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 Thomas Point Shoal, MD    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.
Description: The southernmost point of the peninsula on which Annapolis is situated is called Thomas Point, after Philip Thomas, one of its early owns who arrived in Maryland from Bristol, England in 1651. The need for a lighthouse at Thomas Point was recommended in an 1821 letter from William B. Barney, Naval Officer for the port of Baltimore, to Stephen Pleasonton of the U.S. Treasury.
Many ship owners and seafaring men of respectability have frequently spoken to me on the subject of a light to be placed at the end of Thomas’ Point bar, a few miles below Annapolis; which extends a considerable distance out into the Bay, cutting the direct track of vessels bound up or down; at the end of which from four feet, you instantly deepen to six and seven fathoms water. A light placed here, would be of as great utility as perhaps any one in the Chesapeake Bay.

Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse in 1885
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The first light to mark Thomas Point was also prolific lighthouse builder John Donahoo’s first attempt at a lighthouse. After Congress provided $6,500 on May 26, 1824 for its construction, Donahoo began work on a conical, thirty-foot-tall tower, which was eighteen feet in diameter at its base and tapered to nine feet at the lantern room. A cozy, stone keeper’s cottage was built at the same time, measuring twenty by twenty-four feet and containing two large rooms, each with its own fireplace. Thirteen lamps, set in an equal number of spherical reflectors, were used to produce a fixed white light from 1825 until May 1855, when a fifth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room.

By 1838, the lighthouse, originally located 500 feet from the edge of a high bluff, was in danger of toppling into the bay. Winslow Lewis, an early associate of Donahoo’s, was given $2,000 to tear down the old lighthouse and rebuild it behind the keeper’s dwelling, and a large quantity of rubblestone was placed at the base of the bluff. Over time, erosion reduced the seven-acre acre parcel on which the lighthouse was built to a two-acre island, separated from the mainland by a strip of water. The lighthouse remained standing until 1894, when it too was lost to erosion.

Years before the lighthouse collapsed, the Lighthouse Board had moved to replace it. In 1872, the Board reported “that the lighthouse at Thomas’s Point … can serve but poorly its purpose as a warning of the dangerous shoal that makes out from it at a distance of one and one quarter miles into the bay” and recommended that a screwpile lighthouse, equipped with a fog bell, be built at the point of the shoal. Congress provided $20,000 for the project on March 3, 1873.

During the winter of 1872 – 1873, the screwpile lighthouse at Love Point had two of its support columns broken by ice floes, prompting the Lighthouse Board to change the planned foundation for Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse from screwpiles to a concrete-filled caisson “that could be depended on at all times to safely withstand the heavy ice-floes that form above it in the bay.” The Board requested additional funds to cover the increased cost of the lighthouse, but after another $15,000 was appropriated by Congress in March 1875, the decision was made to proceed with the original plan for a screwpile lighthouse.

Five acres of submerged land were conveyed to the Federal Government by the State of Maryland on October 28, 1874, and Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was ready for its inaugural lighting on November 20, 1875, the same date the old Thomas Point Lighthouse was discontinued. Thomas Point Shoal’s hexagonal cottage has a diameter of thirty-five feet and rests upon seven piles, a single central pile and six perimeter piles, each of which has a diameter of ten inches. The dwelling is picturesque, exhibiting such careful touches as carved balusters on the walkways encircling both the first level and the lantern, and six dormer windows interrupting the dwelling’s sloping roof at regular intervals.

Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse in 1928
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The cottage’s first level is divided into five rooms: a mechanical room, bedroom, bathroom, dayroom, and kitchen. Although the original privy is still cantilevered over the bay from the lower gallery, the Coast Guard installed an indoor “incinomode,” an electrically superheated toilet that incinerates waste, around 1971. A central, spiral staircase leads to the second floor, where another bedroom and a room that formerly housed the fog bell striking mechanism are located. The lantern room, accessed by a ships ladder from the second level, is situated forty-three feet above mean high tide. After having been replaced by a modern beacon, the historic Fresnel lens formerly housed in the lantern room was removed to the Commander’s Office of the Coast Guard in Baltimore.

Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was endangered in the winter of 1877, when heavy sheets of ice damaged the screwpile foundation. The crushing impact of the ice overturned the station’s original third-and-a-half-order Fresnel lens in January, damaging it badly enough that it had to be replaced by a fourth-order Fresnel lens, manufactured by L. Sautter & Co. As a result, an ice-breaker consisting of “three wrought-iron screwpiles, connected together by double channel-iron beams, surmounted by heavy cast-iron caps, securely bolted together” was positioned ninety feet north of the light station along the axis of the current. Over the years, tons of riprap have been placed about the piles to provide further protection from ice and scouring.

On April 15, 1888, the station’s characteristic of a red flash seen from all directions was altered to display a flashing white light over a 169° arc covering the best water east of the lighthouse and a flashing red light elsewhere.

