CAMBRIDGE — The Choptank River Lighthouse began its seventh visitation season on May 1. The iconic screwpile beacon at Long Wharf waterfront in Cambridge is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., until late in the fall.
“I fully expect that we’ll have another record-breaking season in 2019,” said Cassie Burton, president of the Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation. “From the day our Lighthouse opened seven years ago, visitation has been on an upward trajectory.”
The Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation is a community nonprofit group that works to promote the Lighthouse and enhance the experiences it offers to visitors. It also organizes and supports a roster of volunteer “Lighthouse keepers” to be on duty at the Lighthouse on Friday afternoons, Saturdays, Sundays, and some holidays. In recent weeks, 25 keepers attended one of two preseason training and orientation sessions offered.
These keepers act as museum docents, greeting visitors and telling them stories about the Lighthouse and its connections to the maritime history of Dorchester County. They also help connect visitors with other attractions in the city and county, pointing them toward the shops, restaurants, and museums that fit their interests. An array of printed visitor information is available in the Lighthouse, much of it provided by Dorchester County Tourism and Downtown Cambridge, Inc.
“That economic development angle is a big part of our mission,” said Valerie Goff, who coordinates the foundation’s volunteer program. “Wherever possible, we try to help our Lighthouse visitors find their way to other local attractions and businesses.”
Lighthouse Foundation volunteers also worked during recent weeks to bring in a professional cleaning service to make sure the interior is in tip-top shape for visitors. Meanwhile, the staff at Oasis Marinas, which manages the city-owned marina at Long Wharf and maintains an office inside the Lighthouse, have pitched in by power washing the deck and steps and doing caulking and other touch-up work on the interior.
Precise visitation numbers at the Lighthouse are impossible to calculate because the structure is an unstaffed, self-guided affair on most days. But Jim Duffy, the part-time executive director of the Foundation, offered a conservative estimate that 25,000 visitors have been through the doors since the beacon opened, with numbers growing steadily on a year-over-year basis.
Inside, visitors find museum-quality exhibits and artifacts about the history of the lighthouse and its connection with the broader stories of Cambridge and Dorchester County. For example, the upstairs portion of the Lighthouse currently houses a temporary exhibit, “Views from the Lighthouse: The Underground Railroad,” that explores how the views in all four directions from the deck that circles the Lighthouse have important stories to tell about the life of Harriet Tubman and others who sought freedom in slavery times.
A new exhibit will be installed in that space by mid-summer, Duffy said. The theme of “Steam & Sail on the Choptank” is designed to help promote and enhance an important Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit, “Water/Ways,” that’s coming to downtown Cambridge later this year. The Lighthouse is also planning several special events around that exhibit. The exhibit and the events have financial support from the Heart of the Chesapeake Heritage Area, as well as from generous donors to the Lighthouse Foundation.
Other highlights of the coming season include:
A record 14 cruise-ship visits to Long Wharf—guests on those boats can sign on for a special guided group tour of the Lighthouse.
A raffle starting in mid-May for which the top prize is a catered party for 20 at the Lighthouse on the night of the July 4 fireworks.
A special influx of maritime heritage visitors when the tall ship Kalmar Nyckel visits Cambridge on the weekend of June 14-16.
The fourth annual “Light Night” event on Sat., Aug 24. A sell-out three years running, the celebration of the Lighthouse features hors d’oeuvres, music, dancing, auctions, and more, all organized and executed by a team of more than a dozen volunteers. Tickets will go on sale in June.
The Maryland Lighthouse Challenge, in which travelers from all over the country make a mad dash through the state on the weekend of Sept. 20-22 to see 10 Maryland lighthouses and 1 lightship.
Finally, the Foundation’s special project for 2019 is “Preserving the Lighthouse.” Built in 2012, the structure has now spent seven years out in the elements at the exposed end of a long dock, enduring all manner of wind and waves and rain and snow. “Preserving the Lighthouse” aims to make certain the structure is as sound now as it was the day it opened.
Building inspector Ed Colaprete of Dorchester County has volunteered his expertise in support of the project. The report he is preparing will guide the necessary repairing, replacing, cleaning, painting, and sealing that gets done in the months ahead. It will also inform the development of a longer-term plan and timetable that lay out preventive steps that need to be taken in order to avoid big repair bills down the road.
Some of this work will happen in partnership with the City of Cambridge, which owns the Lighthouse, and with Oasis Marinas. Other parts of the project will be taken on by the Foundation, with support from community donors.
“With its repair jobs and maintenance calendars, this project may seem a little unexciting to some people,” Burton said. “But it’s actually the most important thing a nonprofit like ours can do—we want to make sure that the Choptank River Lighthouse keeps shining, drawing visitors, and paying dividends to our community for many years and decades to come.”
For information about the lighthouse and initiatives to preserve it, contact Jim Duffy at 410-463-2635 or ChoptankLighthouse@gmail.com. The foundation always welcomes inquiries from potential volunteers as well. You can learn about events and activities at the Lighthouse at Facebook.com/ChoptankRiverLighthouse.