Many of you have climbed up into the cottage of a screwpile lighthouse. Perhaps in St. Michaels, Md. at the Maritime Museum. Or in Cambridge, Md. on the waterfront. Perhaps some of you been in one of those beacons on a day so cold and windy you could feel the whole cottage shaking.
OK, now imagine three things:
(1) The cottage stands out in the middle of the water, far from land.
(2) A deep winter freeze is just now lifting, and the run of ice that stretched far out into the Chesapeake Bay is melting.
(3) It’s so foggy you can’t see a thing.
Now imagine more things:
(4) The wind kicks up. A furious storm rolls in.
(5) That ice has broken into humongous chunks that are now riding the wild waves outside your beacon.
(7) You fall hard, then tumble across a room as the whole place turns sideways.
(8) That thwack knocked the cottage off of its foundation. The whole building lands in that frozen, churning water.
This is what happened to keeper Christopher Columbus Butler and assistant Charles L. Tarr at the Sharps Island Lighthouse on the morning of Feb. 10, 1881.
Spoiler alert: Who knew screwpile cottages could float?
An Unlucky Lighthouse Locale
Sharps Island didn’t have much luck with lighthouses. What’s left of that place is underwater now, but in days gone by it rose from the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Choptank River, a little way below Tilghman Island.
This is roughly where novelist James Michener located the fictional Devon Island in his famous novel, “Chesapeake.” Michener gave his fictional Devon the same fate as the real-world Sharps. No one knows how big Sharps Island might have been during the centuries when Choptank Indians rowed out there to fish and hunt. Historians guesstimate that it covered 700 acres during the 1600s. That’s when it got its name, by virtue of being owned by a Quaker doctor named Peter Sharpe.
The island was down to 400-and-some acres by the time someone measured in the 1800s. In 1900, it covered less than 100 acres. By 1960, it had drowned completely. There is talk in old newspaper articles from those days about how some homes on Tilghman Island and some decoys crafted by local carvers were made with wood liberated by the scavenging locals who helped dismantle the doomed old Sharps Island Hotel.
Back up a couple of centuries. The first Sharps Island Lighthouse was built on land, in 1838. Folks understood back then that the island was disappearing, but they underestimated just how quickly that process was moving. Just 27 years later, the Light-House Board gave up on that beacon, citing “the gradual washing away of the ground.”
The following year, 1866, a screwpile lighthouse went up out in the water. Like its predecessor, it marked the entrance to the Choptank River. Folks understood back then that screwpiles were sometimes vulnerable in conditions where they got thwacked by ice floes, but they were cheaper and quicker to build than the sturdier but-still-newfangled caisson-style lighthouses.
A spot of trouble popped up in the winter of 1879. Two diagonal braces went flying off the lighthouse, thanks to ice floes. That winter saw damage to another brace and a horizontal beam as well. Everything was repaired. Out of an abundance of caution, the lighthouse powers that be approved the addition of an ice-breaking pile of rocks just south of the beacon.
The Wild Ride to Paw Paw Cove
Another deep freeze arrived early in 1881. Things had started to thaw by the time a thick fog rolled in on the morning of Feb. 10. That was followed by a storm, those thwacks, and that splash as the whole cottage landed in the Chesapeake Bay.
Amazingly, keeper Butler and assistant Tarr did not suffer serious injuries as their house fell from its foundation. And more amazingly, they found themselves afloat inside a cottage that did not appear to be in imminent danger of sinking.
And so it went. The keepers rode that cottage through the storm and its aftermath, 16-plus hours of floating on the waves. Finally, at 1am the next morning, they ran aground off the west end of Tilghman Island, at Paw Paw Cove. Their wild ride had covered five miles.
In the hours that followed, keepers Butler and Tarr provided ample justification for the historical legend that lighthouse keepers were often fanatical in their devotion to duty. The lifeboat known as a dory was still attached to the cottage. The pair could have rowed into shore at any time. But here is what the writer Pat Vojtech says in her book Lighting the Bay: Tales of Chesapeake Lighthouses:
“The two keepers were shaken, cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted, yet they stood by the wrecked lighthouse through the night hours, waiting for a passing vessel that might help them salvage the Lighthouse property. When fog moved in, obscuring [their view of potential] passing vessels, they finally gave up and paddled their way to shore in the lighthouse dory.”
The pair took a brief break on land, then returned to the cottage to retrieve the most valuable items–the lens, its pedestal, oil, logbooks. They even took empty oil cans back with them.
For obvious reason, inspector F.J. Higginson of the U.S. Lighthouse Service recommended that Butler and Tarr be awarded letters of commendation.
“The keeper and assistant clung to the fallen house … for sixteen and half hours,” he wrote. “Their danger was very great, being in the midst of heavy flowing ice, which would often pile upon on the house and thereafter swamp it.”
Third Beacon: The Leaning Tower of Chesapeake
A few short hours after Butler and Tarr rescued those valuables, Sharps Island light slid off that shallow ground and headed back out to sea. A couple of days after that, a steamboat ran aground on an unlit Sharps Island. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries or deaths.
A new lighthouse went up at Sharps Island the next year, 1882. This time, the Light-House Board wisely went with one of those sturdy caisson-style beacons. The iron tower was 37 feet tall. Its concrete-filled caisson foundation was 30 feet deep and 30 feet in diameter.
For 95 years, that lighthouse stood up to everything the Chesapeake could throw at it, including ice. Then came the deep-freeze of 1976-77. (You can read about the incredible run of freezing temperatures that winter here.) Sharps Island Lighthouse emerged from all the expanding and contracting and melting and thwacking of those icy months as “The Leaning Tower of the Chesapeake.”
It still stands that way out there today, askew by about 20 degrees. It is, Pat Vojtech says in her book, the only caisson on the Chesapeake Bay ever moved by ice. Sharps Island never did have any luck with lighthouses.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on Dec. 27, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.