Bay lighthouse being restored, will open for tours

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ANNAPOLIS — On a clear bright day for sailing, the foghorn at the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay is silent.

But mariners who sail close enough can hear an unusual sound: the banging of hammers.

Restoration efforts continue on the 1875 Maryland landmark. Tourists could be making trips as soon as next month for the first time in the history of the lighthouse, which has been a beacon to mark shallow shoal for fishermen and recreational boaters.

“The goal is to restore it to how it looked in the early 1900s, 1901 through 1908, roughly,” said Henry Gonzalez, vice president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. “We have some good documentation from those years.”

Maritime history buffs will be thrilled to take a boat ride to this Bay icon, which stands 43 feet above the water and is the only screw-pile lighthouse remaining in its original location in the Bay.

As sailboats cruise the area, visitors will be able to use a new dock to gain access to the lighthouse and climb a narrow ladder on their way to the first floor of the building, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999.

Inside, the hexagonal wooden structure has new windows and two new fiberglass doors, which were donated by Jeld-Wen, an Oregon-based window and door manufacturer. When the window portion is completed, a total of eight that had been broken and boarded up will be replaced, adding natural light inside.

Fog-detection signal equipment and automation equipment still used by the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a portion of the lighthouse are being encased in a clear protective panel, so the gear will be on view but safe from prying hands. The lighthouse remains an active weather station and navigational aid.

Visitors also will get to see the old kitchen and bedrooms used by lighthouse keepers. The interior remains in good shape. The old bottomless outhouse juts off one side.

The Coast Guard staffed the lighthouse until 1986, when Thomas Point became the last lighthouse on the Bay to be fully automated.

The Annapolis Maritime Museum will be leading the tours. Operators are aiming for up to 18 persons per tour, Mr. Gonzalez said. So far, the plan is to have three tours a day on Saturdays and Sundays — one or two weekends a month — at a cost of about $70 a head.

The entire preservation program started in 2004 and is scheduled to be completed by 2009.

“In some areas, we’re ahead of schedule,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “In some areas, we’re pretty much on schedule.”

About 95 percent of the restoration is being performed by volunteers. Companies have donated paint and shutters for the windows.

“We only bring in contractors for those things that we can’t do,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

The most challenging and costly part of the project is the restoration of the structural foundation, he said. Workers are repairing the screw piles and the base steel and iron after years of corrosion.

Sherri Marsh Johns, an architectural historian with the Lighthouse Society, said a lot of work has been put into preserving the historical integrity of the building.

“I think we’ve been very successful in using new products to represent what was here originally,” she said. “The rule is that you preserve all that you can.”

The overall estimate for the cost of the renovation is $500,000, Mr. Gonzalez said. About $300,000 has been raised: $200,000 in grants and $100,000 in donations. Additional work on the structural foundation could run another $200,000.

Yesterday, a barge containing a crane pulled up to the lighthouse to remove wooden poles that had been used by the Coast Guard to tie up vessels. Contractors were hanging from the side of the lighthouse, wearing life jackets and hammering.

The restoration was a go after a public-private partnership that was formed in 2004 with the city of Annapolis, the Lighthouse Society and its Chesapeake chapter, the Annapolis Maritime Museum, and Anne Arundel County. They worked together to get ownership from the federal government.

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