Description: Constructing Baltimore Lighthouse proved to be one of the more difficult tasks ever undertaken in the interests of establishing an aid to navigation in the United States. When the Lighthouse Board requested $60,000 in 1890 for a beacon to mark the entry point of the New Cutoff Channel near the mouth of the Magothy River, it had some idea of what it was getting into: “On account of the impressible character of the shoal, and the liability to damage or destruction by fields of moving ice, no light-house, other than an expensive one, can be made permanent.” The difficulty of the task delayed completion of the lighthouse until eighteen years after the initial funding request.
Improvements in the Craighill Channel led the Lighthouse Board to shift the site for Baltimore Lighthouse to a new site where examinations showed that a safe foundation could be had at less depth that at the original location. On September 9, 1898 an attempt was made to plant an experimental disk pile at the new site, but after two hours of work, the pile reached a depth of just three-and-a-half feet in the mud strata. The Board was led to conclude “that the expense of building a light-station in the 55 feet of semifluid mud which overlays the sandy bottom” would cost twice as much as the original request and would require a caisson foundation capable of resisting 100 mph winds, 30,000 pounds of ice pressure per square foot, and a three mph current. The Board made their new recommendation annually to Congress three times, until the entire amount was approved on July 1, 1902.
A final design for Baltimore Lighthouse was approved on October 13, 1902, and bidding for the job was opened the following spring. Somewhat ominously, only one bid came in for the erection of the lighthouse, and that was $80,000 over the entire budget. The sole bid was rejected, but Congress approved yet another $60,000 to make the project feasible, bringing the grand total of allocated money to $180,000. In the next round of bidding, William H. Flaherty was the only participant. He and his partner, Frederick Martin Lande, had experience building caisson lighthouses and by cutting back on certain material allotments were able to submit a bid below the budgeted amount.
The government sued the contractor, and the insurance company which had bonded Flaherty was forced to step in and complete the job. Over the next three years, the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company funded workmen to bring the caisson back to level. First, they removed over half of the 120 iron plates attached to the structure in the late fall of 1905, then the following spring, they built a U-shaped pier around the caisson and brought in counterbalancing equipment, which consisted of a steam engine, air compressors, water tanks, a hoisting machine, A-frames, and temporary quarters for workers. During the summer of 1906, heavy weights were suspended by wire cables from A-frames placed on the overturned caisson as shown in the diagram above, and by the end of September the caisson protruded from the shoal at an angle of forty-five degrees. Pumps were then used to remove mud from under the high side of the cylinder. When work was stopped in late November, the caisson was just seventeen degrees from vertical. The following spring, additional courses were added to the cylinder, and eighty tons of stone were placed in the compartment on the high side of the cylinder as mud was pumped out from below. Over the course of several months, the caisson was gradually straightened as it sunk to a depth of eighty-two feet below high water.
The Lighthouse Board declared the surety company’s efforts a “remarkable success” and provided the following description of the finished lighthouse:
This light, in 23 feet of water, is located to the westward of the southerly entrance to Craighill Channel, Baltimore Harbor. The structure is a brown cylindrical foundation pier, expanding in trumpet shape to form a gallery, surmounted by a white octagonal two-story brick dwelling, with mansard roof and a black lantern. The lower part of the structure consists of a square wooden caisson 48 feet wide at the bottom, 46 feet on top, and 21 feet high, provided with a working chamber and air and dredging shafts. On the roof of this caisson a cylindrical cast-iron shell rests, having a diameter of 45 feet for the five lower courses, each 6 feet 3 inches in height; then conical for the next four sections, 6 feet each in height, and with the top section trumpet shaped, the total height of the shell being 82 feet 3 inches, and of the whole foundation pier 103 feet 3 inches. After sinking to the proper level below the bottom of the bay the working chamber and parts of the shafts were filled with concrete, and the entire shell with concrete and large stones except the spaces for cisterns and cellar. The illuminating apparatus is a fourth-order lens showing a flashing white light every 10 seconds, and was shown initially October 1, 1908.
The lighthouse had a short life as a staffed station as in 1923 its illuminant was changed to acetylene at a cost of $1,280, its fog bell was discontinued, and its keepers removed.
Baltimore Lighthouse became the world’s first nuclear powered lighthouse on May 20, 1964, when a sixty-watt isotopic power generator called SNAP-7B was installed in it to see if such equipment could be used in remote locations. According to a local newspaper, this generator was “smaller than a 55-gallon oil drum,” and was reputed to be capable of supplying an uninterrupted ten-year flow of electricity without any maintenance or refueling. The installation of the 4,600-pound generator is shown in the photograph to the right, but it was removed two years later, after having been shown to be “completely reliable and quite stable,” and installed at an offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn't the Lighthouse Service's first foray into nuclear power as it had launched a nuclear buoy in 1961. Ironically, the first vessel to pass the lighthouse while the generator was being installed was the NS Savannah, the world's first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship.
To preserve the lighthouse, the windows were bricked up, the wooden door was replaced with a steel one, acrylic panes were installed in the lantern, and the access ladders were raised beyond normal human reach. In 1988, Lt. Sam Neill, commander of the Coast Guard buoy tender Red Birch, expressed concern for the condition of the lighthouse. While he acknowledged that the boat davits and the iron outhouse no longer had any utility, he still recommended painting them in the interest of “historical significance.” Between 1989 and 1990, the Red Birch’s efforts included sandblasting the caisson, caulking and painting the masonry, and replacing the water-logged timbers of the lantern floor with tongue and groove boards.
Baltimore Lighthouse was put up for public auction by the Real Property Disposal Division of the General Services Administration after no non-profit groups expressed interested in assuming responsibility for the structure when it was offered in 2004. With maintenance and repair costs escalating as our nation’s historic lighthouses age, private ownership is increasingly being turned to as a means to preserve them. The auction ended on June 28, 2006 with a final bid of $260,000. The new owner, BHL, LLC of Annapolis is a partnership of private citizens (four couples), who are committed to the preservation and restoration of Baltimore Harbor Light. The terms of sale dictate that the Coast Guard be granted access to the lighthouse for occasional checkups on the still-active light. The owners eventually plan on sharing their “privately owned museum” with the public through evenings or overnights at the lighthouse.
Head Keepers: John Berentsen (1908 – at least 1915), David W. Collison (at least 1917).
Located on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, 1.7 miles east of the southern
end of Gibson Island. The lighthouse is owned by BHL, LLC. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by BHL, LLC. Tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Lighthouses are a popular subject for painters, but I haven't seen many lighthouse tattoos. This tattoo of the Baltimore Lighthouse with the Pride of Baltimore sailing by was done by Joe Lathe-Vitale of Have Fun Be Lucky Tattoo in Hampden, MD.
See our List of Lighthouses in Maryland
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.