2 posts tagged lighthouse
Early spring is a quiet time at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Since so much of our campus is outside, most of our visitors come see us in the warm months, when you can arrive at the Museum by boat, or in flip-flops, padding down from St. Michaels’ main historic area. The cold months are usually a planning time, an improvement time, when you can hunker down and research, write grants, develop new programs. This is also a great time to leave St. Michaels and see a little of what the outside world and its historical connections have to offer; to “sharpen your tools”, if you will.
Recently, a group of museum volunteers and I headed over to Baltimore to check out some the vessels and landmarks at Historic Ships of Baltimore. Historic Ships, like CBMM, is a non-traditional museum, where the exhibit spaces are floating in the harbor rather than the stereotype of a single building with art-lined walls. Focusing on ships and artifacts with military history, the collections of Historic Ships are as varied in theme and era as they are location in Baltimore Harbor. They’ve got a sloop-of-war from 1855, a lightship from 1930, and a 19th century lighthouse, and those are just the things we explored. There is a lot more on top of that, if you’re in Baltimore and feeling adventurous: http://bit.ly/8GXNBb
The first one is hard to miss: The USS Constellation. Most interestingly used (amongst other things) to capture illegal slave ships off the coast of Africa, she also has a great story of a double identity: for a long time, she was wrongly assumed to be the frigate Constellation built in 1797, famously built in Baltimore’s Sterret Shipyard and participating in the War of 1812. “Restored” in 1955 to resemble the 1797 vessel, the confusion started with the Navy and continued on down the line, according to the definitve report on the matter, “Fouled Anchors: the Constellation Question Answered.” From the report:
“The first Constellation, was designed by Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox in 1795 and built by David Stodder in Baltimore. Completed in 1797,it saw considerable service before it was brought to Gosport Navy Yard, dismantled in 1853 and her timbers auctioned off. At about the same time, the second Constellation was built in Gosport about 600 feet away. The second Constellation was designed by U.S. naval constructor John Lenthall as a completely new ship. The new ship was built simultaneously with the destruction of the old, and employed the old name.
The second Constellation was commissioned in 1855 and saw long service but by 1909 the Navy had confused the 1855 ship with the 1797 one. In 1946 the Navy decided to scrap the ship but citizens, especially from Baltimore, pressed to save her. In 1948 Howard I. Chapelle. a well-known naval architectural historian, revealed that the present ship was built in 1855. The public was confused and turned to the Navy for advice. The Navy did not investigate historical records thoroughly at this time. It based its opinion on the negative findings that it could not locate a document which specifically said that the first Constellation had been destroyed, therefore the Navy had to presume that the present ship was built in 1797.”
That’s a pretty epic historical “uh-oh, ” and one that, in the public consciousness at least, is tenaciously (and mistakenly) memorable. You can read more about what must have been a pretty embarrassing mix-up on the original document here: www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA241916
Constellation #1 or Constellation #2, we love her either way.
We also had the pleasure of seeing some familiar faces while exploring Constellation #2 and learning about the crew and officers that lived aboard the ship in her heyday with one of their living history programs reenactor, a former (and very talented) CBMM staffer and intern, Marian Robbins.
Can you guess which one is Marian and which one is the author of this blog? Yes, you think so? The one in the black seaman’s attire is Marian? Very good, gentle reader. It appears your eyesight is just fine.
Other captures from the day in Baltimore:
Peerless (but not pier-less) volunteers
View of Baltimore Harbor from the deck of the Constellation, looking towards Federal Hill with the Domino Sugar factory in the distance.
Rakishly handsome and bewhiskered crew members pose in the mid 19th century.
A jungle of hammocks swing from a lower deck.
Listening to the audio tour. It was like touchdown at the airport- everybody was on their own cell phone.
The lightship Chesapeake
Seven Foot Knoll lighthouse, which once housed a head keeper, an assistant keeper (who was also the head keeper’s wife), their four children (one of whom was born in the lighthouse and was summarily nicknamed “Knollie”), and another assistant keeper, is the oldest example of a cast-iron screwpile lighthouse in Maryland. While the interior was much more spacious than our own Hooper Strait Lighthouse at CBMM, it was hard to imagine the keeper and his ever-growing family suffering through an intensely humid Chesapeake summer in the stifling hotbox the iron lighthouse must have become. Also, the idea of being that second assistant keeper, stranded out in the middle of the Chesapeake with another keeper’s small, energetic children, nursing wife, and wailing baby seemed like the best reason for cabin fever and/ or a nervous breakdown that I can imagine.
All in all, it was a wonderful day spent, as the Water Rat said in Wind in the Willows, “simply messing about in boats.” Like every trip away, as much as we enjoyed soaking up the salty history of Baltimore, everyone sighed with satisfaction as the gently curved twin spans of the Bay Bridge and the Eastern Shore, with our own slice of Chesapeake maritime culture, came into view.
