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Historic And Romantic Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses

By Maryanne Goff

There are few landmarks more fascinating to all ages than Chesapeake Bay lighthouses. These navigational beacons were designed out of sheer necessity, with form dictated by function, but they are also beautiful and romantic. The ones that have survived weather and war stand serenely on the shore or surrounded by open water, reminding all of us that nature is both beautiful and terrible.

Over seventy-five of these important navigational aids were built on the Bay from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Less than half have survived, and fewer than a third are still in operation. The ones still lighting the way for mariners are automated now rather than manned.

The Bay has deep channels with many shallow shoals that can spell disaster to ships and boats. The earliest lights were built on the coastline, at the mouths of rivers or on islands. In colonial times, lanterns were put on top of cottages or raised on rough wooden towers. Later stone or brick towers were erected to hold the lights, with tiny living space for the keepers who kept the flame going. Poole’s Island has one of the oldest surviving structures.

The Bay has a type of beacon unique to this area, the ‘screwpile’ lighthouse. These structures are hexagonal or octagonal houses, really, built on iron legs driven deep into the mud under the water. Their shape helped to stabilize the structures. The living quarters for the keeper and family were much more generous than those in land lights. The beacon was on top of each multi-story building.

Go to the photo galleries online to ‘get the picture’ of these signature structures, like the charming one at Thomas Point that was not automated until 1986. Contrast the house-like screwpiles with the next innovation, the caisson tower. There were twelve of these cast iron towers, built on foundations strong enough to withstand waves, wind, wild storms, and heavy ice. All of these sturdy towers remain, including the tilted one at Sharp’s Island.

The sight of one of these structures against the backdrop of islands or river mouths, or surrounded by open water, never fails to stir the beholder. They highlight the dangers of navigating the Bay, which can be peaceful when the sun shines or the moon sails the night sky, but which is as wild as the sea when storms rage or the fogs roll inland. They also stand as tribute to man’s ingenuity and refusal to be cowed by natural forces.

In addition to internet sites and photo galleries, there are many books and video documentaries on the Bay and its landmarks. The stories of the lonely life of a keeper or a keeper’s family, of savage storms, and of heroic rescues never fails to enthrall visitors. There are also engineering and mechanical aspects of each structure which are interesting even to those who usually prefer birdwatching.

There are funds, both public and private, that seek to preserve the historic Chesapeake Bay lighthouses. You can take a tour to view some of those that remain, either retired from service or still operational. You can even go into some of them and climb to the top of history itself.

Chesapeake bay lighthouses and fishing charts can be seen at We are a leading publisher of nautical prints. To contact us, visit today.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Goff, Maryanne "Historic And Romantic Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses." Historic And Romantic Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses. 9 Apr. 2014. 30 Jul 2014 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Goff, M (2014, April 9). Historic And Romantic Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses. Retrieved July 30, 2014, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Goff, Maryanne "Historic And Romantic Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses"

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