A fog-bound overnight stay at Cove Point Lighthouse cottage and a visit to nearby Drum Point Light brings a whole new perspective to the lightkeeper’s life.
by Wendy Mitman Clarke
Pea soup. That’s what they call this. Although, as I stand at Cove Point, Maryland, and stare out across what I know to be the Chesapeake Bay, it’s more like peering into a monster dust bunny than a greenish stew. The fog is so thick and gray on this early November evening, I can’t even see the immense and garishly lighted pier of the LNG terminal that stands offshore just half a mile away. I might as well be inside God’s lint trap. A ship is in the channel, its foghorn blowing steadily, and this is the only way that I know he’s southbound. He sounds close enough to hit with a rock, but fog is funny like that.
I had hoped this weekend would bring one of those November surprises we sometimes get on the Chesapeake, a gift of warm and sunny weather so my kids and I could enjoy our overnight stay at the Cove Point Lighthouse keeper’s cottage mostly on the beach looking for fossil shark’s teeth. But the fog hasn’t slowed them down; that’s my daughter out there in the 50-degree water with her pants rolled up to her knees, scooping out handfuls of sand and sifting them to find treasures. She says after your legs and toes get numb it’s really quite comfortable. I’m taking her word for it.
Standing here, though, my skin damp and chilled in the 100 percent humidity, I realize that this is perfect lighthouse weather. How else to better imagine oneself as a lightkeeper of old? That’s half the romance of staying in a lightkeeper’s house, right? Out here at this moment, the rest of the modern world is utterly blotted out (well, with the exception of the camera in my hands, which probably has more computing power than the first manned space flight mission). Above me, the lighthouse’s beam scissors out into the mist as it has for 185 years. Anachronistic, outdated, made superfluous in every way by the precision and all-seeing eyes of modern satellite technology. And yet, irresistible. Compelling. Mysterious and beautiful. And useful, still.
Right now, to someone in a small boat on the Bay, nothing is as reassuring as the beam this lighthouse is sending. It really doesn’t matter if your chartplotter and GPS and iPad are saying that yes, you are here. Out there tonight, you can’t even see the bow of your boat. You’re sailing inside a cloud, depending on all of those electronics to be your eyes. You feel alone and sometimes lonely. Even if your instruments have never let you down, even if your radar is certain the shoreline is over there and there’s a southbound ship over here, nothing comforts you like this fragile thing, this ethereal, constant beam. I think this is because even though they are all automated now, there’s something entirely human about lighthouses. Human hands built them, and for centuries the strong backs and dedicated hands of men and women kept them lit. Their logbooks, most written with pen-and-ink in the flowing cursive of the time, are filled with stories of storm and trial, shipwreck and ice, fear and boredom—but always, always, the keeping of the light, the one steady thing in an unsteady world. The humanity of that past whispers every time you see a lighthouse beam piercing into the night.
So I’m glad it’s foggy, I’m glad I can’t see the waxing moon and the blaze of Venus. I’m here for the fog. I’m here for the needfulness. I’m here to celebrate that faithful purpose.
“No duties due to cold weather. Keeper warm. Secured all station except kitchen and bedroom. Water line froze. Using rainwater for washing and cooking. Heat adequate for these two rooms.”
Raymond C. Frye, January 26, 1961
That log entry actually came from Cove Point’s neighbor, the lighthouse at Drum Point, which was stationed at the northern entrance of the Patuxent River. Now firmly planted on land as an exhibit at the Calvert Marine Museum just a few miles south in Solomons, the Drum Point Light is a classic Chesapeake screwpile, a la the iconic Thomas Point Light.
I thought it would be useful to visit the museum before heading to the keeper’s cottage at Cove Point, so the kids and I traveled here via land yacht. There were a couple of reasons for this side trip. For one thing, we wanted to brush up on our geological research. During the Miocene epoch, the cliffs and hills just inland and north of the lighthouse at Cove Point—part of a geological region known as the Calvert Formation—were under water. As they erode they continue to tell pieces of that oceanic story in the form of shells, shark’s teeth, whale’s bones and other treasures millions of years old that wash up along the beaches or protrude from the cliffs.
The fastest way to brush up on this prehistoric local history is at the museum’s excellent paleontology exhibits, where we saw examples of the kinds of fossils that we might find while walking the beach at the lighthouse. The show-stopping introduction to this section of the museum is the 35-foot model skeleton of the Miocene epoch giant white shark Carcharodon Megalodon, whose gaping, jagged maw serves as the ideal backdrop for surreal selfies and the stuff of small children’s nightmares. Once past the Big Guy, we browsed the examples of the inner ear bones of baleen whales (which could double as modern art or maybe something Georgia O’Keefe might have painted), jawbones, teeth, and vertebrae of ancient crocodilians, and the ubiquitous and wildly varied shark teeth, the largest as big as the palm of my hand, the tiniest as thin as a needle.
