Many folks think of the Choptank River Lighthouse in Cambridge as a newish thing, and, in the strictest sense, they’re right. The replica was constructed nine years ago.
But the beacon was built on a foundation of maritime history that stretches back to the mid-1800s. This month marks a centennial of one key event in that history. In the spring of 1921, the Choptank River was abuzz with activity once a barge topped with a red-roofed cottage arrived. The vessel anchored off Benoni Point near the mouth of the Tred Avon River.
For local sailors, that bright red roof was a sight for sore eyes. An earlier lighthouse had stood at this spot from 1871 until it was wrecked by ice in 1918. The government powers that be had hoped to get by with simple automated “blinker” light, but local sailors soon complained that it didn’t provide them with enough navigational help, especially in heavy fog.
This cottage would once again give those watermen the help of a full-service beacon staffed by liveaboard “keepers.” The work crews assigned to the construction project had to wait for Mother Nature to deliver the gentle tides and slack winds they needed to proceed. When conditions finally grew calm, it took those crews just 12 hours to hoist the cottage atop a foundation set upon metal screwpiles. They performed the job with such gentle care that one newspaper report marveled over the fact that “the chimney on the lamp was not even dislodged” and dubbed it “quite an engineering feat.”
First lit on June 9, 1921, that lighthouse is the one that the replica beacon at Long Wharf in Cambridge is modeled after, its construction based on plans housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
The new version of this old lighthouse is located on the waterfront at Long Wharf in Cambridge, the seat of Dorchester County, where it shines as a symbol for the 21st-century revitalization of communities with deep roots in the traditions and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.
The visitor experience at this replica is managed by the nonprofit Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation, a community nonprofit that manages the exhibits and artifacts on display inside and organizes community volunteers to greet visitors during high-traffic hours.
The interior of the lighthouse has been closed to visitors in recent months due to the pandemic. The foundation board of directors has set a post-pandemic reopening date of July 1, at which point the small museum will be open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visitors will need to wear masks. The lighthouse opens Memorial Day weekend when the Pride of Baltimore II, a magnificent replica of a privateer from the early 1800s, will be anchored at Long Wharf.
“We are so excited to celebrate this centennial by welcoming visitors back inside our lighthouse starting in July,” says Catherine Burton, president of the foundation board. “Back in 1921, too, the ‘new’ lighthouse started to shine only after the Choptank endured a dark period without a beacon.”
In addition to spending time with the permanent collection of exhibits and artifacts in the museum, visitors can climb the circular stairs inside the lighthouse to see two new exhibit panels in a temporary display dedicated to the storied “Age of Steamboats” on the Choptank River.
Interestingly, the “new” cottage that appeared up at the mouth of Tred Avon in 1921 wasn’t newly built at all. Constructed in 1858, it originally did duty guiding boats into the harbor of Cape Charles, Virginia, where it was known as Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse. Confederates knocked that beacon out of service for a brief period during the Civil War.
In 1919, Cherrystone Bar was replaced by one of the region’s earliest fully automated lights, an acetylene gaslight set atop a caisson-style foundation in six feet of water. The old cottage was in such good condition that it was placed in storage rather than being demolished.
When the Choptank River came to need of a new beacon, the federal Lighthouse Board had Cherrystone Bar loaded up on that barge for the 100-mile journey up to the Choptank, where it became known as the Choptank River Lighthouse. While this year marks the centennial of its arrival in local waters, the old Cherrystone Bar cottage will actually be celebrating its 163rd birthday in 2021. It’s believed to be the only Chesapeake Bay beacon to do duty in two different states.
The two cottage-style beacons that shined through the decades on the Choptank River stood as sentinels through a wealth of maritime history. Schooners, bugeyes, pungies, skipjacks, and steamboats all sailed by in their heydays. Generations of local watermen kept their eyes on the beacon during storms and on days shrouded by fog. See a sampling in the smaller stories here about different aspects of life on the lighthouse in times gone by.
The 1858 beacon that arrived on the Choptank by way of Virginia a century ago was replaced by an automated light in the early 1960s. The cottage was then dismantled, seemingly destined to pass into the annals of history forever.
A generation later, however, community leaders in Dorchester County embraced the idea of bringing that beacon back to life. The notion of building a replica on the waterfront in Cambridge dates to the 1990s, when a civic improvement group called the “Committee of 100” introduced the concept as part of a broad-based plan to revitalize Cambridge. C. Robert Spedden was a key advocate for the concept in this period.
The idea was two-fold: Not only would a replica lighthouse honor the community’s rich maritime history; but it would also drive economic progress by bringing visitors to Dorchester County and serving as a powerful visual icon of the community’s revitalization.
The first civic group formed specifically to make this vision a reality was the Long Wharf Lighthouse Committee. That group laid a foundation of community support but fell by the wayside as funding proved hard to come by. Picking up the baton in 2004 was the Choptank River Lighthouse Committee, led by Patrick Hornberger, George Wright, and Margaret Wolff. This group won an important grant to conduct a feasibility study. Armed with the results of that research, the committee spearheaded enabling legislation through the Maryland General Assembly in 2008 that would allow the construction of a screwpile lighthouse replica at the Cambridge City Marina.
Once more, however, fundraising proved a daunting obstacle. A third group picked up the baton in 2010. Led by Jackie Noller and George Wright, and supported by generous donations from Dorchester County residents Rufus and Lorraine Todd as well as many other local businesses and families, the Choptank River Lighthouse Society succeeded in taking the project to the finish line. The replica lighthouse was dedicated in September of 2012.
