|Fort Washington, MD|
Description: The history of Fort Washington is intricately tied to its namesake, the man affectionately referred to as the ‘father of our country.’ Shortly after the founding of the nation’s capital, George Washington suggested that a defensive fortification be established downstream on the Potomac. The first fort on the site was not named after Washington but was rather called Fort Warburton, after Warburton Manor, the estate of Washington’s friend and neighbor William Digges. General Washington was a frequent dinner guest at the Manor, and a very ceremonial method was established for retrieving the General. Warburton was situated directly across the Potomac from Mount Vernon, and when Washington was ready for supper, he would stand upon a mound by the water and wave a flag. Seeing this, Digges would dispatch a barge, rowed by six Negroes outfitted with uniforms of check shirts and black velvet caps. This rather pretentious manner of transport was evidently not uncommon amongst the wealthy planters of the time.
In 1798, Washington called again for the erection of a fort near Warburton Manor, noting that, “Should proper works be erected here it would not be in the power of all the navies of Europe to pass this place.” After Britain and France threatened hostilities against the fledgling America, four acres were promptly purchased from the Digges family. Work on Fort Warburton began in the spring of 1808 and was completed by the end of the following year.
The fort received its first test during the War of 1812, and failed to live up to Washington’s prophecy. In August of 1814 British ships sailed up the Potomac for Alexandria, Virginia, shortly after the English army had taken control of the American capital. The warships shelled the fort from their anchor point near Mount Vernon itself. While this was happening, the garrison’s commander Captain Samuel T. Dyson ordered his men to retreat and blow up the fort by detonating the ammunition and explosives in the storehouse. This was evidently not the correct strategy, as the Captain was later court-martialed for abandoning his post and destroying government property.
The initial light at the fort had to be built for only $500, so it consisted of merely an eighteen-and-a-half-foot cast-iron tower topped with a feeble illuminating apparatus. This column, installed on November 7, 1857, was considered merely a ‘temporary’ stopgap to supply river going vessels with at least some form of navigational aid. Ordnance Sergeant Joseph Cameron was the first steward of the beacon and served until 1869. Protestations regarding the inadequacy of the light were soon made, and in 1870 corrective action was taken. In that year, the Lighthouse Board reported that “the framework of a beacon-light to replace the temporary post and lantern at Fort Washington” had been constructed at the Lazaretto lighthouse depot. The steamship tender Tulip transported the 16-foot tower to the Potomac fortress in February of 1870. This new structure was actually shorter than its predecessor, but it was more effective due to is position closer to the shoreline. In addition, it possessed a sixth-order Fresnel lens, which despite being the smallest order, was still a significant upgrade.
A 32-foot fog bell tower was added to the station in 1882, and the next year, after over two decades of requests, the Lighthouse Board reported that Secretary of War Robert Lincoln had given permission for “a small wooden structure suitable for a keeper’s dwelling” to be built near the tower. This house was completed in January of 1885, and was later upgraded with the addition of a brick water cistern and a new picket fence. In the ensuing years before the turn of the century, little of note occurred at the station except that a number of boathouses and sheds were constructed along the wharf. These proved troublesome to the light’s visibility atop its sixteen-foot tower. In 1900 the Board remarked that “the tower should be built about 6 or 8 feet higher than the present one, that the light may show above a structure which has recently been erected at the military post...” The Board also complained of deficiencies in the size of the lantern and its ventilation, and requested $1600 for a third tower.
This amount was never granted, and in 1901 the Board decided to modify the fog bell tower to accommodate a light. It reported that “four new caps were put on the sills of the fog bell tower...and a platform was built on them to support a lens lantern.” The old tower was soon demolished, and although the fog structure was intended as a temporary measure, it is still home to the Fort Washington light signal today.
The fort’s strategic significance had come to an end after the Civil War, and it was abandoned in 1872. However, when war with England again seemed a possibility, a trio of Rodman smooth-bore guns, supported by ninety soldiers of the 4th Artillery Battery, were placed in position overlooking the river in 1896. The men also had at their disposal an electrically controlled minefield. The fort later served as home to the 3rd Battalion 12th Infantry following World War I.
In 1939 the fortress grounds were slated to be used as the terminal point for a proposed bridge across the Potomac, but World War II interrupted the plans, and the fort eventually fell under the purview of the National Park Service. While the fort was changing hands, the lighthouse remained an active aid to navigation controlled by the Coast Guard. In 1948 the station consisted of the fog bell tower with a light, a seven-room keeper’s house, a wooden dock and a boathouse. The station’s sole keeper was tasked with maintaining twenty-one other lights and five lighted buoys up and down the Potomac River. This was a 40-mile round trip, and certainly a tall order, despite automation.
The wooden, dual light/fog bell tower is now all that remains of the station. While Fort Washington is a public museum-piece, the lighthouse itself is closed to public inspection. After 9/11/2001, the area immediately around the lighthouse was fenced off and became home to sophisticated military defense equipment. Signs on the fence carried at notice forbidding photography of the area, though several pictures taken during this time period can be found on the internet. The dark-colored equipment has now been removed from the area, and lighthouse visitors are free again to attempt to capture the humble lighthouse in a flattering light.
Located on the wharf in Fort Washington on the upper Potomac, across the
river from Mount Vernon. The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds open, tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.