Hambrooks Light: Going, going: Almost gone

Built in 1902, the Hambrooks Bar Light has been guiding generations of boaters in and out of the deepwater harbor in Cambridge. It was set to have been demolished in mid-June. A replaced marker, buoy No. 24, which has no light, will take the place of the vintage light structure.

It may be the maritime community’s equivalent of the once beloved Wye Oak, a 400-year-old-plus landmark that had been around so long, until it fell in a windstorm in June 2002, people just expected it to always be there.

Time, too, is running out for the Hambrooks Bar Light, or lighthouse as some call it, a maritime marker constructed in 1902 in the mouth of the Choptank River. It warns captains and boaters to stay clear of the sand bar just off Rooster Island and north of Hambrooks Bay.

The U.S. Coast Guard wants the weathered and aging light gone, and demolition was set to begin earlier this month.

In February, the Coast Guard contracted with Tuskegee Contracting from Hampton, Va., to have the light removed by mid-June, at a cost of $309,937.

The light station cost about $10,000 when built 118 years ago. To take its place, the Coast Guard positioned buoy No. 24, nearby, in 2018.

It’s now a fading red buoy, with peeling paint and rust. Looking like the top of a rocket, the much shorter, and much smaller buoy, does not have a light. Nor does it have the history and appeal locals find so endearing about the rusting vintage marker nearby.

The old light has been here so long that it was a familiar landmark to the world-famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who built a house here in 1913.  She could see it from her porch, on Hambrooks Boulevard, that fronts the river.

Local historian and former Dorchester County Commissioner, Tom Bradshaw, said there’s been an unexpected delay on the demolition that was supposed to start June 15.

“The project is on hold,” he said.

“A ‘notice to mariners’ was put out by the Coast Guard in 2015 that this was going to happen,” Bradshaw said. “Apparently they never got much feedback and this project sort of slipped through the cracks. It was brought up in front of the Delmarva Water Transport Board, but apparently there wasn’t much discussed about it. The news about this wasn’t wide-spread. When it was learned recently that demolition was about to begin, that’s when the public got involved.”

Bradshaw said folks alarmed about the pending demolition notified the Coast Guard that NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) and NHPA  (National Historic Preservation Act ) requirements hadn’t been addressed. “Now the Coast Guard is being required to have an environmental impact study as well as a NEPA mandated socio-economic impact study on this,” he said. “Apparently the Coast Guard failed to address any of these requirements.”

It could now take weeks, or months, before proposed demolition work begins. “My role in this is to give advice whenever I can, because of my local government background experience and political experience,” Bradshaw explained.

According to Greg Krawczyk, programs coordinator with The Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, getting the word out that the light was scheduled for demolition, was a priority.

“What I volunteered to do was to contact the contractor and the Coast Guard to see if there would be some pieces of the light that could be retained and donated to the Richardson Maritime Museum in Cambridge, or another local museum, so there would be some physical remembrance of the light.”

State Sen. Addie Eckardt listens as Capt. Ernie Barlow explains the importance of preventing the demolition of Hambrooks Bar Light, located in the mouth of the Choptank River.

Officials at the Richardson Maritime Museum have expressed interest in acquiring some items.

“It’s in terrible shape. Being an engineer I don’t know how the demolition crew will be able to remove some elements of the light intact,” Krawczyk said. 

A number of people are working to gather as much history about the structure as they can. Surprisingly, Krawczyk said, the Coast Guard doesn’t have a longtime file on the light.

He said contebt posted on the Society’s website — cheslights.org — contains all the information they have on the light.

“It was completed in 1902. The structure is a 15-foot tall red, conical-shaped, cast iron concrete caisson painted red and white.

“In September 1991, crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Red Cedar spent 4 days refurbishing the light. Repairs included painting, new railing around the top, and replacing hinges and the latch on the door. The light’s solar panel was also relocated to increase the ability to recharge the battery that powers the light. The automated optic is a 250-mm acrylic lens. Only a minimal amount of sandblasting was done prior to painting, as well as checking for lead and other toxins prior to starting the job.”

According to Krawczyk’s research team, there were two Cambridge men who served as “light keepers,” Levi B. Richardson (1902-1911) and Capt. Milbourne F. Cannon (1911-?)

Ernie Barlow, a 55-year-plus Dorchester County waterman, and former Salisbury School educator, said he’s upset with the decision to demolish the light.

“Hambrooks Light should be restored,” Barlow said. “It’s part of our history. It’s been part of many people’s lives for over a 100 years. Everyone going in and out of the Choptank River uses that marker. It’s more than a navigation marker, it’s a symbol of Cambridge and all that Cambridge stands for. It’s such a very, very integral part of our history. Hambrooks Light is also part of our waterfront community landscape. If this demolition is allowed to happen, we will see history destroyed before our eyes.”

Capt. Ernie Barlow says that, for 55 years, he has used the iconic Hambrooks Light marker to navigate the Choptank River.

Barlow said crabbers and oystermen have long relied on the easy-to-see marker for navigation.

“The first thing we all look for  when we come out of Cambridge Creek is that light(house). We take our bearings by that light. I’ve used it for 55 years.”

Barlow laughed when recalling a “misfortune”  of running around on the sand bar when he was captain and owner of the skipjack Helen Virginia, during the annual skipjack race here decades ago.

“It was ebb tide, and the Helen Virginia kept drifting and drifting, I knew we were getting close, then ran aground. By pulling up the centerboard we were able to get off the bar. But this bottom is always shifting because of the northwest winds,” he said.

Maryland state Sen. Addie Eckardt said she jumped in to help save or preserve elements of the Hambrooks Light by the end of May.

“Our kids used to swim out to the Hambrooks Light. For anyone in Dorchester County sailing near the light, it was an important and familiar marker. It’s always been significant to us. When my children heard about what was going to happen to it, they said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to save that bar light!’” she said.

She said the lot of people photograph and artistically paint the lighthouse.

Soon others were imploring Eckardt to do what she could to save the day. “I was aware that something was planned for the light, and when I found out what that ‘something’ was, we got on it right away.”

Eckardt contacted the staff of the Richardson Maritime Museum to alert them of artifacts that might be salvageable. “We contacted Rep. Andy Harris, and his crew, to make sure we were involved,” she said.

Eckardt said Steve DelSordo, also of Cambridge, and a recently retired Federal Preservation Officer and former Secretary of Interior Qualified Historian and Architectural Historian, was also working to determine where things stand regarding the demolition.

DelSordo questioned whether the Coast Guard had fulfilled necessary requirements to move ahead with the demolition project and properly notified the public of their intent. His research indicates that some procedures were not followed.   

“There is the possibility that the Hambrooks Bar Light can be saved and retained in place and refurbished,” she said. “I have heard from the Coast Guard people that it is too far gone (to save) and too dangerous for anyone to work on it.”

Eckardt encourages those interested in saving the icon to also contact Rep. Andy Harris’ office.

Facebook is an active clearing house site  for folks anxious to have somebody do something to save the historic light.

Krawczyk said if the antique light isn’t restored, folks should require the Coast Guard to place a light on buoy No. 24.

“I strongly recommend the local Cambridge public ask for the buoy to be changed before the light is removed. Then the Coast Guard can turn off the Hambrooks Bar white light when they place the lighted buoy.”

“People have used this for a maritime marker for so long they are really going to miss it if it’s demolished,” Barlow said.

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