|Cove Point, MD|
Description: The Cove Point Lighthouse was originally intended not for Cove Point at all, but for nearby Cedar Point. In 1825, Congress set aside money for a Cedar Point beacon near the entrance to the Patuxent River. Mariners had for years urged the construction of a lighthouse that would both guide ship traffic in the Chesapeake Bay and assist vessels into the Patuxent River. To better serve these river-bound ships, it was decided to move the site four miles north to Cove Point, where it could mark a shoal that extended out from that sandy spit of land. In 1828 Congress made a new appropriation of $5,685, and in that same year 4 ½ acres of land at the tip of Cove Point were acquired from Dorcas G. Bourne for $300.
The lighthouse at Cove Point is a squat masonry tower in the shape of a truncated cone, a design commonly used by prolific lighthouse builder John Donahoo. The tower and its accompanying one-and-a-half story keeper’s dwelling were both made of local brick. The house originally measured 20 by 34 feet and had an attached 12 by 14 foot kitchen. A cistern for storing rainwater was located in the dwelling’s cellar.
The 38-foot tower possesses a beautiful winding staircase that ascends to the lantern. The treads of the staircase are triangular, with the outermost side of each step imbedded in the tower’s masonry and the innermost edge fitted to a central column. Accompanying the central column is a square wooden tube, which held the counterweights formerly used to rotate the lens.
James Somerville was the first keeper of the light, which was first shown in December of 1828. He was selected from a pool of eleven applicants and was paid $350 a year. In Somerville’s day, the Fresnel lens was not yet in use in the United Sates, so eleven oil lamps and as many 18-inch reflectors served as the original light source. This necessitated diligent trimming of the lamp wicks, as burned wicks created extra smoke that dirtied the lighting apparatus and obscured the light. Another early hardship was hauling the fuel up the spiral staircase, which Somerville and other keepers did four to six times each day. Initially whale oil, which provided a lucid and unwavering light, was used. Oil from the sperm whale was, but eventually a decline in the whaling industry raised the price of the oil to a prohibitive amount. Other fuels were utilized throughout the 19th century, including experiments with canola oil extracted from wild cabbage plants. The Lighthouse Board pleaded with farmers to grow more of this vegetable, as it did not grow in abundance naturally. Eventually other fuels like lard oil, kerosene, and incandescent oil vapor all took their turns powering Cove Point’s light.
The fuel problem was partially solved by the 1855 introduction of a fifth-order Fresnel, which required only a single lamp. In 1857 the lens was upgraded to a fourth-order. The need for fuel was entirely obviated in 1928, when the light was converted to electrical operation. At this time, a different fourth-order Fresnel lens, stamped with the manufacturer’s name of Barbier and Benard, was installed. Although the light was automated, the keepers still needed to wind up the counterweights to rotate the lens until an electric motor was later added for this purpose.
The keeper’s dwelling was given a second story in 1883. The Lighthouse Board reported that “the roof of the dwelling was removed in May, the walls were raised, and a new roof, covered with tin, was constructed.” The report went on to assert that with the addition, “the station has six good rooms and a good basement or cellar, and is in excellent order.” In 1925, a large dormer structure was placed atop the dwelling to provide another half-story of living space. The enlarged structure was then divided into two apartments for the head keeper and an assistant. By tradition, the head keeper always lived in the side of the dwelling nearest the tower.
The station tasks, which included fueling the lamp, dusting, polishing the lens, winding the light’s rotational mechanism, and cleaning the copper and brass portions of the station , were divided into two shifts. The keepers wore linen to keep from damaging the lens, and the lens was covered with linen cloth every morning.
Cove Point station saw a great many upgrades to its auditory warning system, both due to breakdowns and advances in technology. Funds for the original fog bell were appropriate in 1837. At various points from 1858 to 1887, Lighthouse Board reports indicate that the fog bell tower had to be significantly reworked or replaced altogether. In 1892 the encroaching Chesapeake waters had reached the fog bell tower, requiring it to be moved back sixteen feet. In 1898 a “dilapidated wooden” fog tower was replaced with one made of iron. This tower was “ a square pyramidal skeleton structure, 31 feet high, standing on and anchored to brick piers 3 feet by 3 feet in plan...”
The iron structure lasted just three years, after which time the fog bell was rendered obsolete by a second-class Daboll trumpet powered by an air compressor. A 12 by 16 foot wooden building was constructed to house the new machinery, and the old iron bell was mounted on the roof as a backup. Around 1950, the fog signal equipment, which had been through several incarnations over the years, was moved to a new 13 by 22 foot brick building that also housed equipment for a radio beacon. Both the wooden and brick structures remain on-site today.
Shoreline erosion has been a persistent problem at the station, and has threatened the lighthouse as much as any other structure. In 1892, a seawall was built to hold the ground in place. It was “composed of 4 inch sheet piling, 12 feet long, forced into the ground and backed by 6 inch waling pieces, bolted to heavy piles, 25 feet long, driven 12 feet apart on a line 340 feet long.” A reinforced concrete seawall replaced the wooden version in 1913, and this was rebuilt in 1993. These efforts have succeeded in keeping the shoreline just a few feet removed from the tower’s foundation.
Donahoo’s tower has retained its structural integrity over the years, thanks to regular maintenance. Plastering, painting, cement work and roofing have all contributed to a pristine station. Until 1986, a trio of coastguardsmen with rotating shifts took care of the lighthouse, which helped cut down on the vandalism that has plagued similar structures. Each of the keepers worked eight hours on and eight off for two days and was then given a full day to recuperate. In the twentieth century the keepers were saved the necessity of frequently climbing the stairs, as a switch at the base of the tower turned the lantern on and off.
Located in a vacation area, the lighthouse received a lot of visitors. Many vacationers would walk right up to Coast Guard personnel, who resided in the old keeper’s house and other buildings, and request tours of the lighthouse. The addition of a fence helped control this situation.
The lighthouse was completely automated in 1986, when a fog detector, a lamp-changer and a computer connected to headquarters obsoleted the keeper’s position. In October of 2000, the station was officially transferred from the Coast Guard to Calvert County, and since then the Calvert Marine Museum has been in charge of providing public access. The station remains an active aid to navigation, and caretakers live in the single-story frame cottage that was built by the Coast Guard as enlisted quarters around 1950.
The Calvert Marine Museum Society hired a company to provide a marketing and use study on the property. The company's recommendation was to use the keeper's dwelling for weekly vacation rentals, and after the society raised $600,000, it had the house renovated and divided down the middle to serve as two rental units. Each side has three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. Work started in June 2011 and was finished a year later.
The interior was painted with the colors “sand,” “grass,” “sea,” and “sky,” to tie in with the bayside setting. The kitchen table in one of the units was made locally using materials from the dismantled Cedar Point Lighthouse. The site will still remain open to the public during visiting hours.
Photo Gallery: 1
Located on Cove Point four miles north of the entrance to the Patuxent River on
the western side of the Chesapeake Bay.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.