|Lazaretto Point (Replica), MD|
Description: In 1801, the stretch of land in Baltimore Harbor across from Fort McHenry, known as Gorsuch Point in honor of an important settler from colonial days, became the site for a ‘lazaretto,’ a word of Italian origin meaning a hospital for those with contagious diseases. With massive immigration bringing diseases into America, the hospital became well known in Baltimore, and the word lazaretto soon fell into common parlance when referring to the point.
In 1836, a fire destroyed the old smallpox hospital and damaged the keeper’s house. New living quarters for the keeper, in the form of a two-story house that measured twenty by thirty-five feet, were constructed from bricks and material salvaged from the ruins of the hospital and the original keeper’s dwelling.
There are a couple of interesting tales linking Edgar Allen Poe to Lazaretto Lighthouse. One is that his unfinished short story, entitled simply “The Lighthouse,” was inspired by the Lazaretto structure. Another is that shortly after the completion of the lighthouse, Poe took out an ad in the local paper making the very dramatic claim that a man would fly from the Shot Tower, which at that time was the tallest building in America, to Lazaretto Lighthouse. A crowd gathered in giddy anticipation on April 1, and it wasn’t until after a long wait that they finally realized they had fallen for an April Fools’ Day prank.
After having faithfully served for nearly five years, Keeper William Shaw was dismissed in April 1841 after William Henry Harrison was elected President and the controlling political party changed from Democrat to Whig. Keeper Shaw was the father of eleven children and was making an annual salary of $350 at the time. Just three months after he was dismissed, a newspaper reported that Keeper Shaw had been restored to his post after “the indignant rebuke of the people” had shamed the Whig power.
The conical Lazaretto Point Lighthouse, built at a cost of $2,100, originally employed eleven oil lamps with fifteen-inch spherical reflectors to generate its light. This arrangement was expensive, as it consumed 450 gallons of oil every year, and was part of the motivation for the Lighthouse Board installing a Fresnel lens in the lighthouse on June 14, 1855. Frenchman Augustin Fresnel had invented the lens, which is an ingenious arrangement of prisms that is both beautiful and practical, in 1822, but the United States was slow in adopting the technology. Using a Fresnel lens and only one lamp strongly enhanced the beam emanating from the Lazaretto Lighthouse. The Board initially chose a fourth-order lens for the lighthouse, though in 1914 this was upgraded to a third-and-a-half-order.
A frame fog-bell tower was erected between the lighthouse and the Patapsco River in late 1869, and on January 1, 1870, the bell was commissioned as a navigational aid, being struck once every ten seconds when conditions merited. On the same date, Lazaretto Point Light was changed from white to red, so it could be distinguished from the lights of the nearby factories, which included iron furnaces and a rolling mill.
The adjacent industry created additional problems for the station as noted in the Lighthouse Board’s report for 1883 that records that the “gasses from the numerous chemical works in the immediate vicinity destroyed the paint, and even the whitewash, soon after it was put on” the station’s structures. Nearby buildings were also starting to obscure the station’s light, prompting the Lighthouse Board to erect a seventy-foot-tall mast topped by a light to serve mariners in addition to the lighthouse. The mast light was discontinued on December 10, 1888, after just over five years of use, and the characteristic of Lazaretto Point Light was changed at this time from fixed red to a red flash every five seconds.
In 1892, a nine-by-twelve-foot iron oil house, capable of storing 450 five-gallon cans, was erected on the station grounds, and a summer kitchen was built.
A newspaper in 1908 published the following information on the station’s assistant keeper:
Like the towering pines that fringe the North Carolina coast, upon which he was born, in sight of dreaded Harteras, Fabius Evans Simpson, the assistant keeper of Lazzaretto lighthouse, at the entrance to Baltimore harbor can lay claim to be the tallest light house keeper in the fifth lighthouse district. If not level with the tallest in the service from Maine to the Rio Grande says the Baltimore Sun.
Work at the Lazaretto depot slowed considerably as more and more lights were automated and much of the remaining duties were transferred to the Portsmouth depot. The Coast Guard eventually concluded that even the taller skeleton tower at the Lazaretto depot was not very useful, and it was torn down in 1954. Four years later the depot followed suit; it was shut down, and the property was sold and converted into a shipping terminal.
Although the original Lazaretto Lighthouse disappeared years ago, a replica was built thanks to the wishes of a noted historian and Baltimore waterfront enthusiast, Norman Rukert, Sr. Since 1921, the Rukert family has owned Rukert Terminals Corporation, a Baltimore firm that offloads, warehouses, and distributes cargo. Norman Rukert thought that recreating the lighthouse would be a fantastic way to help preserve history. In August 1985, just over one year after Rukert had passed away, his family built the replica in his honor. According to George Nixon, Norman’s nephew and president of the company, original blueprints were obtained from the National Archives so that an accurate replica could be made. The lighthouse, which was constructed on the company’s property, is believed to be located in the general proximity of where the original tower stood.
While the reproduction does possess a light, the structure is not an active aid to navigation. Nixon, however, believes that the tower at the edge of the landing of the Lehigh Cement Corporation is important for other reasons. “Baltimore’s become so popular as a destination, especially for the cruising set…you could say [the lighthouse] is our contribution to the continuing emergence of Baltimore.”
Located on the grounds of the Lehigh Cement Company near the eastern
end of the Interstate 95 bridge over the Patapsco River. The lighthouse is owned by Rukert Terminals Corporation. Grounds/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by Rukert Terminals Corporation. Grounds/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.