From there, we had to stop for several minutes at the trippy sea nettle display (they look like moving lava lamps; all you need is some Jim Morrison on your iPod to complete the total ’60s effect), and then visit the pair of sea otters, who were impossibly adorable even while they were napping after lunch.
Finally it was time for the Drum Point lighthouse, which on this cold and gray day had few visitors, so we more or less had the pleasant young tour guide all to ourselves. As we climbed the ladder into the lighthouse, he told us that this ladder and hatchway were installed in 1929, when John Higbee, who had the challenge of being a one-legged lighthouse keeper, requested this method of ingress from the platform below to the main floor so he wouldn’t have to negotiate the ladders hanging over the water on the sides.
Drum Point and Cove Point lighthouses stood only about four nautical miles apart. Drum Point’s first keeper, in fact, was one Benjamin N. Gray, who was pulled from his assistant keeper’s duties at Cove Point to take over at the new lighthouse just to the south. Until it was moved to the museum grounds, Drum Point perched just off the tip of land from which it took its name at the northern entrance of the Patuxent River, sitting close enough to the point that the keeper could get ashore via a short walkway.
Filled with period furnishings and beautifully restored, the lighthouse now provides a glimpse into the daily life of the keepers and their families, a life that was almost entirely dictated by the vagaries and power of the elements that surrounded them. What really caught my attention on this particular day was how bone-chillingly cold it was. Though the keeper would have had a cookstove lit, and other smaller stoves warmed adjoining rooms, the uninsulated structure did little to fend off the damp wind and chill coming off the water. It wasn’t unusual, our tour guide told us, for the floor-to-ceiling metal tanks that held fresh water to freeze solid—and they stand inside the dwelling.
For the opposite extreme comes this tidbit from keeper William Yeatman, Jr.: “On August 4, 1918, at 4 p.m., the thermometer in the lighthouse reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit.”
One of the lighthouse’s rooms is devoted to telling its story through logbook entries and other historical information. I was interested in reading them to get a sense of what the keepers had to handle just up-Bay at Cove Point. Stories ran the gamut, but this one from keeper W. Midgate really stood out, as much for its understatement as the event itself: “On July 8, 1925, lightning struck the lighthouse, doing no damage beyond a small hole in the floor and fire.”
And on June 17, 1960:
“A gust of wind at least 90 mph accompanied by forceful rain and hail flooding kitchen, bedroom, and upper bedroom smashing head window.”
An epic event in the history of all of the Bay’s lighthouses was the great August storm of 1933. For keeper J.J. Daley, it was the storm that left him marooned on station, since the walkway that connected him to land washed away, and the storm surge swept right over the platform, tangling one-legged keeper Higbee’s ladder with storm wrack and sinking the station’s boats. In his report to the Superintendent of Lighthouses in Baltimore, Keeper Daley maintains a stiff upper lip right up to the end, when you can almost hear the exhaustion in his fingers as they tap the typewriter’s stiff keys: “One of the gaffs on the davits gave way, dropping the motor boat into the water. She is now under water. Won’t be able to tell how badly she is damaged until she is gotten up. Skiff went adrift so far have been unable to locate it. Heavy concrete casing washed out. Well filled up with sand. All rooms flooded on lower floor. Sea went across deck … what caused the damage here was great amount of drift that lodged against the walkway and piling of station. One large tree lodged against station, held all other drift that came against it for hours…phone here out of commission. Would you please notify Mr. Weeks of the Weather Bureau that shelter, rain gauge, was washed away. The instruments were lost also. I made every effort to save station property, but wind, tide, and sea were against me.”
How did this compare with what happened at Cove Point? How better to find out than to go there ourselves, walk around, peer from the windows in the keeper’s cottage out into the darkness, and imagine the maelstrom? We thanked our tour guide, paid one last visit to the otters to see if they were awake yet (they weren’t—evidently otters, like cats and certain humans, believe that extended napping is the only logical solution to a chilly, dampish day), and then hopped back in the car to drive the short distance to Cove Point. As we approached, the fog grew ever thicker, until, as we paused to negotiate the gate that allows access to the property, the beam from the lighthouse served its purpose even for a land-bound vessel.
Perched on a point of land marking a long shoal just south of Calvert Cliffs, the Cove Point light stands where the Bay pinches into a relatively narrow six miles or so across. Well before the community of Solomons Island was established, this shoal made enough mischief for shipping that the powers that be decided a lighthouse was needed. Congress appropriated $5,685 for the purpose, and the government bought for $300 some four acres from landowner Dorcas G. Bourne. Built in 1828, the lighthouse tower is a 38-foot fireplug, made of local brick that’s three feet thick at the base, tapering to 20 inches at the top. This style was typical of John Donahoo, who built it and the one-and-half-story keeper’s house, which hugs the lighthouse’s flank and is where we were spending the night.
