Who ever heard of Laban Gossigan?
The name would probably stump Jeopardy’s finest. But when Laban Gossigan climbed the spiral, stone staircase and lighted the lantern of the Cape Henry Lighthouse in 1792, he became the first keeper of the first lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay, beginning a long tradition.
People are fascinated by lighthouses in a way that is hard to explain. These towers and houses of brick, stone, wood, iron, and steel attract people like few other man-made structures.
Many of them—especially those standing in or above the water—are obvious engineering achievements. Pick most any point or shoal on the Chesapeake Bay where the earliest of the 61 lighthouses stood, and you’ll see a progression of changes and improvements as flaws were found in the old building systems. Take Smith Point Light off Virginia’s Northern Neck, for instance. A tower was built at water’s edge in 1802, then moved in 1807 away from the eroding shoreline. The second tower was supplemented by an offshore lightship in 1821. Lightships are simply ships moored into place with lights on top. The lightship was destroyed by Confederate raiders in 1861, and the second tower on land was replaced with a third tower in 1828, again because of erosion. In 1855, a fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced the original 15-lamp reflector system. Fresnel lenses, named for French physicist Augustin Fresnel who designed them in 1822, incorporated an ingenious prism-and-magnifier system that was state of the art for years to come. The seven orders referred to the sizes, the first order being the largest.
The Smith Point light tower was again replaced with a new lightship in 1859, and this lightship was replaced by the new screwpile-style lighthouse in 1868. Screwpile lighthouses are built on pilings literally screwed deep into the bedrock. This structure suffered the fate of many screwpile lighthouses on the bay when it was damaged by ice in 1893, repaired, then knocked completely off its pilings and carried away by ice floes in 1895. An ice-resilient caisson foundation was used in 1897 for the present lighthouse. Caissons are watertight enclosures, usually round, that enable construction to be carried on underground. The Smith Point Light was automated in 1970 and is known today not only by ship captains, who are guided by it, but by anglers, who regard it as one of the best fish attractants on the Chesapeake Bay.
The history of the Smith Point light also illustrates the shuffling acceptance rather than warm embracing of new lighthouse design. It took bureaucrats and politicians years to cough up the cash for the screwpile, then the caisson foundations, and decades to realize the value of the French-made Fresnel lenses.
The historic aspect of lighthouses is another obvious cause for their appeal. In today’s cost-conscious market, when a functional light is needed to guide ships, the poles, buoys, and automated lights now installed do the job and are practically indestructible. Charming, however, they are not. So the old octagonal or round towers of faded brick and the attractive cottages with cupolas on top are like the red caboose, the little tugboat, the Model A. They remind us of days gone by, when even the uninitiated could appreciate the engineering that went into design, and it was okay to build something not only functional but pleasing to the eye as well.
The stories attached to the houses and lights have their own allure. The Thimble Shoals Light at Hampton Roads—rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1880—was subsequently hit three times by ships. The third hit was by a schooner that rammed the lighthouse with such force the keeper’s stove turned over, causing a fire that again burned the lighthouse to the ground. The Sharps Island Lighthouse off Tilghman Island, Maryland, was carried off on its side by heavy ice floes, its keepers clinging to life for what must have seemed an interminable 16 hours before they were rescued. Many if not most lighthouses even have ghost tales associated with their sad and violent histories.
But there’s something else—something intangible—which causes our hearts to skip a beat when we spy lighthouses. Perhaps it’s what they represent. For those who hug their sailors goodbye and watch the ship grow smaller until it disappears at the curvature of the earth, the lighthouse stands for the hope that the ship will return, and loved ones will come home.
The attempt to build something bold enough to overcome the elements has universal understanding. The engineering is a tribute to the capacity of the mind. But the purpose comes from the heart. And the optimism, the fist raised to the angry storm, resides in the human spirit. The beacon sent out into the fog is everyone’s candle in the window, the light on the front porch.
Lighthouses, simply put, are the yellow ribbons of the soul.
Here is a list of most of the lighthouses still standing on the Chesapeake Bay. Refer to the book chapters for more detail.
The importance of Baltimore as a major shipping port is obvious by the number of lighthouses built at the entrance to the Patapsco River and Baltimore Harbor. These six remain. .All are built over water except Sevenfoot Knoll, which has been moved to shore and is the only one open to the public.