It was a picturesque, late-summer afternoon as we slipped the lines and motored into Back Creek in Annapolis, Maryland. Skippering the center console was Tom Weaver, whom I met in the early 1990s. Back then, I was a clerk at Fawcett Boat Supplies and he was running Gaucho, the hot new Farr 44 sailboat in town. Weaver and I reconnected recently when he invited me to visit historic Baltimore Harbor Light.
“I’m running fishing trips that revolve around the lighthouse,” he told me. “Maybe we can do some fishing and you can stay on the light overnight, if you want to.” I was an immediate yes.
My excitement prevailed through a month of planning. And now, finally, we were motoring up Chesapeake Bay, then past the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toward the lighthouse, which is a mile off the Magothy River on the west side of Craighill Channel. “We can take as many as six people fishing with three guides,” Weaver said. “They get the guides, all meals, a night in the lighthouse, and then we take them to Boatyard Bar and Grill in Annapolis where the chef will cook their catch for lunch. It’s $6,250 for the two days, everything included.”
The United States Lighthouse Board first requested funds for Baltimore Harbor Light in 1890, but it took until 1894 for Congress to appropriate them. Test boring began in 1895 and revealed a bottom composed of 55 feet of soft mud over hard-packed sand. A series of alternate locations were studied in 1898 before the project shuttered for four years. Finally, in 1902, the U.S. Congress approved an additional $60,000. A 48-foot wood caisson was the first structure towed to the site, and workers sunk it to the bottom, welding iron plates around it along the way, but the caisson flooded and developed a heavy list. In the fall of 1902, a storm capsized the structure.
The contractor said he would return in spring 1903 to fix it, but defaulted on the contract.
Work on the lighthouse idled until 1905, when a new contractor came on-site. In 1907 the structure was righted, and in 1908, Baltimore Harbor Light was complete. It was commissioned on October 1 of that year.
Nearly 110 years later, Weaver and I arrive at the lighthouse, but my excitement turned into absolute panic. What I had figured to be a short, 10-foot climb up to the lighthouse landing platform was more like 20 to 25 feet up the side of the round, iron caisson on a wrought-iron metal ladder.
Despite my fear of heights, I scrambled up two levels and arrived on the concrete landing where Mark Jeffries, one of the investors in the lighthouse, was waiting.
“You get used to it,” he said, chuckling. “Some people aren’t bothered by it at all, but others need a little coaxing.”
Weaver stayed below and loaded our gear into a basket before Jeffries hoisted it up on a multipart tackle. “We’ve hoisted everything from dogs to coolers up with this thing,” Jeffries said. “There are 100 feet of lighthouse under your feet. It works out to 25 feet of water, around 25 feet of above-the-water caisson and 50-plus feet that’s sunk in the bottom.”
Jeffries and a small group of investors purchased the lighthouse for $260,000 at a 2006 U.S. Coast Guard auction. They have further invested personal and grant money to preserve it. The Coast Guard still maintains the navigation light and is allowed 24/7 access as part of the deal.
“So, this is it,” Jeffries said as we walked from the 360-degree concrete landing through a set of glossy, varnished double doors. “We replaced every door and window and are happy with the work. The lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, so all of the windows and doors had to be accurate for the time period.” Jeffries was unapologetic about the rustic feel of the place, which I loved.
“Our first goal was to get it completely watertight,” he said. “We shored up and replaced the entire roof and sealed up the top deck with elastomeric sheathing. We had to bring every single piece of building material out here piece by piece. It’s been quite a chore. Next, we start prettying up the interior.”
Walking around the structure gave me the feeling of going back in time. I imagined myself charged with keeping the light shining, no matter what Mother Nature threw my way. I can confirm that the interior is currently a rustic work in progress. Time- and weather-worn wood are on all five levels, floors and stairs creak under foot, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a square corner in many places. Still, these are the things that make the place charming—comfortable, even.
Three levels are furnished as living spaces for up to eight people, and several beds are scattered throughout. Water is captured from rainfall. A makeshift head/shower with instant hot-water heater looks like a great way to clean up after a long day of fishing.
There’s no electricity line from the mainland. “Everything is powered by solar and battery, but we’ll eventually install a couple of quiet generators to run a split air conditioning system,” said Jeffries. “The good news is there’s almost always a cooling breeze out here, even on the hottest days. Most folks just love coming out here and completely disconnecting from everything.”
A spiral staircase runs straight through the middle of the lighthouse, providing access to its five levels. After looking at the basement, deep inside the caisson, we navigated upward, all the way up to the light room. It was surprising to see that a small solar panel, a pair of batteries and a fixture that looks like a household bulb were virtually all that it took to identify this place as Baltimore Harbor Light to boaters and ships. An eagle replica mounted on the exterior light room railing helped to deter birds from trashing the place, but random piles of fish bones and guts were evidence that osprey had used the light as a dining venue.
Another point of interest about the light: Baltimore Harbor Lighthouse was the first and only nuclear-powered lighthouse. A SNAP-7B radioisotope thermoelectric generator was installed in May 1964 and removed only a year later.
We descended down to the main level and relaxed in the galley, where Jeffries mixed up some dark ’n stormys as Weaver and I watched a ship steam by the west side of the lighthouse. We all stopped talking for a few moments and soaked it all in.
“See what I mean?” Weaver asked.
“Yup,” I said. “If you can’t relax out here, you’re likely wound a little bit too tightly.”
Glasses clinked in a harmonious toast, signaling everyone’s agreement. Maybe being a lightkeeper was the best-kept career secret in history.