In December 1828, James Somerville became the first keeper to light the 13 oil lamps, all powered by gallons of whale oil that had to be hauled up the spiral stairs several times a day. Using 16-inch refractors, the lamps sent a beam out across the Bay warning mariners off. In 1855, the light was upgraded to a fifth-order Fresnel lens, which required only one lamp, and that was improved two years later to a fourth-order lens and a weighted mechanism that the keepers wound periodically during the night to keep the light turning. The light was finally converted to electricity in 1929, undoubtedly an enormous relief to the keepers, but which, in our nostalgia of today, we wish maybe hadn’t happened, just so we could still watch those laborious but fascinating old methods at work.
Cove Point was one of three vessel-reporting stations on the Bay, along with Cape Henry and North Point. Keepers noted names of inbound and outbound vessels and reported to them to the Baltimore Maritime Exchange. To make this task easier, in 1899 the government installed a telephone at Cove Point, the first in Calvert County.
In 1883 a second story was added to the keeper’s house, and then in 1925 the lighthouse service added dormers to provide another half-story of space. Then they split the dwelling down the middle, creating two separate apartments; the eastern side closest to the lighthouse was for the keeper and his family, while the assistant keeper took the western side.
Perfectly utilitarian at the time, that configuration has proven to be ideal for the cottage’s present purpose. While the lighthouse, which stands separate and isn’t open to visitors, remains a working aid to navigation, in 2000 the Coast Guard handed over the property’s keys to Calvert County, which charged the Calvert Marine Museum with making it accessible to the public. The Calvert Marine Museum Society raised $600,000 to renovate the keeper’s dwelling, keeping the two separate apartments that can be connected by a door on the ground floor if, for instance, two families want to rent at the same time. Each side has three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, a kitchen, living room and laundry.
The result is a wonderful juxtaposition of the historic and the contemporary. With the old lighthouse still standing sentinel next door, the keeper’s house is fully modernized with miraculous amenities like high-speed internet and HD TV. Yet, the original heart pine floors still squeaked slightly as the kids and I explored the rooms, while upstairs, the meticulous tongue-in-groove woodwork that could only have been crafted by a shipwright’s hand gave a kind of doll’s house magic to an eyebrow window in the dormer that faces the lighthouse on the eastern side. (My son, of course, immediately nabbed this spot from which to do his homework.) The kitchen table is crafted from wood salvaged from the original Cedar Point Lighthouse, which once stood at the southern entrance to the Patuxent River, and the old cast iron heaters still stand, though on this cold night I was grateful for the heat pump that was providing the modern equivalent.
As the night closed in, the lighthouse held sway. We were drawn back outside to walk the beach in the gathering darkness, and then to watch the beam play along the treeline, across the parking lot, and out into the fathomless night over the Bay. I realized that I’d always only sailed past lighthouses, never actually stood directly under one at night. What the old keepers saw routinely was entirely new to me. Leaning against the damp stone and plaster pillar and looking straight up, I was amazed to see that the light was not just one single beam, as I had always known it to be. Instead, multiple rays spiraled steadily overhead as the lens turned methodically around the light source. Now and then the beam was shot through with darting bats. It was like standing beneath a star, pinwheeling in a perfect patient, damp stillness, and once again, I was grateful for the fog, and the steadiness of the light.
I woke up the next morning, luxuriating in the plushy bedding and feeling like one of those otters who only wanted to nap all day. But there was no way. My window faced southeast, and though the remnants of the fog still wisped offshore, upon the water was a growing shimmer thrown from a rising sun. Low tide was at 0800 (I’d already checked the night before); I had an hour to go before fossil hunting on the beach would be prime.
Walking outside, I wandered over to a covered area near the parking lot where a series of informational panels describe the lighthouse’s history. Wondering about the great storm of 1933 that left Keeper Daley marooned on Drum Point, I found an account from Esther Rowland, daughter of assistant keeper Herman Metivier, who sounded just as rattled as Keeper Daley, if worried about slightly different things: “To look out the window it seems like we were in the middle of the bay! We had chickens—I saw some of them balancing on a board as they went by. Dad put the goats on the front porch but the chickens were gone for the most part, I think some of them flew up in the treetops. Dad also had a rowboat tied to the front porch! He said if the sea wall went the house would too! The furnace in the basement went out because the basement filled with water. I forget how long the storm lasted but it seemed too long. We didn’t have to use the rowboat, thank the Lord!”
A story like this completely changes one’s perspective as one sips coffee and watches the sunrise while sitting comfortably on that very same porch. But that’s part and parcel of the pleasure of spending time here—the chance to get that glimpse, however distant, of a unique life on the Bay, seen through the lens of an enduring lighthouse.