Tragic shipwrecks. Heroic rescues. A lonely man tending the light, guiding sailors safely home. Steeped in lore like this, most lighthouses exude their own brand of mystique, and the historic beacons near Washington, D.C., are no different.
Because the Chesapeake Bay is filled with treacherous shoals, a whopping 74 lights once marked the way for pleasure sailors, commercial fishermen, merchant ships en route to Baltimore and military vessels headed for Norfolk. Fewer than half survive today, but southern Maryland remains a feast for lighthouse lovers.
Four of the bay’s most intriguing lights cluster near Solomons Island, all within easy driving distance of one another. But be forewarned: Visiting lighthouses can be addictive, like gobbling pieces of saltwater taffy—you always think you’ll stop after just one more.
Point Lookout Lighthouse
Point Lookout State Park, 11175 Point Lookout Road, Scotland, Md., 301-872-5688, www.pllps.org
Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first Saturday of the month from April through November. Admission to the lighthouse is free; admission to the park is $3 per vehicle or $7 per person.
Reputed to be among the most ghost-friendly lighthouses in the country, Point Lookout Lighthouse is reached by driving through the dark, piney woods of Point Lookout State Park to the tip of a needle-thin peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake. This lonely spot, literally at the end of the road, boasts a nearly 300-degree view of the water. The lighthouse itself—basically a square two-story cottage topped by a lantern—feels abandoned.
Aside from its spooky setting, Point Lookout packs an eerie history. The lighthouse got off to an unlucky start when its first keeper died just two months after assuming his post in 1830. His widow took over and apparently did a good job; a report written by the captain of the lighthouse supply boat noted, “Mrs. Davis is a fine woman, and I am sorry she has to live on a small naked point of land.”
During the Civil War, Point Lookout housed a prisoner-of-war camp for 50,000 Confederate soldiers. Some 4,000 died and were buried near the lighthouse. After the light was decommissioned in 1966, tenants of the house reported hearing voices during storms and seeing strange lights. Park rangers have recorded numerous sightings of a man in old-fashioned clothes running across the road near the old Confederate cemetery, always traveling in the same direction, then disappearing.
Point Lookout is a popular spot with ghost hunters. During Paranormal Nights, held twice each month, participants can conduct their own investigations of the lighthouse after dark for a $50 fee.
Piney Point Lighthouse
44720 Lighthouse Road, Piney Point, Md., 301-994-1471, www.stmarysmd.com/recreate/PPL.asp
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, April through September, and noon to 4 p.m. Friday to Monday, October through December. Admission: $3, adults; $2, military and senior citizens; $1.50, students 6 to 18; free for children 5 and younger.
Any stretch of sand relaxing enough to attract past residents of the Oval Office can probably work its magic on today’s stressed-out Washingtonians. Piney Point Lighthouse guards the same beach where James Monroe built a cottage known as the Summer White House. Teddy Roosevelt also visited the area and nicknamed Piney Point “The Lighthouse of Presidents.”
Visitors to this quiet, sunny spot on the Potomac can even arrive by boat, tying up at the public pier. The pier spans a beach speckled with shells and makes an inviting spot for a picnic. A few yards inland, beyond the waving dune grass, the squat white lighthouse tower rises just 35 feet into the air, next to the old keeper’s house.
Built in 1836, Piney Point is the oldest lighthouse on the Potomac. Its curators like to note that it predates the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument, and like those structures, Piney Point is a great place for climbing to the top. Scaling the 20 steps isn’t taxing, but it definitely isn’t for anyone with claustrophobia or a fear of heights. The stairs form a dizzyingly steep spiral, and visitors must climb a ladder to reach the trapdoor of the lantern room.
A small museum next door tells the story of the lighthouse. During World War II, Piney Point served as a testing ground for the torpedoes built at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va. After the war, a German sub with experimental rubber skin designed to be invisible to sonar was sunk a mile off the point in a military exercise.
Drum Point Lighthouse
Calvert Marine Museum, 14200 Solomons Island Road, Solomons, Md., 410-326-2042, www.calvertmarinemuseum.com
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission: $7, adults; $2, children 5-12.
A miniature six-sided cottage, the Drum Point Lighthouse looks as if it was lifted from the pages of a fairy tale, with clapboard siding, dormer windows and a white rail fence. If a Disney princess had to live in a lighthouse, this might be the one she’d pick.
Technically, Drum Point is known as a screwpile lighthouse, a style common in the shallow Chesapeake Bay. These cottages were set atop cast-iron pilings that could be screwed directly into the seafloor. Because they were built offshore, their keepers commuted to work by boat, which added to the isolation of lighthouse living.
Built in 1883, Drum Point was cut from its pilings in 1975 and towed two miles down the Patuxent River to the Calvert Marine Museum, where it rests on the pier today.
The museum offers guided tours of the restored lighthouse, now filled with period furnishings. The tour starts with visits to the downstairs bedrooms, sitting room and kitchen. A spiral staircase leads to an additional bedroom and the 1,400-pound fog bell that keepers rang all night long when weather obscured the light itself. (A set of weights was rigged to ring the bell for two hours at a time; it’s said that when the ringing stopped, the keepers would be startled awake by the sudden silence and reset the weights.)
Intrepid visitors can climb another winding stair to see the lens itself, which can focus light so powerfully that after it was electrified a 100-watt lightbulb was visible from 11 nautical miles away.
Cove Point Lighthouse
3500 Lighthouse Blvd., Lusby, Md., 410-326-2042, www.calvertmarinemuseum.com
Open 1 to 4 p.m. daily, June through August, and on weekends in May and September. Admission is free.
For nearly two centuries, ships navigating the narrow center of the Chesapeake looked for the flash of Cove Point Lighthouse—and they still do so today. The oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Maryland, Cove Point was built in 1828. (The first keeper, James Somerville, beat out six other applicants to snag the annual salary of $350.)
A lens manufactured in Paris in 1897 still sends its beacon shining over the bay. Although the Coast Guard now operates the light remotely, Cove Point was staffed until being automated in 1986.
The 51-foot brick tower is maintained by the Calvert Marine Museum. Visitors can tour the grounds, ring the fog bell and enter the base of the lighthouse, although access to its graceful winding staircase is restricted because the light is still in operation.
Starting this summer, Cove Point will become one of the rare sites where visitors can experience the life of a lighthouse keeper, if only for a night. The newly renovated keeper’s house, equipped with bedrooms, a living room and full kitchen, will be available for rent for the first time. (At press time, rental rates were not yet available.) Overnight visitors will also have access to the beach.