|Turkey Point, MD|
Description: Originally built to work in concert with the Concord Point and Pooles Island lighthouses, the tower situated on the high bluffs of Turkey Point commenced operation in 1833. Two years previously, Congress had appropriated the sum of $5,000 for the lighthouse, dwelling, and a four-acre tract. John Donahoo brought the project in under budget, completing both the beacon and the squat keeper’s building for only $4,355. Although only 35 feet in stature, the Turkey Point Lighthouse has a focal plane of 129 feet above mean high tide. Of all the lighthouses on the Chesapeake Bay, only the tall towers at Cape Henry and Cape Charles have a higher focal plane.
The bluffs at the point are visible for several miles from the Bay, and have been a notable landmark since colonial days. Captain John Smith even mentioned them during his first journey into the Chesapeake during the early 1600s. When the Chesapeake and Delaware (C&D) Canal began operations in 1829, Turkey Point Lighthouse became even more important for mariners as it marked the course change from the Bay to the Elk River, which, in turn, leads to the C&D Canal.
The Turkey Point Lighthouse is very similar in design to other Donahoo towers and was built using the plans from the Concord Point Lighthouse. The tower is sixteen feet in diameter at its base, with walls that taper from 2 ½ feet to 14 inches as they rise. The tower’s nine-sided lantern room is topped with a pyramidal iron roof and ventilator ball. While many sources have claimed that the lighthouse was built with cast-iron stairs, a 1930s photograph shows wooden stairs and the blueprints for the structure at the National Archive explicitly state “31 steps. Wood.”
The keeper’s house when first constructed was a one-story brick building, but in 1889 a second story, built of whitewashed board and sporting gingerbread eaves, was added. The bottom story consisted of a central hall with a parlor to one side and a sitting room and fireplace to the other, and three bedrooms and a small storeroom were found upstairs. A kitchen was later added to the back of the dwelling.
During the 1880s the station received a fog signal, though the station’s elevated position caused some concern that the bell would not be heard by ships. For this reason, a 30 foot well was dug to house the weights of the winding mechanism, so the bell could be positioned as low to the ground as possible. The signal building itself was a one story, eight foot square wooden structure with at least one window. The daughter of the station’s last light-keeper, Olga Salter Crouch, recalled some of the characteristics of the bell. She says that it was located about 100 feet from the tower, and “was suspended on the outside of the building and rung by a Gamewell Fire Alarm Machine...that worked like a large grandfather clock. It had a pendulum and was powered by heavy weights...” The bell was struck every fifteen seconds, and the weights needed to be rewound by hand every three hours. A rope was also attached to the bell, both to salute passing ships and to sound the fog signal manually in the event of equipment failure. During WWII the fog building was modified into a two-story watch tower, with the watch room accessed by an exterior set of stairs. In this period of conflict there was a threat of German submarines off the Atlantic Coast, so inland shipping routes like the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal were extremely important.
Other outbuildings on the property included a stable, woodshed and smokehouse. These were rebuilt in 1895 and were located behind the keeper’s dwelling. A wagon shed was constructed before 1887, and a white wooden fence encircled the light station until about 1925. 1938 photographs from the Coast Guard Historian’s office indicate a garage, chicken and sheep houses, water closet and concrete water cistern. A daunting 137 wooden steps led down the bluffs to the water. Next to the stairs, there was a chute with a windlass, which was used by the keeper to haul supplies delivered by the lighthouse tender up to the station.
In the early twentieth century, the well known Fannie May Salter was installed as keeper at the personal behest of President Calvin Coolidge. The service was not going to let her assume her husband’s position due to her advanced age, but she appealed to her senator, who took up the issue with the President. Four times a night, she would haul a copper kettle filled with kerosene up the 31 stairs of the lighthouse and the iron ship’s ladder that led to the lantern. When combined with the labor of winding the heavy fog bell mechanism and transporting the stores from the water 137 steps below, one would think that the job took a physical toll. Salter, lauded at her retirement in 1947 as “the last of the lady lighthouse keepers,” had only this to say: “Oh, it was an easy-like chore, but my feet got tired, and climbing the tower has given me fallen arches.” Once Mrs. Salter was forced to manually sound the fog bell during a mechanical failure as a steamer was heading into the Elk River in foggy conditions. She rang the bell every fifteen seconds for nearly an hour until the steamer had safely passed from the river into the canal. During her absence from the dwelling, she missed her son-in-law’s call announcing the birth of a granddaughter.
As the lighthouse was fourteen miles from the nearest store, the keepers kept a vegetable garden and tended some livestock at the station. Of course, it just wouldn't have been right if besides sheep, chicken, and pigs, some turkeys were not kept at the station.
Following automation, the remotely located lighthouse was subject to vandalism. In one incident, the original wooden door to the tower was broken down and the valuable Fresnel lens was stolen. To protect the lighthouse, the rather extreme step of removing a large portion of the interior stairs had to be taken. A solid steel door was also welded on, though this door lacks ventilation panels which may cause moisture damage to the interior of the structure.
The keeper’s quarters, vandalized and neglected, were finally torn down by the Parks Service in 1972. In April 2000 the lighthouse was decommissioned and stewardship of the property was turned over to the non-profit Turkey Point Light Station (TPLS) Inc. A perusal of that organization’s newsletter reveals that it submitted a proposal to the government for joint ownership of the light station, after it was made available in 2004 under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The application process required “hundreds of hours of research, analysis and technical writing,” but resulted in the lighthouse being transferred in 2006 to the State of Maryland, which leased of the lighthouse to the preservation group.
TPLS has ambitious restoration plans for the station. Improvements include replacing the rotting wood along the catwalk outside the lantern room, installing lightning protection at the station, restoring the tower’s staircase, and rebuilding the keeper’s dwelling. This is a painstaking process, as the Maryland Historic Trust must approve all changes, and will need significant funding. There has also been talk of restoring the red sector to the lantern room using red Plexiglas. The red sector was originally used to warn ships away from the shallow sandbars of the Susquehanna Flats during low tide.
Located at the southern end of Elk Neck State Park, on a high bluff overlooking
the head of Chesapeake Bay. The tower is open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., April through mid November. Check with Turkey Point Light Station for further visiting information or to volunteer at the lighthouse.
The tower is open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., April through mid November. Check with Turkey Point Light Station for further visiting information or to volunteer at the lighthouse.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Turkey Point Lighthouse can be seen in the movie "Dead Man's Curve."
See our List of Lighthouses in Maryland
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.