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Point Lookout Light

Oct. 1, 2019
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Point Lookout Light, entrance to the Potomac River on Maryland's western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, Scotland, St. Mary's County, Maryland

Built in 1830, remodeled in 1873.

POINT LOOKOUT LIGHT

Location:  Northern mouth of the Potomac River
Date Built:  1830
Type of Structure:  Wooden dwelling with lantern on top.
Height:  Originally 24 feet, now 41 feet above mean high water
Characteristics:  Inactive
Foghorn:  Fog bell tower (no longer standing)
Builder:  John Donahoo
Appropriation:  $4,500
Range:  12 miles (when active)
Status:  Standing, but Inactive

Historical Information: 

  • Efforts to place a light on this point, which marks the northern side of the entrance to the Potomac River date back to 1825 when Congress appropriated $1,800 for the task. However, the landowner refused to accept the Government’s offer, instead pricing the desolate point of land at many times the going rate. A commission was established to set a reasonable price and the owner was later forced to sell. Interestingly, the Government went ahead and constructed the light while the land sale was still in arbitration. Congress revised its appropriation in 1828, authorizing $4,500 for a small lighthouse. John Donahoo was awarded the construction contract and erected the one story white brick dwelling with a lantern tower rising through the center of it’s red roof. James Geddes received the contract for the lamps and reflectors. It was commissioned September 20, 1830. In December 1832, a bit over two years later, the government finally received deed to the land.
  • During the Civil War the point was host first to a sprawling military hospital and, after 1863, to a Union prisoner of war camp. This camp became notorious for its squalid conditions and the thousands of Confederate prisoners who died there. Its existence also gave rise to numerous ghost stories after the light was decommissioned.
  • A fourth order Fresnel lens was installed in the 1850s shortly after the reorganization of all U.S. lights under the newly created Lighthouse Board. The lamp was upgraded again in 1860.
  • In 1872 a fog bell tower was constructed. As was common at the time, the bell tower contained a set of weights and a mechanism somewhat similar to a grandfather clock that could be wound for automatic ringing of the bell.
  • In 1883 the lighthouse was substantially enlarged so that two families of keepers could live there. A second story was added, along with new porches and the height of the lantern was increased from 24 to 41 feet. At this time the Point was also made into a buoy depot.
  • In 1888 a new, taller, fog bell tower was built as an attachment to the east end of the coal shed. The bell had to be relocated because the newer buoy and coal sheds had blocked the sound of the bell. At the same time, efforts were undertaken to combat shore erosion, which had become a problem.
  • In 1899 the lamp was upgraded to a new model fourth order lens.
  • In 1965 the light was replaced by an off-shore steel tower and shortly thereafter the property was turned over to the U.S. Navy.
  • In 1968 the bell tower was disconnected from the coal shed and moved to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD (www.cbmm.org). The structure is no longer inhabited, but basic actions have been taken over the years to maintain it. The Navy maintains a communication tower next to the old light and both are fenced off. However, it adjoins a small park and one can get close enough to get a good look at, and photograph the exterior. The lighthouse is open to the public once a year in November.

Researched and written by Matthew B. Jenkins, a volunteer through the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Light House Society.