(Editor’s note: DeeDee Wood is the owner of Black Cat Curiosities, an online antiques research and sales venue. This installment completes a three-part “Eastern Shore Antiques Road Trip” series.)
Nancy Johnson, president of the Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation, smiles brightly for a photo, standing beside a fifth order Fresnel lens, an artifact encased inside the iconic lighthouse, situated at the end of Long Wharf in Cambridge.
Overlooking the Choptank River, the lighthouse has been in existence since 2012, an endeavor of enthusiastic citizens and the city to represent a maritime past with a replica of an original life-saving beacon that was once situated on the mouth of the Tred Avon River. Inside are artifacts and stories from yesteryear, a glimpse into the life of lighthouse keepers, and a promise to future generations that the lighthouse will be preserved and maintained.
In 1871 there was a screwpile lighthouse situated at the mouth of the Tred Avon River. It had six foundation pilings and four fender or “ice breaker” pilings, anchoring it into the depths of the river. In 1881 this particular lighthouse was abandoned by the lighthouse keeper, after a bad ice storm ravaged some of the fenders and tilted the lighthouse. In January of 1918, Ice flowed 30 feet around the lighthouse, causing the light to be knocked off of the foundation pilings completely. The U.S. Lighthouse Service abandoned the lighthouse after this tragedy.
From 1921-64 a lighthouse from the Eastern Shore of Virginia was brought to that location and was anchored into the river with foundation pilings. It had a lighthouse keeper during that era as well, and it also had a fog bell that would indicate warnings during thick fog, and a Fresnel lens that could project light up to 10 miles away on dark nights on the river. This light was decommissioned in 1964 and replaced with a “spider,” or metal framed structure with a red light that was more advanced, and could achieve the same warning job with less upkeep and danger.
In the 1990s in Cambridge, Maryland, the city and a group of citizens obtained existing plans from the National Archives for a replica of the lighthouse that once was located on the mouth of the Tred Avon River. It took 20 years of permits and planning, but in 2012, the Choptank River Lighthouse came into existence at the end of Long Wharf, the permanent foundations being driven into the river, forever placing the iconic structure into the hearts and minds of that city and beyond.
Johnson introduced me to some of the artifacts contained and displayed in the lighthouse, including items belonging to lighthouse keepers of the past during the Tred Avon days, representational artwork, an impressive Fresnel lens, a Compass Rose map painted on the floor, as well as a fog bell, models of the lighthouse and a Skipjack vessel, and other interesting items that represent the history of the lighthouse in and around that area of the Eastern Shore.
There are storyboards on the walls detailing lighthouse keepers’ lives and their family interpretations of events of life back in those early lighthouse days, as well as a replica of a small craft on the outside of the lighthouse, which represents crafts used for the keeper to leave the light by boat through a trap door, if a necessity arose.
Climbing the rising staircase to the light inspires awe and wonder as you look out over the mighty Choptank River, viewing the Frederick C. Malkus Bridge that brings visitors to Cambridge and across the river, travelers still, in a journey along waterways.
The 5th order Fresnel lens is showcased inside the lighthouse, on display with information describing how French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, in the early 1800s, designed a prism light that reflected and then captured that light so it produced a very focused beam that could be seen miles away. Johnson explained a bit to me about Fresnel lenses.
“There are six orders of Fresnel lenses,” she indicated, “and the one contained in the Choptank River Lighthouse is a 5th order lens. Not original to this area, it is on permanent loan from the U.S. Coast Guard and is an example of Fresnel lenses used in the original lighthouse when it was at the mouth of the Tred Avon River.”
She shared that lighthouse keepers had to polish the prisms on a daily basis to keep them clean and spotless, to reflect the ultimate amount of light to passing ships. An informational storyboard next to the light indicates before Fresnel invented his prism light, people tried many things to warn passing ships, including buckets filled with fire that could be swung, but nothing projected for miles like the physicist’s lens. The light was provided by kerosene and flame. Johnson shared that the flame was to stay lit from dusk until dawn.
The Compass Rose map, painted on the wooden lighthouse floor by Cambridge artist Margaret Ingersoll, is very intricate, and has been situated to point visitors to true north. This 16-point maritime map has origins that date back to early Roman maritime maps of the same type of design and name.
It is quite impressive to view as you walk upon the floors of the lighthouse and consider the orientation of seafarers and their challenges from long ago.
As you walk around the lighthouse, you will come upon a piece of complicated machinery that looks quite old and important. Nancy Johnson explained that this item is a fog bell and striker, and was extremely important in guiding mariners in the fog. She told me each fog bell on a lighthouse has a unique sound pattern that is particular to just that lighthouse, and that the mariners recognized the repeating pattern and knew what unique lighthouse area they had come upon in their journey in the thick fog, that often prohibited them from seeing the light.
There is a stopwatch from a former lighthouse keeper in another case, and Johnson told me that watch was used to help set the time on the fog bell to repeat every three seconds with the striker on the bell.
A sign near the fog bell on display indicates it is not original to the area, but is an example of one used at the mouth of the Tred Avon River, and is also on permanent loan from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Other items of interest in the lighthouse include a portrait of generous supporters and local Dorchester County residents, Rufus and Lorraine Todd, who helped the endeavors of bringing the replica to reality, an oil painting entitled, “Jewel of the Choptank,” by local artist George Wright, depicting the replica, several models that include a Skipjack boat that harvested oysters, a miniature Choptank River Lighthouse model, some cooking pans and a ceramic platter from one of the lighthouse keepers, and many informational displays mounted to the walls detailing the history of the lighthouse, which includes naming Philip LeCompte, Julian Austin and Harold Messick as lighthouse keepers through the light’s history.
When asked what this replica screwpile lighthouse means to her community, Johnson conveyed the importance of the lighthouse to the area.
“It is a beacon at the end of Long Wharf, an iconic presence in our community.” She went on to say that the Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation “honors and celebrates our heritage in ways that promote our economic development. The lighthouse attracts tourists, and we connect our guests with attractions, restaurants and businesses in our community.”
The President of the Foundation indicated that preservation is a prominent goal in the organization.
Johnson explains that “preservation is important to the lighthouse, as it is an icon and a heritage location for future generations.” She detailed that the Choptank River is brackish water, and that there is maintenance required on the undercarriage of the lighthouse by divers to keep this part in decent shape and condition, just one of the many details and lists to upkeep a lighthouse as it sits in weather and water over time.
The Choptank River Lighthouse provides specific staff for the river cruise ships that come into the deep water port, maintains a group of invaluable volunteers that are ambassadors to their community, and hosts an annual “Night Light” event, which in August of 2023 will celebrate 10 years of the lighthouse being on the end of Long Wharf.
The event provides funding support to help preservation projects among other goals for visitor and community relations. The Choptank River Lighthouse is open daily for visitors from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from May through October, and is located at the end of High and Water Streets at Long Wharf in Cambridge.
For more information regarding the lighthouse, visit www.choptankriverlighthouse.org.