|Lighthouses: Lighthouse Lore|
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Some early, land-based Chesapeake Bay lighthouses cost as little as $5,000, while caisson lights, built later and for open-water conditions, cost as much as $100,000 or more. Confronting severe erosion or weather-related assaults such as floating ice, lights in some locations were repeatedly damaged or destroyed and rebuilt. A succession of five different installations, including two towers, two lightships, and a screwpile lighthouse, were placed to warn mariners off the hazardous shoal at Smith Point, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. Today a sturdy caisson light marks the spot.
John Donohoo, of Havre de Grace, has been called the “master lighthouse builder of the Chesapeake.” In all, Donohoo built 12 Chesapeake Bay lights, including those at Thomas Point, Turkey Point, Cove Point, Poole’s Island, Piney Point, Point Lookout, Fishing Battery, and Concord Point. Seven Donohoo structures have survived to the present.
A Light on the Roof:
Lighthouses in which the lanterns were integrated into the keeper’s quarters are known as “integral” lighthouses. Because the structures were relatively inexpensive to build, they were a common option in the early years of U.S. navigational aids. The oldest one in the nation is the Point Lookout light at the entrance to the Potomac River.
A Low Paying Job:
Lighthouse keepers generally earned paltry wages. In 1806, the keeper of the Cape Henry light was paid only about $16 a month for his services. By the 1890s, the maximum wage had risen to about $50 per month. In the early years of lightships, all of $73 a year—twenty cents a day—was allotted for each crew member’s sustenance.
The Fresnel Lens:
Before electricity, Bay lighthouse lanterns glowed with the light of oil lamps magnified by highly polished lenses. Eventually all featured lenses equipped with a carefully crafted prism and powerful magnifier invented by the French physicist Augustin Fresnel. Fresnel’s revolutionary lenses came in seven different sizes, or “orders.” A first-order Fresnel lens, the largest, was a whopping 7 feet 10 inches high and just over 6 feet in diameter. Many Bay beacons were fitted with fourth or fifth order lenses—the latter only about 20 inches tall and roughly 14 inches in diameter. Even these smaller Fresnel lenses were powerful enough to cast a beam for miles across Bay waters.
20th Century Lights:
Only five of the 74 Chesapeake Bay lights were commissioned in the twentieth century. The last to be built, the Chesapeake Light Tower 14.5 miles east of the Bay’s entrance (built in the “Texas tower” style reminiscent of oil-drilling platforms), was constructed in 1964. Until the tower became fully automated, personnel were transported to the tower by helicopter.
Who’s in Charge?
Beginning in colonial times, responsibility for lighthouses and other navigational aids in U.S. waters has resided with a series of entities and agencies:
Pre-1789 - Individual colonial governments
1789-1820 - U.S. Government
1820-1852 - Fifth Auditor of the Treasury
1852-1910 - U.S. Light-House Board
1910-1939 - Bureau of Lighthouses/U.S. Lighthouse Service
1939 - present - U.S. Coast Guard
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