So long, Baltimore!
It’s been cold the last few nights for those of us who live on and around the Bay. The thermometer in my living room registered a toasty 50 degrees Fahrenheit at 8 pm yesterday evening, but that was far preferable to the glacial 22 degrees being suffered by the loudly complaining geese on the creek outside. But as any old-timer will tell you, this is hardly “cold”. My grandfather Hartley Bayne, a weathered Eastern Shoreman if there ever was one, recalls a winter in the 1940’s when he and some friends drove an old Packard from Chestertown, 20 miles up the Chester River, downstream and around the Bay side to Rock Hall. Their ‘road’ was made of river ice, two feet thick. Even that seems balmy compared to the coldest winter on record in Maryland in 1912, when temperatures were observed to have dropped to an immobilizing -40 degrees below zero.
Few people would venture out in such conditions, the exception generally being the foolhardy (for example, teenagers, like my grandfather was at the time of his Packard joy ride) or those on vessels that braved the conditions professionally, like tugboats and skipjacks. But for some, venturing out wasn’t the issue; you were already trapped in a Chesapeake that had transformed from gigantic moat to icy tundra. You were a Bay lighthouse keeper.
One of the distinctive features of Chesapeake lighthouses, the screw-pile legs, also proved to be one of their most dangerous. Screw-pile legs offered numerous advantages over tower-style lighthouses (the usual kind you imagine when you think ‘lighthouse’): they provided stability on the Bay’s soft, sandy bottom, they allowed the lighthouse to be positioned so as to warn watercraft away from shoals or sandbars that were often miles out in the water, plus they were cheap and quick to build. Screw-pile lighthouses proliferated in the Chesapeake after the Civil War, replacing lightships (boats with warning lights and bells onboard) with these permanent structures. Soon their spindly legs and hexagonal or octagonal shapes could be seen on rivers and creeks throughout the Chesapeake, perched over the water like so many exposed honeycombs.
Those spidery little supports were also the fatal flaw of the screw-pile design. They worked beautifully in the summer, spring, and fall, providing consistent guidance to vessels on the Bay and offering space inside generous enough to house two keepers who kept the lamps lit and the fog bells ringing. But in deep winter, when ice locked the Bay into frozen, hushed stasis, the delicate iron pilings were nothing but brittle twigs in the face of the ice floes that moved towards the ocean during the inevitable thaw. Silent monoliths while in motion, the enormous shards of ice screamed with collision as they pounded the lighthouses, creating a din like a million Colt revolvers firing. When the supports buckled, some of the lighthouses simply toppled over, their lights extinguished by the water and keepers scrambling for shore. In the case of the Hooper Strait Lighthouse in 1877, there was another terrifying option: the lighthouse started to move.
The support sheared off at the base, the Hooper Strait lighthouse had nothing to tether it, and it began to float down the Chesapeake like an enormous decoy floe. The keepers had no recourse but to lower their lifeboat and struggle over the chunks of jagged unstable ice towards the almost invisible shoreline that lay several miles away. From the account written by Keeper John S. Cornwell on January 8th 1877, “We escaped from our perilous condition by the aid of one of the boats belonging to the house which we pulled on the ice. We remained on the ice for twenty four hours without anything to shelter us, in consequence of which both of us became frost bitten the effects of which we are now suffering…”
The Keeper Cornwell and his assistant, Alexander S. Conway, we rescued the next morning after a bitterly cold night on the ice, and taken to a nearby island where, weakened by harrowing escape and without means of communication, they had no way of letting the authorities or their families know they had survived the disaster. It would be two weeks before they were able to notify anyone.
Other accounts of similar experiences abound in logbooks of Chesapeake keepers. Within the Museum’s photography collection, there’s an image of a rescue party recovering two keepers from a later-style caisson lighthouse at Craighill Channel in the winter of 1936. Standing on the hard-packed ice, the rescued men wearily smoke cigarettes, celebrating their slippery escape, while the lifeboat hangs uselessly off the lighthouse behind them.
The life-threatening winters were not only the serious downside of lighthouse keeping, which provided steady pay, housing, and a pension and was therefore a rather sought-after post. Those harrowing Januaries when sharp-edged bergs roughed the horizon line were also a reason women were not permitted to tend lighthouses- it was considered out-of-the-question for delicate females to perform such a dangerous occupation.
So what happened to the two-frost bitten keepers, stranded in the middle of an ice-encrusted Bay? Well, when the Hooper Strait lighthouse was rebuilt in 1879, John S. Cornwell signed on again, returning to his (we assume) now-stabilized post, several miles out in the Chesapeake. Alexander S. Conway, however, took his remaining fingers and toes elsewhere and is lost to our records. He had learned the hard way the steep price you can pay when you challenge the Chesapeake in winter and lose.