For more than a century, Pooles Island Lighthouse guided mariners to the northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay. Now the whitewashed granite tower has been relit and co-opted by nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground as a symbol of sweeping changes there.
The bay's oldest surviving lighthouse, which has stood on the southern shore of Pooles Island since 1825, has been outfitted with solar lighting and is once again guiding boaters with a new signal: four flashes, a pause and then three flashes. Its range is about six nautical miles or a little further on a clear night.
Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, the APG commandant, insisted on relighting the long-abandoned lighthouse. He also ordered that the lighthouse image be placed on post letterheads, briefing papers and display posters. A 6-foot-tall replica, made by Harford Technical High School students, stands in garrison headquarters.
Justice said a symbol was needed to represent the changes that have come to the Harford County post in the five years since the start of BRAC, the nationwide realignment of military bases. He designated the new signature flash, a Morse Code sequence for Team APG.
"We were looking for something to gel around, given the many diverse missions that BRAC has brought here," Justice said. "This lighthouse helps people focus on something tangible, real and historical amid all the changes. What a perfect symbol for the changing future."
Justice, a history buff who grew up on the North Carolina coast, is well versed in lighthouse lore. When he was named commander at APG two years ago, he immediately took an interest in the 40-foot-tall structure, which had gone dark in 1939.
"Lighthouses are so symbolic, almost religious in their symbolism for guiding us," Justice said. "We have the oldest one on the bay. It harkened in the industrial age, and we are calling it our 'light to the future' as we make many major shifts in our infrastructure here."
The government spent $5,000 in 1825 to build the lighthouse on Pooles Island, a 200-acre swath of land that was discovered by Capt. John Smith when he sailed up the bay in the 17th century. Craftsmen laid the granite stones, hauled from quarries in Port Deposit, and made a mortar of sand and oyster shells. A spiral staircase with steps of solid-cut granite blocks winds upward to the cast-iron cupola that housed the lanterns. Those oil-lit lamps guided the fishing boats and commercial ships that plied the bay.
Pooles Island, the first of a dozen bay lighthouses, is older by a few years than its sister lighthouse in Havre de Grace. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is registered with the Coast Guard as a private aid to navigation. The Army is tasked with its maintenance.
The last lightkeeper, Stephen A. Cohee, maintained the beacon for 35 years, until the Army established APG in 1917 and decommissioned the lighthouse. The Army operated the light for another few decades, until 1939.
Many of Cohee's descendants remain in the area and eagerly share the stories of a family of eight children, who spent their early years on the island while their father tended the lighthouse.
"My mother used to talk about how her father bounded up the steps every night with a jug full of oil for the lanterns," said Betty O'Leary, 84, whose mother, Gladys, was the youngest of Cohee's clan. "He was meticulous about the job. Whenever he had to be away, he made sure his sons knew how to do the job."
Terri Kaltenbacher, an environmental planner and APG spokeswoman, said that "everything depended on Cohee."
"The waters here are shallow, and we know of about seven wrecks, including a tugboat that ran onto the rocks," she said.
She has already received numerous calls from boaters, grateful the light is again operating, she said.
O'Leary, who worked at APG for 35 years, recalled stories of waters so rich in seafood that the Cohee children could rake crabs onto the beach. She has saved sepia-toned photos of her grandfather, looking "quite dashing" in his white keeper's uniform, and of her mother as a charming 3-year-old posing with a huge black dog named Bingo.
"The water was the only life they knew," O'Leary said. "The boys built boats and sold the rockfish they caught."
The Cohees went to a school on the mainland but were often iced-in during winter, leaving schooling to their parents. "The children learned to read by the light in the cupola," O'Leary said.
The family has preserved many artifacts from the island, including the original mahogany lighthouse door. APG officials are hoping they will lend those artifacts to the post museum.
Justice has pledged to continue preservation efforts and develop a plan to prevent further shoreline erosion. "This is a treasure for this state," he said.
Kaltenbacher has worked to preserve the lighthouse and helped spur a $15,000 restoration in 1997. She is hoping for a new coat of whitewash soon. The solar panel, installed in May at a cost of about $3,000, provides flashes of light from dusk to dawn from that same cupola.
"Solar is the only way to go, since there are no facilities on the island," Kaltenbacher said. "We don't have Captain Cohee to fill the lanterns anymore."
She calls Pooles Island "the holy grail of lighthouses" because it is off-limits to the public. Trespassers face a $500 fine and risk life and limb on land posted with signs warning of unexploded ordnance. Cohee family members have been back, though, with a military escort. They turned the official relighting into a family reunion that drew 32 of their number. On another trip back last week, the memories flowed.
"There's the old girl and she is looking a lot shinier these days," said the lighthouse keeper's great-grandson, John Bowman, 69, as the Army's Boston whaler approached the island.
He added: "How awesome it is to see the lighthouse blinking at night."
At the end of the visit, Bowman gathered a handful of sand and a few smooth pebbles from the beach. He will save those for his grandchildren. "I will tell them that this is your heritage."