Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2017

Lighthouse of the Presidents

By Gene Bialek


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This 1925 photo shows the no longer standing fog ...

Located 22-miles downstream on the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, and 14 miles from Chesapeake Bay, sits the “Lighthouse of the Presidents,” known officially as the Piney Point Light Station.

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The former fog bell of the Piney Point Light ...
Photo by: Claire Burn

The area adjacent to the light served as a retreat for Presidents James Monroe, Franklin Pierce, and Teddy Roosevelt, in addition to such dignitaries as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. President Monroe maintained a cottage at the Point often referred to by the newspapers as the “Summer White House.” This portion of the Tidewater region is considered by many to be one of the most scenic spots in the state of Maryland.

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The restored Piney Point Light Station.
Photo by: Jeanette O’Neal

During the period from about 1820 to 1910, it served as a popular recreation site for residents of both Washington, D.C. and southern Maryland. A fashionable hotel was in operation until it closed in 1933 due to damage sustained during a hurricane.

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Piney Point Lighthouse under restoration in July ...
Photo by: Al King III

In 1821, a lightship was stationed off Piney Point to mark the dangerous shoals off the Point and also those off Ragged Point on the opposite Virginia shore. However, in 1835 Congress approved $5,000 for the construction of a lighthouse on the Point, and the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment awarded the contract to John Donahoo, an experienced builder of lighthouses along the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay. The light was the tenth of twelve Mr. Donahoo would complete in his lifetime. The Piney Point Lighthouse was the first lighthouse built on the Potomac River.

The light was constructed on a parcel of land formerly owned by Henry Suter, who conveyed the land to the government on the condition that he would be named the keeper of the light. However, he passed away before the lighthouse was completed, and the first keeper selected was Philip Clark, who served from 1836 to1840. Interestingly, Henry Suter’s wife, Charlotte, did serve for less than one year as the third lighthouse keeper of the Piney Point Light; unfortunately, she was dismissed for cause having to do with “drinking problems.”

The Piney Point Light was designed and constructed in 1836 in the signature style of all of John Donahoo’s Potomac and Chesapeake lights - a thick walled and rather inexpensive 30-foot structure in the shape of an inverted cone with a focal plane at 34 feet. Mr. Donahoo also built the light keeper a one floor, three-room house that included a dining room, parlor, fireplace, and cellar along with an attached 10 by 12-foot kitchen. The St. Mary’s County Property Easement indicated that in 1884 the house was enlarged by the addition of a second story, and that the property included an oil house, a storehouse, and an outhouse.

The 10 oil lamps and 15-inch spherical reflector were replaced in 1855 by a fifth-order Fresnel lens giving the fixed white light a reported 11-mile visibility range. In 1880, a 30-foot closed wooden tower was erected containing an automatic striking mechanism for a fog bell that served as a navigation aide in limited visibility conditions.

Although the Fresnel lens has been removed from the lantern, the structure is essentially the same as constructed in 1836. The bell tower was destroyed in 1954 by hurricane winds and was never replaced.

In 1939 the light was automated, and 25 years later, in 1964, it was decommissioned by the Coast Guard. The keeper’s house was used by personnel of a United States Coast Guard Station until the property was deeded over to St. Mary’s County in 1980 and is now managed by the St. Clements Island-Potomac River Museum.

Sadly, the original keeper’s house and out buildings were damaged beyond repair by flood waters and are no longer in existence. A nearby converted house serves as a museum dealing with lighthouse matters and the many historic events that took place in southern Maryland.

In the early 1940s, Piney Point was the home of the U.S. Navy Torpedo Test Center, and when the site was decommissioned, it became the home of the 60-acre state of the art waterfront campus of the “Seafarer’s Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship,” affiliated with the Seafarers International Union of North America. This unique school provides free entry-level training for individuals who wish to begin a seafaring career, and in addition offers classes permitting upgrades to licensed Merchant Marine Officer Status.

Adjacent to the lighthouse is a 1000-foot pier that extends out into the Potomac. The pier serves as a loading and discharge facility for a petroleum tank farm just to the north of the lighthouse. Seagoing tankers offload refined petroleum products to the storage area and the refined products are barged upriver to serve the needs of the greater Washington, DC metropolitan area.

The museum, the grounds, and the tower itself underwent significant upgrades, and the site is now a pleasant six-acre recreation park overlooking the Potomac River. In addition to easy automobile access, the light can be reached by boat. Vessels can dock at a dedicated river pier and visitors can proceed along a short boardwalk to the lighthouse.

The Piney Point Lighthouse, now on the National Register of Historic Places, has been restored to its original state. During the summer months both it and the museum are open to the public seven days a week from sunrise to sunset.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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