|Pooles Island, MD|
Description: Pooles Island is located in the northwest portion of the upper Chesapeake, sitting at the mouth of the Gunpowder and Bush rivers. The adventurous Captain John Smith actually named the island Powell’s Island, after one of his own crew members, but over time the name has evolved to Pooles Island, most likely due to the spring-fed pools of water found on the island.
At the time of the Revolutionary War, Pooles Island was owned by noted agriculturist John Bordley, who grew wheat on the island and used it as a base for sending supplies to General Washington's army. The Baltimore Sun lauded the isle around that time, noting that “numerous wells of clear sparkling water are scattered about the island.” The paper further commented that the water’s Ph was uniquely soft for the area and was very likely a factor in the prolific growth of crops and fruits.
The 280-acre, narrow island was purchased in 1808 by Peregrine Wethered, who ran it as a slave plantation. Wethered grew a lucrative wheat crop and was very prosperous, so much so that his produce was hailed with “the wonder and admiration of the farmers all along the bay.” While the tract of land was plundered by British soldiers during the War of 1812, it quickly returned to profitability. The soil quality was exceptional to say the least, and much like the water the dirt was said to be quite distinctive from soil found in nearby counties. Early pioneers in the region noted that while chestnuts and pine trees were found in large numbers on the mainland, these plants were completely absent from Pooles Island.
The isle proved so desirable that in 1872, it was bought from Wethered’s son by George Merrett, who planted 2,700 peach trees. Ten years later a farmer from Ohio purchased it from Merrett, remarking that he “had found a piece of Iowa soil in Maryland.” This farmer added more trees to the peach orchards, and christened one of his varieties ‘Pool’s Island Best.’ The trees on the island grew to a size practically unheard of in other orchards, and a late 19th century article pointed out “that the abundant crops are produced...without the aid of fertilizers...”
The fruitful isle was first marked for a lighthouse in 1824, when Congress appropriated $5,000 for a beacon on six acres of land. John Donahoo was contracted to do the work on what would be the first of twelve lighthouses he would build on Chesapeake Bay. A conical tower standing 40 feet, six inches, the lighthouse is built from rough-hewn chunks of Port Deposit granite mortared together irregularly. The floor and foundation of the tower is made of cement, beneath which wooden pilings lend structural stability. The tower’s diameter is 18 feet at its base, narrowing to nine feet at the top. Inside the structure, a spiral staircase made of solid-cut granite blocks ascends to a landing. The cast-iron lantern, which comprises 12 ½ feet of the tower’s height, is cantilevered a few inches out from the mortared blocks. Stucco and whitewash were applied both to the interior and exterior of the structure.
Improvements to the property commenced almost immediately. In 1828 Congress earmarked an additional $2,800 to build a fog bell tower. In 1857, at the behest of the newly established Lighthouse Board, a fourth-order Fresnel lens took the place of the old reflecting apparatus. In 1882, the keeper’s dwelling was upgraded by the addition of an extra story, which made for three more rooms. The Board reported that “...a new tin roof was then put on; the fencing was repaired and the lantern and fog-bell tower were painted.” Five years later a new front porch was added to the house, and a cow stable and poultry house were also built. In 1890, extra picket and post and rail fencing was put up, and this combined with the plank and brick walkways to make the pastoral setting extremely pleasant for the keeper. A boat house was added in 1892, along with a windlass to hoist up water craft.
Pooles Island was once the scene of an illegal but exciting prizefight that occurred in 1849. Maryland’s governor decreed that no steamboat captain could transport spectators to the event and even called up troops to make certain that his orders were heeded. Nevertheless, pugilism fans found their way to the island on oystermen’s skipjacks. The governor’s troops were unable to shut down the festivities as their boat ran aground, and reportedly the spectators waved to the soldiers as they sailed back after the fight.
In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, the light station was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army, who converted it into part of the Aberdeen Proving Ground. At this time the last keeper, Stephen A. Cohee, who had maintained the beacon for thirty-five years, was removed and the light was automated. The beacon was deactivated entirely in 1939, when the property was transferred to the War Department. The lens was removed from the lantern, and the keeper’s house was torn down. A modern light now marks the channel east of Pooles Island.