One example of assistance that was rendered by many of the station’s keepers occurred on September 17, 1928, when Keeper Henry Bryant and Earl C. Harris, his assistant, helped seven people, whose motorboat became disabled near the lighthouse. The keepers brought the boat to the lighthouse and repaired its propeller, allowing the boaters to continue on their journey.

By 1964, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was the only staffed offshore station on Chesapeake Bay. Four coastguardsmen divvied up lighthouse duties, with each taking a week of shore leave every four weeks. A lightship tender made a monthly delivery of fresh water, fuel. and supplies. This state of affairs lasted until the 1970s, when a three-man crew, with a two-weeks-on, one-week-off rotation took over. The crewman arriving at the station would bring groceries and mail for the week, and the one leaving would tote away the trash. Scott Kaufman, stationed at the lighthouse in the early 1980s, commented that living at the station gave him plenty of time to think. “All the problems you have. You can just sit out here and think out all the angles. I’ll even sit here and think about my friend’s problems. That’s how much time I have.”

Crewmen lowering Boston Whaler from station in 1968
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In 1972, the station felt the effects of tropical storm Agnes, which raised twenty-three-foot waves and brought them crashing down upon the cottage and foundation. The lighthouse managed to survive the assault with only minimal damage, but for a while there was some question if it would survive the Coast Guard’s announcement that same year that the lighthouse would be “evaluated for cost effectiveness.” In the past, other screwpile lighthouses had simply been set afire, and then replaced by a low-maintenance structure mounted on the old pile foundation. Public outcry, bolstered by politicians looking for a cause in an election year, managed to change the Coast Guard’s plans, and on January 23, 1975, Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse was granted historic landmark status. The Coast Guard staffed the lighthouse until it was fully automated on September 5, 1986. Cove Point Lighthouse and Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse were the final two staffed lighthouse on the bay.

Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, a consortium of four partners (the Annapolis Maritime Museum, the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, the City of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County) took control of Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse in 2004. The City of Annapolis serves as the owner of the station, leasing it to the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, which acts as the managerial organization. The Annapolis Maritime Museum houses exhibits on the lighthouse and serves as a shore-departure point for tours to the lighthouse, while Anne Arundel County offers expert advice on how best to preserve the light and the surrounding environment. Lighthouse enthusiasts are now fortunate to have the opportunity to tour the only unaltered screwpile lighthouse in the United States remaining attached to its original foundation.

Head Keepers: Benjamin Mead (at least 1829 – at least 1834), Augustine Sappington (at least 1835 – at least 1839), Hicks Rourke (at least 1841), W.R. Thompson (1842 – 1845), John Hebb (1845 – 1849), Ralph Basil (1849 – 1853), Walter Phelps (1853 – 1857), David V. Myers (1857 – 1861), W.D. Jones (1861 – 1869), Benjamin Ferguson (1869 ), William Hubbard, Jr. (1869 – 1873), E.H. Erdman (1873), John Wayson (1873 – 1874), George E. Sullivan (1874 – 1875), Eugene Burchenal (1875 – 1880), Charles Miller (1880 – 1881), Julius Warmkessel (1881 – 1886), George F. Culleton (1886 – 1901), Daniel A. White (1901 – 1904), John B. Suit (1904 – 1908), Henry C. Wingate (1908), William R. Schoenfelder (1908 – 1911), Sheldon R. Van Houter (1911 – at least 1915), Arthur Midgett (at least 1917) Oscar P. Olsen (1918 – at least 1919), James E. English (at least 1921), Paul B. Gray (1925 - ), Henry F.G. Bryant (1926 – 1940).

References

  1. “Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. “Thomas Point Shoal Light Station: National Historic Landmark Study,” Ralph Eshelman, January 20, 1999.
  3. Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse website.
  4. Bay Beacons, Linda Turbyville, 1995.

Location: Located one and a half miles off Thomas Point, at the mouth of the South River.
Latitude: 38.89903
Longitude: -76.43608

For a larger map of Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Thomas Point Lighthouse is best seen from the water. Official tours of the lighthouse are now available on select Saturdays and Sundays during the summer. Watermark Cruises and Chesapeake Lights offer Lighthouse Cruises that pass Thomas Point Lighthouse. We visited the lighthouse with Down Time Sportfishing Charters.

The lighthouse is also visible from Thomas Point Park. To reach the park, take exit 22 from Route 50 just east of Annapolis. Go south on Route 665, also know as Aris T Allen Boulevard, which will become Forest Drive. Follow Forest Drive for about 2.8 miles, then turn right onto Arundel On the Bay Road. Take Arundel On the Bay Road south to Thomas Point Road. Follow Thomas Point Road to Thomas Point Park, from where you can see the lighthouse. Note that Thomas Point Park is a limited access park. Call 410-222-7317 or 410-222-1969 prior to arrival to arrange for entrance. A permit to enter the park cost $25 in 2008 and only 75 per month were being issued.

The lighthouse is owned by the City of Annapolis. Dwelling/tower open during tours.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.