From colonial wooden vessels to today’s large cargo ships, transportation
and commerce have been central to how we have interacted with the Bay. The first
navigational aids were buoys at major shoals and the flames of signal fires laid
on promontories. Unfortunately, neither were reliable. Devastating shipwrecks
were common; some vessels ran aground when pirates seeking profitable plunder
relocated signal fires. As ship traffic increased, water-borne commerce through
the Bay became our nation’s lifeblood and safe passage demanded a more dependable
solution—lighthouses, planned and operated by a central authority. The ninth
law passed by our fledging Congress placed jurisdiction over navigational aids
in the hands of the federal government, and in 1792 the first lights illuminated
the Bay’s entrance at Cape Henry.
In the 1800s a flurry of lighthouse construction kept pace with ever-growing
Bay commerce and technological innovations such as steam-powered vessels. Steamers
laden with passengers and cargo soon plied routes up and down the Bay and its
tributaries. By 1860, dozens of lighthouses and lightships had come into service
along the Bay’s western shore, up the James and Potomac Rivers and at
the entrances to the harbors of commercial hubs such as Hampton Roads, Baltimore
and Annapolis. Along the Eastern Shore, lighthouses and other navigation aids
became just as essential for commercial fishers harvesting the Bay’s bounty.
By 1900, lighthouses or lightships marked the majority of the Bay’s most
harrowing obstacles to navigation.
In 1700, an estimated 30,000 tons of cargo moved through the Chesapeake Bay,
mostly in commerce with Great Britain. In 2000 Bay waterways carried more than
85 million tons of cargoes in trade with nations around the globe.
[ Next: Keeping The Lights On ]