The story of a Chesapeake Bay icon
Published on November 16th, 2020
A familiar site to all sailors who have raced or cruised on the Chesapeake Bay, ‘Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse: A Chesapeake Bay Icon’ covers its building and history and includes a section on current day preservation efforts.
Gendell offers some background on the book:
Why a book about the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse?
I first visited the idea back in 2004, at the time the lighthouse was being handed over from the federal government to the City of Annapolis and its partners. I was involved in the handover ceremony and in the process met a number of U.S. Lighthouse Society leaders and other lighthouse aficionados.
As I learned more about the history of the screwpile at Thomas Point it was obvious that someone needed to put together a book about the lighthouse, what went into building it, the men who kept it, and the ongoing preservation efforts.
I actually did a fair amount of research and writing that winter of 2004-05 but we were in start-up mode for PropTalk magazine and I became father of twins around the same time so the lighthouse project was paused before it really began.
Fast-forward to summer 2019. I was stuck—really stuck—on a writing project and trying to shake something loose. On a whim I dug out the 2004 Thomas Point research and notes folder from a dusty virtual corner of my old SpinSheet computer which was still in our basement for some reason.
After working for so many years on sprawling non-fiction projects, the idea of writing about a single fixed point on the earth over a liner timeline was incredibly appealing. The fact that that point of earth was just a few miles from my desk and that the timeline continued through today and extended into the future was a great source of motivation.
How did you do the research?
There is so much to learn and this is always a huge source of motivation for me. The research is my favorite part—which is probably why I end up with multiple unfinished, sprawling non-fiction projects on my desktop—there is a genuine openness to learning, almost a compulsion to understand as much as possible.
I absolutely love combing old newspapers. Visiting a chilly archives and discovering documents and photos is very exciting and energizing for me. For this book I conducted research sessions at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Some amazing lighthouse researchers had gone before me, many associated with the U.S. Lighthouse Society, so their work also helped blaze the path. When I ended up with a specific date or event that was especially interesting I then turned to the archives of The Baltimore Sun and the Maryland Gazette/Annapolis Evening Capital newspapers which helped frame some context around the events.
The last sections of the book are current day and I was able to get out on the lighthouse and spend real time there, thanks to Lighthouse Manager John Potvin. Of course, I had to interview the legend Lenny Rudow about fishing at Thomas Point and also got to take a trip out to the shoal fish with the great Tom Weaver. That first-hand research was so important (and fun).
Any favorite stories stand out?
The very first keeper out there was from the Eastern Shore. As a young man he had been wounded in the fighting at the Bloody Lane at Antietam while fighting for the Union and it appears that he had some sort of disability for the rest of life.
He not only had the honor of serving as the first keeper he had some wild adventures out there and faced real danger. I loved telling his story. In the depths of the April quarantine, I went up to Antietam and it was really empty. I found the spot at the Bloody Lane where he had been wounded and we had a moment.
In the mid-1970s, the Thomas Point keeper is an African-American from North Carolina, who had the honor of serving at the 100-year anniversary of the lighthouse. His story was also wonderful to learn and include in the book.
And obviously the work that has been done out there since 2004 is just amazing. And the increase in fundraising and public interest over just the past few years has been incredible. It is so rewarding to be able to document those stories too. I just love what is happening out there now. I am donating a portion of the book proceeds to lighthouse preservation efforts.
Since the book was released, I had the chance to visit Thomas Point with the infamous Jimmy Buffett who is a well-known lighthouse aficionado. We spent about two hours touring the lighthouse and trading sailing stories, after which Buffett recorded videos for two songs which will be released at some future point… the names of the songs are a surprise.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to lighthouse preservation.