Digest>Archives> February 2003

Tending the Light at Hooper Strait

By Mary Ann Ray


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Q. How do you make a 123 year-old

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lighthouse feel young again?

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A. Fill it with youngsters and let them “tend the light” for a night.

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That’s exactly what the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum does for approximately forty nights each year at the Hooper Strait Lighthouse located on its 18 acre campus in Saint Michaels. MD. This lighthouse, one of only three cottage-style, screwpile lighthouses remaining on the Chesapeake Bay, has been “on station” at the museum since November, 1966, and has hosted sleepovers since 1986.

Hooper Strait Lighthouse originally stood in the passageway just north of Bloodsworth Island, forty miles south of St. Michaels. Built in 1879 to mark a shoal covered by only 3 to 5 feet of water which hindered the passage of steamships and other commercial and private vessels through Hooper Strait, the lighthouse remained on station with a keeper for 75 years (until 1954). A head keeper and assistant keepers (always male) manned the lighthouse, carrying out their primary duty of “maintenance of the light.”

No families ever lived full-time at this lighthouse. Now, however, on Friday and Saturday nights in April, May, early June, September, and October, the lighthouse becomes home to Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and home-school groups. On five nights during the summer months, it brings families together in a cozy six-sided cottage setting, albeit “campout style,” not luxury motel style.

The overnight program is designed to introduce 21st century students(ages 8-12) to the demanding lifestyle of a 19th century lighthouse keeper, one which protected lives and property as the Bay was used as a “super highway” for transporting people and goods. Since this occupation has disappeared from our society, it is incumbent upon the museum to recreate the keeper’s lifestyle to fully present the maritime history of the Chesapeake Bay.

As the lead instructor for the Lighthouse Overnight Program, I hope that the information and experiences provided by this program will inspire the young keepers to value the traditional career of a lighthouse keeper and teach them the necessity of performing any modern job they may choose in the responsible and dedicated manner of a keeper. I further hope that they will become involved in the preservation of lighthouses and the conservation of the Chesapeake Bay.

This very popular program, which draws students from Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia, is fully booked for the 2003 season and has a waiting list for 2004. It provides many memorable moments for the participants as well as for me, thereby easing my transition into early retirement from teaching.

Among my favorite memories are the following ones gleaned from a host of others:

Awakening to the excited shouts of young keepers as they observe the silent dawn arrival of the Pride of Baltimore II at the museum’s waterfront

Watching the on-going restoration of historic skipjacks in the museum’s shipyard from the galleries of the lighthouse and thrilling to the sight of the sails of the Stanley Norman, Rebecca Ruark, Herman W. Krentz as they glide by the lighthouse on sunset cruises

Meeting the great-granddaughter of the heroic Keeper Thomas J. Steinhise of Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse when she joined her Girl Scout troop at the lighthouse overnight program in April 2002

Watching Brownies making red, white, and blue “friendship bracelets” for their counterparts in New York City following the September 11th tragedy

Sleeping on the floor in the lantern room, observing the moon’s pathway on the harbor, the Big Dipper overhead, and magnificent sunrises over the Miles River through the half-door of this lofty room, all the while imagining the many unrecorded stories that could be told about Hooper Strait’s 12 head keepers and their assistants if only the walls could speak (Norman Plummer’s Beacons of Hooper Strait is an excellent source of all the recorded history of the two lightships and two lighthouses that once guarded the passageway)

Most of all, observing the excitement of young keepers as they eagerly learn about the history and lifestyle of a time far removed from them, meanwhile reveling in the camaraderie of the unique experience they are sharing

As I begin each sleepover, I enjoy remembering the words written by 102 year-old Connie Scovill Small in her memoirs as The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife:

“May the sunrise give you hope and inspiration, the sunset, the comfort of a day well spent.”

It is indeed a day—and night—well spent each time a new group assembles at the lighthouse for a sleepover. From the moment the aspiring keepers arrive at the museum, they are encouraged to step back into 19th century life as it transpired at Hooper Strait Lighthouse. Therefore, they leave their 21st century electronics in their SUVs and try to imagine what it was like to row 1 1/2 miles from shore, pull your boat up in the davits, and enter a cottage illuminated only by oil lamps.

The young keepers who participate in the overnight program come to appreciate the true keepers of Hooper Strait as the original “24/7” people who carried out their myriad of duties with great responsibility and dedication despite the lack of modern conveniences.

Upon making their “official entrance” into the lighthouse through the sea hatch, they begin their training as an assistant keeper and are encouraged to address each other as “Keeper” (and their first name) in the 19th century tradition.

As the Lighthouse Overnight instructor, throughout the program I use a series of questions to lead the students to a better understanding of what life was like for the 19th century keepers at Hooper Strait. I even use a lantern to give them an idea of the light level before electricity, and students pack a basket with supplies as though they were tending the oil lamps in the lantern room .

After being “officially” sworn in as assistant keepers, students break into watch groups to perform the cleaning tasks routinely done by keepers( sweeping, dusting, and polishing).

Having been taught the four hour cycle of nautical time, they begin to ring the bells as they record entries in an “official” log. They will note the weather conditions, vessel passages, and other events taking place in the immediate area of the lighthouse. They will also record data from salinity monitoring equipment, which allows some discussion of the current environmental problems of the Bay.

With the ringing of 7 bells(11:30 p.m.), the keepers end their day of formal learning but continue to read books and solve puzzles based on their newly-acquired lighthouse knowledge.

In the morning, 5 bells are rung at 6:30 a.m., and the young keepers prepare for their final inspection. The last official exit from the lighthouse is made through the sea hatch, and the young keepers return to their 21st century lifestyle, enriched with their knowledge of the past history of the Hooper Strait Lighthouse.

Last October, a group of Girl Scouts from Washington, DC, celebrated the 123rd birthday of the Hooper Strait Lighthouse (complete with cake and singing). However, this beacon of the Bay will remain “forever young” so long as the enthusiastic learning continues within its historic walls at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Mary Ann Ray is a retired middle-school Language Arts teacher from Connecticut. She has been the lead instructor in the Lighthouse Overnight Program at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum since April 2001. “Keeper Mary Ann” resides in Royal Oak, MD, with her husband, Paul.

This story appeared in the February 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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