Photos and text by Algerina Perna
Hooper Strait Lighthouse protected sailors from crashing into sand bars on their travels between the northern Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Sound for 87 years. In 1966, this treasured piece of Chesapeake Bay history was saved from demolition by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. The lighthouse was cut in half width-wise and moved on two barges to its current location and reassembled on the museum’s campus in St. Michaels.
Surrounded by the beauty of open sky and vast waters, a keeper’s life was very labor intensive. In the first 75 years of its history, the keeper and his assistant worked 25 days on and 5 days off. The lantern burned from sunset to sunrise, and was cleaned and refilled with oil daily. On foggy days when visibility was 5 miles, they operated a fog bell by manually cranking a machine every two hours. With constant exposure to the elements, the wooden house required continual maintenance. Fueled by both wood and coal, the cooking and heating stoves on the first floor also depended upon physical labor. Foodstuffs and other supplies were delivered by a lighthouse tender. Keepers kept a daily log of weather conditions, shipping traffic and notable occurrences. Other duties included machinery repair and assisting boats which might be stranded. Pete Lesher, chief curator for the museum says they also kept the surrounding buoys lit with acetylene gas.
In 1934, the lighthouse was modernized with an electric light and an air whistle instead of a fog bell. Lesher says some of the old duties were supplanted with maintaining the generator for the lighthouse batteries, and radio monitoring and checks.
Living a keeper’s life could be very dangerous. The original Hooper Strait Lighthouse (1867-1877) was destroyed by moving ice floes on January 8, 1877. Fortunately, both the keeper and his assistant survived. Although the new lighthouse used a screw pile design where each of the wrought iron pilings were screwed into the bay floor 10-feet deep, keepers still recorded dangerous conditions. An entry from 1912 says, “ Very heavy ice running. House shaking very bad. Can’t stand on your feet.”
Visitors can experience the life of a lighthouse keeper at the Hooper Strait Lighthouse, now a living museum furnished in the 1925 period complete with authentic keepers’ uniforms and a daily log book written in the keeper’s own words.