Favorite Maryland Lighthouse
Although we have sailed past most of the famous lighthouses of the Chesapeake, our favorite is probably one you’ve never heard of — a modest little light station on the north bank of the Potomac.
You would think that, after more than two decades sailing and paddling on the Bay, our favorite Maryland lighthouse would be one of those iconic screw-pile lighthouses that used to stand like spiders in the shoal waters of the Chesapeake. Instead, it’s the Piney Point Lighthouse, a modest little lighthouse on sandy spit of land near the mouth of the Potomac River.
A more likely choice would have been the famous Thomas Point Lighthouse, which was built just south of Annapolis in 1875 and is the last screw-pile light still on active duty in the Bay. We used to routinely sail past Thomas Point — from the South River in our old Coronado 25, and, later, from the mouth of the Severn in our stout old Westsail 32. Sometimes we passed so close that we could almost have leapt from the deck to the riprap at the base of the light.
There are three other screw-pile lights that we could have chosen from: Seven Foot Knoll light, which used to mark the sand banks at the mouth of the Patapsco River, is now a museum at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Drum Point Light, which warned mariners about the shoals at the entrance of the Patuxent River for nearly 100 years, now stands on the grounds of the Calvert Maritime Museum in Solomon’s Island. Hooper Strait Lighthouse suffered a similar fate, ending up as an exhibit at the Chesapeake Bary Maritime Museum in St. Michaels after 87 years of service guarding the entrance to Tangier Sound.
So, what makes the Piney Point Light so special?
First, it’s old. In fact, it’s the third oldest lighthouse in Maryland. Only Pooles Island Light, built in 1825 within what’s now known as the Aberdeen Proving Grounds north of Baltimore, and Concord Point Light, constructed at the mouth of the Susquehanna River in 1827 are older. All three, by the way, were built by John Donahoo, an enterprising Havre de Grace man responsible for the design and construction of 13 lighthouses on the Bay and its various tributaries. Seven of them still stand.
Piney Point Light, which is managed by St. Mary’s County’s Department of Recreation and Parks Museum Division, is also well preserved. The 35-foot tower is in fine fiddle, and the keeper’s house, which now serves as a museum, is in good enough condition you might find yourself imagining living there. There’s also an old Coast Guard workshop on the property that seems to be in reasonably good health, although it’s not open to the public. Finally, there’s a large, relatively new pier that juts out into the Potomac, providing excellent views down the northern shore and across the river to Virginia. It’s also the best vantage point from which to look back at the light and get a sense of what life must have been like for those 19th Century lightkeepers.
There are exhibits about that life in the museum and the big shed by the parking lot that houses the Potomac River Maritime Exhibit, which has a small but interesting collection of historic fishing vessels, including a pair of pungey schooners. There’s also an old Potomac Dory in the yard that was used by the lightkeeper to get back and forth between Piney Point and his home in Virginia.
One of the museum’s most interesting exhibits has nothing to do with the lighthouse or the river’s maritime traditions. Instead, it tells the story and surprising afterlife of U-1105, a German U-boat from World War II that became known as the Black Panther because it was coated in a layer of sonar-absorbing black rubber.
Launched toward the end of the war, U-1105 was responsible for one of the last Allied casualties from a German submarine. In April 1945, Black Panther fired a pair of acoustic torpedoes at the HMS Redmill while cruising off the coast of Ireland. Although 1,300-ton British Frigate managed to remain afloat, 36 men were killed, and the ship was declared a total loss when she returned to port.
Shortly after that, Germany capitulated and U-1105 surrendered to the British.
So, what has that got to do with Piney Point Lighthouse, you ask.
Well, the British promptly turned the submarine over to the U.S. Navy so America scientists and engineers could study its experimental, anti-sonar coating. By February 1946, the Black Panther was in the harbor at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she was pored over by experts from the Naval Research Laboratory and the MIT Acoustic Laboratory.
Once that was over, the Navy one more experiment in store for U-1105. She was towed down to the Chesapeake and up the Potomac where she anchored off Piney Point. There, Navy scientists blasted the U-boat with an experimental new depth charge, sinking her in 90-feet of water. She’s still there, her hull now sunk in the sediment, but her conning tower rising up from the bottom of the river.
Now, though, the former Black Panther is Maryland’s first Historic Shipwreck Dive Preserve.
But here’s the thing about Piney Point Lighthouse: Even if you don’t care a whit about lighthouses, or Maryland’s maritime past, or WWII history, it’s still worth the trip. That’s because, to get to the lighthouse, you first have to drive through the lovely little community of Piney Point. This waterfront neighborhood stretches out along the namesake spit of land, with a wide, sandy beach on the river side of the road and a row of beautiful, understated homes backed up to Piney Point Creek on the other.
Each home has its own dock jutting out into the cove. They also have their own gazebos on the beach, some of them outfitted with a second floor for riverwatching and hammocks swinging on the lower level. Typically, a quiver of kayaks and paddle boards lean up against the gazebos, ready for any sort of summer fun.
The homeowners simply have to walk across the sleepy street to find themselves in a beach paradise.
And, except for the rare lighthouse visitor (you, we hope) they have it all to themselves. Piney Point, after all, is a dead-end road. And the wealthy people who live here know better than to set up parking for beachgoers. So, if want to see how the other half lives, the lighthouse may be your ticket.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.