The Lighthouse Society then evolved into a new nonprofit group, the Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation. That organization works today to maintain the Lighthouse, attract visitors, and enhance the experiences those visitors enjoy. In the spirit of the original Committee of 100 vision, the foundation also works to spur economic activity by connecting Lighthouse visitors with the shops, restaurants, hotels, and other attractions of Dorchester County.
For information or questions about volunteering or about lighthouse operations, contact the Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation at ChoptankLighthouse@gmail.com or through Facebook at Facebook.com/ChoptankRiverLighthouse.
FISHING AT THE LIGHTHOUSE, 1942
The Easton Star Democrat, Sept. 4, 1942
Catches Plenty of Rock Fish
Last Friday, the keeper of Benoni Point Light off Oxford says he caught 65 rock with hook and line in a short time. He was alone and reported the sport was rather monotonous since the fish were hauled in very rapidly and [he had] no companions to converse with. The fish averaged between 2 and 3 pounds each.
FREEZING AT THE LIGHTHOUSE, 1905
The Baltimore Sun in an obituary for Capt. Henry F. Rollins on March 1, 1910
In 1884, Captain Rollins became keeper of the lighthouse at Benoni’s Point, Choptank River, where he served until 1905, when he was incapacitated by exposure during a run of ice that surrounded the lighthouse. At the risk of his life, Captain Rollins remained at his post without fire for nearly a week. For this action, he received high praise from the lighthouse board and a special letter from President [Theodore] Roosevelt commending his fidelity.
RESCUE AT THE LIGHTHOUSE, 1936
The Easton Star-Democrat, Feb. 21, 1936
Benoni’s Point Lighthouse Out of Service; Keeper Brought to Shore by Oystermen
Last Thursday word was received out of Oxford from government authorities for the Benoni
lighthouse keeper, Carl Marsh, to store things, put out fires, vacate the house, and come ashore. Four oystermen from town, George Roth, Sr.; Albert Roth, Monnie White, and Wm. Tettermer, volunteered to deliver the message. They started out dragging a light skiff behind them. It was dangerous traveling as many holes cut in the ice by oystermen tonging oysters had been completely covered with snow and in some places they trudged through drifts waist high, but they reached their destination safely. The lens was carefully taken down by Mr. Marsh and safely stored away and, after obeying orders, they started for shore bringing all records with them. The return trip was also successfully made.
REGATTA AT THE LIGHTHOUSE, 1911
The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 15, 1911
Chesapeake Bay Regatta Course Mapped Out
The 25th annual regatta of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Club, [which will] take place next Tuesday, July 18, on the Tred Avon and Choptank Rivers, … promises to surpass any ever held under the auspices of this, one of the oldest yachting clubs in the United States. A large number of fast sailing yachts, sloops, and canoes, which are known the country over for their fast-sailing qualities have already entered.[The sailboats] will start from a line … off Oxford, to and around the Choptank River lighthouse … and return to the starting point. … It is needless to say that a royal good time will be had, as it is the intention [of organizers] to make this event surpass that of last year, which was the biggest [such] event that had ever taken place on the Eastern Shore before or since.
A fictional version of a race like this was described by James Michener in his famous novel, Chesapeake. There, the Choptank River Lighthouse is called Patamoke Light.
POETRY AT THE LIGHTHOUSE, 1929
The Baltimore Sun, July 1, 1929
In old newspaper articles, the Choptank River Lighthouse is often referred to as the “Benoni” or “Benoni’s” lighthouse after its historical location off of Benoni Point. The poet Folger McKinsey sang the praises of the lighthouse in several different poems. Here is a stanza from one titled, “Benoni’s Light.”
Where the Choptank and Tred Avon blend their waters in the stream
That has made the bay a wonder of the miracles of dream,
At the end of Tilghman’s Island in that land of corn and wine,
There’s a picture always rising in these memories of mine–
Of that old light there so constant off those bars and shoals of joy
As Benoni sends it glimmer and my spirit shouts, “Ahoy!”
FLOATING PARTIES ON THE CHOPTANK, mid-1900s
As a young man in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jack Messick often visited his father, the last liveaboard keeper on the Choptank River Lighthouse. During evening hours, Jack would spend time out on the deck or down on the rocks with the lighthouse dog, Chop. One of his recollections from those days centers on passing steamboats.
“It was so much fun, whenever a steamboat would go by. You could hear it from a distance, and it would get louder and louder as it got closer. It would be all lit up. By the time they got right abeam of the lighthouse, you could hear passengers talking with happy voices and the dance music playing. I remember it being Dixieland jazz. Sometimes, it was almost like you could hear the ice clinking in glasses when the steamboats went by. Oh, they were having a grand time on those boats!”
That is one of several anecdotes featured in new exhibit panels at the Choptank River Lighthouse focused on “The Age of Steamboats.”
HOSPITALITY AT THE LIGHTHOUSE, 2021
The nonprofit Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation organizes community volunteers to greet visitors to Dorchester County and the lighthouse. The task is more focused on local hospitality than on having specialized expertise in lighthouse operations or history. The foundation asks volunteers to commit to one four-hour shift per month through the warmer months of the years. Other tasks are available for those who prefer other types of volunteering, such as marketing or helping put on an annual gala. For information, email ChoptankLighthouse@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/ChoptankRiverLighthouse.