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A Brief History of Lighthouses on the Chesapeake Bay

From a Slow Start
In 1789 President Washington signed an act which passed control of all U.S. lighthouses to the newly created Lighthouse Establishment under the Secretary of the Treasury. However, for the next 28 years construction of U.S. lights was somewhat haphazard and oversight shifted from person to person. It was during this early period, in 1792, that Cape Henry light in Virginia became the first lighthouse built on the Bay and the first built by the new United States government.

It was not until 1820 that the task was consolidated and put under the authority of the 5th Auditor of the Treasury, a man named Stephen Pleasonton. Lighthouse historians are universal in decrying this choice. Pleasonton was an accountant, with no maritime experience, who both lacked long-term vision and was overly cost-conscious. His reign lasted 32 years in the very important early stages of the region's development. In particular, Pleasonton, furthered use of the markedly inferior Lewis lighting systems well after Great Britain and most of Europe started using the newly developed Frensel lenses. His cost consciousness inhibited the construction of new lights, resulted in shoddy construction of many lights built, and lights that were often too short and in bad locations. Furthermore, there were inadequate standards for light maintenance and haphazard, insufficient, oversight of their operation.

The Chesapeake Bay fared better than much of the country in terms of quality of construction largely due to a builder named John Donahoo of Havre de Grace, MD. Between the years of 1823 and 1853 Donahoo built the majority of lighthouses on the Bay. Most were conical stone towers, standing between 35 and 45 feet tall, with a simple keepers house next to the tower. A few had a cupola style lantern on the roof of the keepers dwelling. While lacking architectural grace, most proved sturdy throughout the years.

The first congressional report to condemn the state of the U.S. lighthouse system under Pleasonton was issued in 1838. However, it was largely ignored and complaints from mariners increased. It was not until 1852 that the scathing, detailed, analysis of a second Congressional report resulted in complete overhaul of the U.S. lighthouse system. Congress established a permanent Lighthouses Board staffed by knowledgeable members and an era of great change and growth began.

Twelve Lighthouse districts were created, each with an inspector charged with ensuring that lights were maintained at high standards and that supplies were of top quality. New lighting systems were installed at all stations, in most cases Fresnel lenses, and a centralized support system was put in place. The buoy system was standardized and color schemes were established. The growth of the Chesapeake Bay region was accompanied by a huge increase in shipping traffic and the need for aides to navigation was acutely felt. An aggressive program of new lighthouse construction began and new technologies were embraced, including the screwpile.

By the early 1900s, the complexity of the task of establishing and maintaining all of the U.S.'s aids to navigation had outgrown the committee based organizational structure of the Lighthouse Board. In 1910 the board was disbanded and a Bureau of Lighthouses was established within the Department of Commerce. The Bureau's operating agency was called the U.S. Lighthouse Service and George Putnam was named the Commissioner of Lighthouses. Putnam was an able administrator and improved the efficiency of oversight, while improving employee working conditions, benefits and pay. He also embraced technology and oversaw the automation of many lighthouses, the establishment of radio beacons, and the development of automated lighted buoys.

Oversight of ATONs (Aids TO Navigation) changed a final time in 1939 when the Lighthouse Service was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard. Civilian keepers and other employees were given the option of either enlisting in the Coast Guard at comparable rank and pay, or to continue in their civilian status under Coast Guard command. The results were about a 50/50 split.

During the ensuing decades technology continued to improve and automation became complete. Radio technology in particular decreased the importance of lighthouses (as LORAN and GPS have even more recently). In an age of automated steel towers and buoys, 100 + year old lighthouse structures became increasingly expensive to maintain. Neglect and vandalism both paid their toll. In the Bay, many of the screwpile lights were dismantled during the 1960s. Several of the old iron frames, now supporting a cement platform and battery operated light, are visible off the shores of Annapolis, Oxford, Windmill Point, Tangier Island, Cob Island, and elsewhere. A renewed public interest has resulted in many of the remaining structures being placed on the National Historic Register and now the Coast Guard finds itself in some degree of a balancing act between efficiently maintaining a state-of-the-art ATON system and the public's wish to preserve this piece of the nation's heritage. Their many actions, from restoration of remote caisson lights to preserving New Cape Henry and the recent transfer of Cove Point to the Calvert Marine Museum, are a tribute to their good intent.
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