PINEY POINT – It is called the “Lighthouse of Presidents” — but not because Piney Point Lighthouse rises to any presidential stature.
The squat, white tower rises just 26 feet above a dry Potomac River beach of prickly pines in St. Mary’s County, 14 miles up from where the river joins the Chesapeake Bay.
Charity Davidson of the Maryland Historical Trust said the 162-year-old Piney Point is less “intimidating” than some other taller and wider lighthouses.
“It’s cute,” Davidson said. “It pulls the heartstrings.”
But what pulls the heartstrings today was the centerpiece of a vacation spot for the regions’ famous of yesterday.
Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Millard Fillmore both visited the lighthouse when Piney Point was an area for celebrity vacationers.
In its day, the area was also visited by presidents Franklin Pierce and James Monroe, Vice President John C. Calhoun, statesmen Daniel Webster and Henry Clay and singer Kate Smith.
The Piney Point Hotel, once a neighbor to the lighthouse, hosted the elites while they were in town. Dolly Madison was once a guest.
And anyone, president or pauper, sailed past the lighthouse traveling to and from Washington, said Michael Humphries, the director of St. Clements Island Potomac River Museum.
The federal government paid $300 for 2.5 acres of Piney Point land in December 1835 and it hired John Donahoo of Havre de Grace to build a lighthouse there the next year.
When it was finished in September 1836, at a cost of about $4,000, Piney Point was the first lighthouse constructed entirely on the shore of the Potomac River.
Today, it is one of only four lighthouses remaining on the river. Of 44 lighthouses built in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay between 1822 and 1910, Piney Point is one of 25 still standing.
A stone from the same quarry that built the White House and Capitol is in the tower’s lantern deck and stones removed during construction of the C&O Canal were used to build its foundation.
The brick conical lighthouse is built in classic stone-tower design. Inside, a wooden spiral staircase leads up to the fixed white lantern whose light could be seen for 11 miles, along what many sailors called a treacherous shoreline.
The four-room brick home next to the tower was for the lighthouse keeper and his or her family — there were four women lighthouse keepers in Piney Point’s century-plus of operation.
In 1880, a bell tower was constructed near the lighthouse to help sailors find their way through dense fog. The bell was replaced in 1936 by a fog horn, which operated until Hurricane Hazel destroyed the bell tower in 1954.
But Piney Point’s days were numbered when small automatic lights began replacing the lighthouse keeper after the 1910s.
The Coast Guard began dismantling many of the lighthouses in the 1960s. It decommissioned Piney Point in 1964 and turned the lighthouse over to St. Mary’s County in 1980. The county maintains the property, which is operated by the St. Clement’s Island Potomac River Museum.
As its use as a lighthouse was fading, the area around Piney Point was also losing its luster. A hurricane in 1933 destroyed many of the major piers and landings in the area.
Planes, trains and automobiles supplanted the steamboats that carried people from the cities and made it easier for them to reach other vacation spots.
During World War II, the Navy used the area around the lighthouse as a testing range for torpedoes manufactured in Alexandria, Va.
While it does not have the glamorous location or imposing stature of other some lighthouses, Humphries said it has something that all lighthouses must have: ghost stories.
On one Halloween night, Humphries said he asked out loud if he could move some paint and heard a voice tell him “suit yourself.” He said he recorded the voice and that some others heard it as well.
Humphries also said a tenant in the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters claimed he saw a woman dressed in 1920s-era clothes and smoking a cigarette. The woman vanished when the man got closer.
Today, Piney Point Lighthouse and the six-acre park surrounding it draw about 8,000 visitors during tourist season, Humphries estimated.
The park is open seven days a week during summer months, from “sunrise to sunset,” though Humphries said they struggle for volunteers and money to maintain and operate the lighthouse.
The site needs constant upkeep. Like many lighthouses, it is battered by changing water currents and winds. The salt air leaves rusty rings on the lighthouse, requiring that it be painted frequently — traditionally in white.
A chief petty officer’s cottage that was built on the property in the 1950s has been converted into a gift shop and a garage became the Piney Point Lighthouse Museum.
The St. Clements Museum recently put in new sidewalks and improved the parking lot, which were damaged during winter rainfalls.
Bill Mapes, 45, an attorney from Washington, D.C., who has a small house nearby, takes his two daughters to the park when in town.
Kathryn, 8, said she likes the shells, rocks and sticks she finds on the beach — and the gazebo near the museum. Her sister, Miranda, 3, liked the bell that visitors can ring with a hammer.
“I think the park is tremendous,” Mapes said. “It’s a big hit with the kids.”
Bob Eberhart, an aircraft mechanic, grew up near the lighthouse and said that he used to jog along the beach. He introduced his friend, Mark Truesdale, 39, of California, Md., to the park as they took a break from their motorcycle ride.
“It’s nice,” said Truesdale. “I like the water.”
“It’s the best little secret around,” said Eberhart, 42.