|Sharps Island, MD|
Description: Today Sharps Island Lighthouse sits in ten feet of water, warning seafarers of the shoals off Poplar Island and Black Walnut Point. The sharply tilted caisson structure is the third lighthouse to service this area of the Eastern Chesapeake Bay near the entrance to the Choptank River. The first lighthouse was actually situated on Sharps Island, which at one time comprised about 900 acres and was home to a thriving agricultural community. In the 17th century the isle had three owners: William Claiborne, John Bateman and Peter Sharp, a Quaker physician whose name was applied to the island.
By the time the Lighthouse Service made plans for a navigational beacon on Sharps Island, the fate of the shrinking island was a foregone conclusion. That is why in 1837 Congress appropriated the relatively small sum of $5,000 to build an integrated and portable station, with the lantern built on top of the wooden keeper’s quarters. In 1848, the lighthouse was moved farther inland as the island continued to lose the battle with erosion. This early navigational aid possessed a fixed light, which was upgraded using a fifth-order Fresnel lens in 1855. In 1865, the Lighthouse Board noted: “The sea, however, is gradually but surely undermining the bluff, and has already reached one corner of the building, leaving no doubt as to the result.”
A wealthy Baltimore boot and shoe manufacturer, Miller R. Creighton, purchased Sharps Island in 1895 with two business partners and soon started construction on a hotel, even though the island was losing several feet of its surface area each year to the encroaching Chesapeake. The three-story, hotel, adorned with six gables, overlooked a long boardwalk that led to a steamboat landing on the bay. By 1900, the steamboat pier was gone, and soon the hotel, like the island's old lighthouse, became a victim of the island's eroding shore.
The screwpile lighthouse was soon completed, but during its first winter, it was “severely tried” by ice that “was of unusual weight and strength.” In 1879, two of the lighthouse's diagonal cast-iron braces were carried away by heavy drift ice, so a detached ice-breaker was placed about 200 feet south of the lighthouse, along the axis of the current. The ice-breaker consisted of three wrought-iron screw-piles, eight inches in diameter and nearly twenty-four feet in length, which were surrounded by two hundred cubic yards of riprap.
This defensive work was no match for the heavy, moving ice fields of February 10, 1881, which wrenched the lighthouse from its foundation and carried it away. The Board reported that despite the tragedy “there was no loss of life; the keepers remained on the wreck until it grounded” on a point five miles away.
Less than a month after the destruction of the second lighthouse, Congress earmarked a hefty $35,000 to build a cast-iron, concrete-filled caisson upon which a brick-lined, iron tower would be situated. The Board recognized that another screwpile was “liable to be again destroyed by the heavy runs of ice so prevalent in Chesapeake Bay in severe winters...” They were confident, however, that “the solidity and great weight of (a caisson structure)...would be effective.”
The caisson was constructed to be both 30 feet in diameter and height; the iron tower containing the keepers’ quarters and topped by a ten-sided lantern room was 37 feet high. This puts the light about 54 feet above mean high tide. Construction was somewhat delayed on the project, and when the keepers took up residence in the early winter of 1882 the water cisterns and other equipment had yet to be installed. The lighthouse originally possessed a fixed white light pouring forth from a fourth-order lens, of French manufacture.
Although the sturdy caisson withstood the ice pressure far better than its screwpile predecessor, in the 1970s especially heavy winter ice gave Sharps Island Lighthouse its characteristic tilt. The list is about 15 to 20 degrees, and appears quite precarious although the structure is, to date, fundamentally sound. The inclination, however, was severe enough to require the removal of the Fresnel lens, which was replaced with a 250 millimeter plastic beacon. This new apparatus was placed on a leveling plate fastened to the lens pedestal, where it gives off a flashing white signal. A red sector is used to mark dangerous shoals.
The Maryland Historical Trust conducted a detailed study of the tower and found that the iron plates of the caisson were cracked and corroding. This condition is due both to water leaking into the interface of the iron and concrete segments of the caisson, causing freezing and thawing damage, as well as a lack of paint to protect the structure. Water damage is not limited to the caisson only. A combination of an open door, unglazed windows and an uncovered coal chute have led to the rotting away of the first level’s wooden floor and spalling of the tower’s brick masonry lining.
A wooden staircase leads from the first level and ascends along the curved walls to the upper floors that have unfortunately not escaped exposure and corrosion damage either. Poor ventilation, demonstrated by the seven porthole windows in the watchroom being glazed with unventilated acrylic, and exposure to the elements have contributed to the current condition.
The ultimate fate of this deteriorating lighthouse has not yet been determined. One estimate puts the repair bill at a quarter of a million dollars, and the Coast Guard has shown reluctance to spend money on continual upkeep. In 1996, the head of lighthouses for the Coast Guard’s 5th District, Lt. Edward Westfall, pondered the wisdom of spending $8,000 on a paint job for the structure. “Before we do that, we want to make sure we’re spending the money wisely,” he said. “We get into the question of should we maintain something that isn’t being used.” The Coast Guard contemplated demolition of the light, partly because of the precarious leaning of the 54-foot tower. While Lt. Westfall believed there “is no immediate danger” of the tower tumbling, another Coast Guard official expressed concern that it could possibly fall while personnel were inside.
Leading lighthouse expert F. Ross Holland remarked that Sharps Island is a “nice old lighthouse, but there is nothing special about it or its history.” He also stated that its demolition wouldn’t be a great loss as there is another coffee-pot-shaped lighthouse nearby at Bloody Point. “If one is to be taken away,” Holland reasoned, “there would still be one in existence.” His comments could be construed as anathema to the sentiments of many lighthouse enthusiasts, who believe that all lighthouses are worth preserving.
To date, the light has neither been demolished nor fallen on its own. In 2006, the General Services Administration posted a notice that Sharp’s Island Lighthouse was “in excess to the needs of the Federal Government.” This notice makes the light available to federal or state agencies, non-profits, and historical preservation and educational institutions. If no qualifying entity wants to claim stewardship over the light, it can then be auctioned to private bidders, but it is unlikely that such a precarious, deteriorating structure would attract much interest. The question of stewardship poses a challenge to Maryland State law, which prohibits relocating old lighthouses. A non-profit organization or town would possibly want to move the light, but this might be discouraged by those who insist that lighthouses lose their historical integrity once moved and they still serve as reassuring daymarks. Sharps Island Lighthouse is currently very inaccessible, and it may be better to move it to land where it can be enjoyed by many, rather than having it slowly deteriorate and ultimately settle on the floor of the bay.
When no qualified owner was found for the lighthouse, the General Services Administration (GSA) disposed of it via an online auction in 2008. Quite surprisingly, the winning bid, submitted on September 23, was $80,000, a significant amount considering that just a day before the Borden Flats Lighthouse, which is in much better condition, sold for $55,0000. The GSA noted in its Invitation for Bids that the lighthouse was physically inaccessible, the iron plates in the caisson were cracked and corroding, and the wooden floor on the first level was unstable. The new owner, who has been identified as AFB, Inc. of Bear, Delaware, has certainly assumed a huge undertaking but will hopefully be up to the task.
Located just over three miles south southwest from the southern end of
Tilghman Island. The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Captain Murphy was featured in a show on The Food Network shown during the spring of 2001. The show featured seafood of the Chesapeake Bay, and had a segment with Captain Murphy aboard the Miss Kim instructing the reporter on crabbing techniques.
See our List of Lighthouses in Maryland
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Rees Chapman, used by permission.