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Hooper Strait, Maryland (limited production event)

Hooper Strait is a passage, just over a mile in width, which connects Chesapeake Bay with Tangier Sound. The eastern Maryland mainland forms the northern boundary of the strait, and Bloodsworth Island, once renowned as a haven for pirates, is located on the southern side. Captain John Smith gave this entrance into Tangier sound a name that conjures up an image of the many contortions required of mariners to pass through the area’s dangerous shoals: Limbo Straits.

Efforts to shine a light on this precarious place began with light-vessel deployment. The first of these floating beacons was stationed at Hooper Strait in 1827. The ship’s fixed white light was elevated to attain a focal plane of 34 feet, with a visibility range of ten miles. The last light vessel sent to keep watch at Hooper Strait was built in 1845, and was destroyed by Confederate guerrillas in the Civil War.

Two years after the war, a screwpile lighthouse was anchored in nine feet of water to mark the shoals on the north side of the channel, but in just ten years it was destroyed by floes of crushing ice. Three days of building ice and tidal pressure was enough to snap the bolts that held the foundation braces together, and the unsupported dwelling quickly sank up to its roofline, with keeper John S. Cornwell and his assistant, Alexander S. Conway still on station. The two keepers escaped the lighthouse using one of the station’s boats, which they pulled on the ice.

For twenty-four hours, the keepers remained stranded on the ice with only the boat to shelter them. Captain Murphy of Billy’s Island finally rescued the keepers, who suffered severed frostbite from the prolonged exposure.

Two lighthouse tenders, the Tulip and Heliotrope, were dispatched to find the castaway house, which they found five miles south of Hooper Strait submerged to its roof in water. The crews were able to salvage the lens, lamp and fog bell, but had to call off further operations due to dangers from the heavy ice.

In reporting the incident, Keeper Cornwell apologized for his inability to submit his quarterly report as it had been lost with the lighthouse. Though frostbitten, Keeper Cornwell insisted that “should there be another house erected, or a boat place in the site of the old one, Capt. Conway and myself will be ready to take charge of it...”

In 1879 Congress appropriated funds for a new screwpile structure at Hooper Strait. This cottage style lighthouse was constructed at the Lazaretto Depot in Baltimore and consisted of a hexagonal dwelling, painted white and topped by a black lantern. When completed at a cost of $20,000, the superstructure was transported by schooner to the site, where the screwing down of the seven iron support piles had commenced on September 21. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1880 records: “The piles were placed in their position without any difficulty, the struts, tension bars, and sockets were fitted in place, and the wooden frame of the house was raised. The structure was ready for lighting early in October and on October 15, 1879, its light shone for the first time.” True to his word, Keeper Cornwell did return to his post and was the first keeper of the new lighthouse. In 1882, the light, which was originally fixed-white, was outfitted with a red sector to warn of the shoals in the strait.

Hooper Strait Lighthouse was manned until 1954, when it was completely automated. Despite having its windows boarded up, the inevitable occurrence of vandalism and decay took its toll on the lighthouse. By 1958 the cost-conscious Coast Guard had initiated a policy of simply burning the screwpile dwellings or paying a contractor to demolish them. The bare screwpile foundation was then used for setting up steel perimeter and radial beams to support a skeletal tower that displayed an automated light at the same height as the original lantern. While inelegant, the result was extremely utilitarian, and allowed the Coast Guard to escape the massive commitment of maintaining abandoned lighthouses. In 1966, the Coast Guard planned to rid itself of the Hooper Strait Lighthouse either by burning it or hiring a demolition contractor, however, before the lighthouse suffered an ignominious end, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum stepped in and saved the lighthouse.

Aided by the Historical Society of Talbot County, which raised $12,500, and the U.S. Treasury, which contributed the $14,000 allotment for the aborted demolition, the museum hired The Arundel Corporation to lift the lighthouse from its pilings and barge it forty miles up the bay to St. Michaels. A Baltimore firm called Pile Drivers built a new foundation out of tubular steel at the museum using piles provided at cost by the Union Metal Company, also of Baltimore. The piles were sunk 28 feet and then filled with concrete. The steel plates and eight-inch steel beams, which form the support platform atop the piles, were generously donated respectively by the Easton Steel Company and the Chase Steel Company. Sheared in half directly below its eves, and sundered from its foundation in the Strait, the structure waited out high winds and waves before arriving at its final home in Navy Point on November 9th.

Today, the lighthouse is the museum’s most popular and recognizable exhibit. A Fresnel lens housed in the lantern room originally produced a very unique flashing pattern, CBMM in Morse code, but a historically accurate steady white light is now shown. Although the lighthouse is perched above dry land, the interior exhibits give a sense of what life must have been like for an offshore keeper and also provide a brief history of the lighthouse service. Since 2004, the museum has opened the lighthouse to those who would like to experience a night in the life of a keeper. Visitors who sign up for the program are fed dinner, taken on a unique tour of the lighthouse and are divided into watches and encouraged to engage in some of the daily chores typical of a nineteenth-century light station. The experience culminates with a night’s sleep inside the structure itself, which now overlooks the Miles River. The overnight adventure is a wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with one of the few remaining screwpile lighthouses out of the forty originally built upon the waters of the Chesapeake.

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Hooper Strait, Maryland (limited production event)
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