabs in the riprap near the lighthouse, play with the station’s dog Chop (short for Choptank), and listen to the Dixieland music and laughter as steamboat excursions would pass by. Jack recalled that during the hot and humid summers, the keepers didn’t wear their uniforms unless a Coast Guard captain was expected for an inspection. “No one wore anything but underwear,” Jack says.
Salisbury-based GGI builders was selected as the contractor for the lighthouse. Construction was launched in August 2011, when the first of seven seventy-foot piles was driven into the riverbed. The foundation was completed in late October, and work on the cottage started in early February 2012.
The replica lighthouse was officially dedicated during a ceremony held on September 22, 2012. People gathered at Long Wharf Park and in boats on the water to witness the official lighting of the lighthouse at dusk. Half of the lighthouse is occupied by the dockmaster of the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin, while the rest serves as a mini-museum. Exhibits include panels on the history of the lighthouse and Dorchester’s maritime heritage. A beautiful wooden spiral staircase, built around a central support pole, winds up the tower to the watchroom.
The Choptank River Lighthouse Society turned ownership of the lighthouse over to the City of Cambridge, along with an $80,000 maintenance fund. The Choptank Lighthouse Foundation has been established to help the city maintain and promote the lighthouse.
In May 2015, the lighthouse kicked off the opening of its third season by celebrating the addition of a fog bell and striker, a fifth-order Fresnel lens, and a twenty-two-foot launch named Miss Polly, which is suspended from davits. Construction of the launch was funded by the Pauline F. and W. David Robbins Charitable Foundation and the Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area, while the lens and fog bell are on loan from the Coast Guard.