Pooles Island Lighthouse is currently inaccessible to the public, due both to its status as a military reservation and the live artillery shells littering the grounds from army training exercises. The island’s shore is also wearing away, and will probably require a large quantity of rip-rap stone or bulkheads to arrest the erosion process. A nearby Army observation post, in fact, is almost in the water already.
Abandoned for nearly 50 years, the lighthouse was in poor condition before a massive Army and Coast Guard restoration effort. Nearly all of the stucco and paint had peeled off the tower’s exterior, which seemed to be crumbling in places. In addition, the lantern, gallery, roof and balustrade were all badly in need of a paint job. The pedestal which once sat beneath the lens had been removed and simply dumped on the ground with the weeds and sand. While the lighthouse was in decent condition structurally, mortar joint cracks and fault lines needed to be repaired before they imperiled the tower’s integrity.
In 1994 the Army submitted a proposal to make the lighthouse a National Historic Monument. As part of this process, the structure had to be thoroughly cleaned and structurally stabilized in an historically accurate manner. As the island has lacked pier access since the late 19th century, an all terrain forklift had to be brought upon a barge equipped with a landing ramp. This forklift carried in a 1200-gallon water tank (to pressure-wash the exterior) and other equipment and supplies to complete the project.
First the cast-iron lantern was brushed with wire, primed and painted with a high gloss, acrylic black hue. The primer used was designed specifically to stick to corroded metal surfaces. The prevalence of rust was due to organic residue from the ivy growing along the sides of the tower, as well as algae and mildew build-up. This also caused a dark stain to appear around the middle of the tower, which was pressure-washed with a phosphate-free detergent. Next, the three original window openings, long since bricked in, were opened up and scraped. Then freshly mixed mortar, rendered via cement mixer, was applied. This particular mortar was unique, as it had to be workable and strong, but also possess enough flexibility and tensile strength to compensate for the expansion and contraction of the granite under changing weather conditions. After the cement was applied, the Carpentry Shop of the Directorate of Public Works fashioned three six-over-six double hung sashes to go along with the new pine windows. These were painted white, the same as in a 1910 photograph of the lighthouse.
After the mortar work had dried for two months, the entire structure was painted. Aberdeen resident Tim Hamilton generously volunteered his time for this undertaking, which was completed in a few days. Lambswool rollers were used to apply the coats; using a paint sprayer was unrealistic because of the high winds on the island.
There are future plans to replace the tongue and groove mahogany door at the entrance to the lighthouse, which is identical to Concord Point Light’s door and is likely an original. A faint outline of the iron key box is still visible on the door’s surface, and its cast-iron hinges are still present. There is also a great need to perform mortar and other repairs on the interior of the tower, which is in far worse shape than the outside. The lighthouse’s keepers were mostly occupied with making needed repairs to the outside of the structure, so that the interior mortar is very soft and easily crumbled. Once all maintenance is completed, the Army plans to re-install the light on Poole’s Island as a private aid to navigation. A plastic Fresnel lens and accompanying solar panel have already been set aside for this purpose.
In 2011, Pooles Island Lighthouse was finally outfitted with solar lighting and began sending out a new signal, four flashes, a pause and then three flashes, to guide mariners.
Poole’s Island has benefited ecologically from the Army’s stewardship. While habitat losses in the Chesapeake continue to mount, the reservation has proven to be a beautiful wildlife sanctuary. Man is no longer able to take advantage of the island’s fertile soil, but eagles, blue herons, geese, osprey, and a small herd of deer are now thriving on their island home.
Located on Pooles Island near the entrance
to the Bush and Gunpowder Rivers. The lighthouse and island are owned by the U.S. Army and are part of Aberdeen Proving Ground. Grounds/tower closed.
The lighthouse and island are owned by the U.S. Army and are part of Aberdeen Proving Ground. Grounds/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.