Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse History
Location: Chesapeake Bay just north of the mouth of the South River, south of Annapolis, Maryland
Date Built: Original shore light – 1825, Re-built shore light – 1840, Current screw-pile – 1875
Type of Structure: Hexagonal screw-pile
Height: 43 feet above mean high water
Characteristics: Flashing white
Range: 11 miles
Status: Standing and Active
General Information: The current Thomas Point light is arguably the most widely recognized lighthouse in Maryland and is the only screw-pile light on the Chesapeake Bay still in its original location. (The remaining 3 have been moved to museum settings.) It is the third light to mark Thomas point shoal.
The Thomas Point Shoal Light Station dates back to 1824 when Congress appropriated $6,500 for construction and outfitting of a 30 foot, land-based, light tower, a small keepers dwelling, and a well. The seven acres of land for the site was purchased for $525 and the construction contract was awarded to John Donahoo and Simon Freeze in February of 1825. The resulting light was commissioned in December of that year with John Bovis of Baltimore, Md., providing the Argand style lighting apparatus. Few details exist about this original light. It is assumed it was built of granite quarried in Port Deposit, Md. (Donahoo and Freeze were also awarded the construction contract for the Pooles Island Light at this time and the two projects were underway simultaneously.) The light stood on a bank overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, approximately 100 feet from the water. The site proved particularly susceptible to shore erosion. Stone was initially laid at the waterline, but the attempts were not sufficient to impede the erosion. By 1838 the water had come to within 15 feet of the tower and plans were made to move it.
Photographs: Go to Historic Photographs
In 1840 the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, Stephen Pleasonton, hired Winslow Lewis to review the site and provide options. For $2,000 Lewis agreed to re-locate / re-build the tower behind the keepers dwelling using materials from the original tower. This second tower was 3 feet higher than the first so the lantern would clear the roof of the keepers dwelling. It was completed November of that year. In 1855 the lamp was replaced and a fifth order Fresnel lens installed.
As the 19th century progressed, the inadequacy of the shore-based tower for marking the shoal became increasingly apparent. In 1872 Lewis’ tower was in need of extensive repairs and the Lighthouse Board requested funds for construction of a new screw-pile light on the shoal itself. Congress appropriated $20,000 the following March. Given the substantial ice damage suffered by the Love Point light that winter, the Board revised their plans, preferring to build a caisson light instead. However, funds were not available and the Board revised their plans again for a stronger screw-pile. An additional $15,000 was appropriated to cover the cost. The new light was completed and commissioned on November 20, 1875 and exhibited a fourth order Fresnel lens.
Various methods have been used over the years to protect the station from winter ice flows on the Bay. In the late 1800s, a cast iron ice breaker, on its own screw piles, was constructed about 100 feet from the light. Clusters of pilings and piles of rip rap stone have also been used successfully.
In 1972 the Coast Guard announced that it was considering plans to automate the station and dismantle the cottage. The public rallied around the light and in 1975 it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The lighthouse was manned until 1986 and was the last lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay to be fully automated. More recently, its image was a runner up for Maryland’s back of the 2000 U.S. quarter coin.
In 1999, the lighthouse was designated as a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition that a historic structure can receive. It is only one of nine lighthouses in the country with this designation, which it received in recognition of it being the only extant and operational cottage-style screwpile lighthouse in the country still located in its original location.
Researched and drafted by Matthew B. Jenkins, a volunteer, through the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Light House Society
Want to learn who were the Keepers of the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse? Check out our Keepers Page.