The History of the Blackistone Lighthouse
One of the last lighthouses constructed by Master Lighthouse builder John Donahoo, the original brick lighthouse was commissioned in November 1851. The structure was a two story brick dwelling, with a light tower rising from the ground through the center of the building. The keepers house had six rooms, a basement, and a roof of slate. A large covered front porch stretched from one side of the house to the other. The outside dimensions of the building were 38′ x 20’ feet.
Nineteenth century documents describe the Blackistone lighthouse as a dwelling built around the tower. In the first 8 years of operation the lighthouse had 3 keepers. In 1859 Jerome McWilliams, son of the island’s owner, Joseph L. McWilliams, was appointed keeper and remanded until 1875. Though official keeper, McWilliams apparently encouraged other family members to take case of his lighthouse duties. McWilliams was followed by his sister, Josephine McWilliams Freeman, whose tenure as lighthouse keeper lasted until 1911.
Lighthouse keepers from that time
1851 Isaac Wood
1853 George Goddard
1855 George Hackett
1859 Jerome L. McWilliams
1868 Dr. Joseph L. McWilliams
1875 Mrs. Josephine McWilliams Freeman
1912 William M. Freeman, Jr.
1913 Leonard H. Staubly
1917 Francis E. Butterfield. Jr.
1918 William Simpson
1919 William Yeatman
1920-1932 Leonard H. Staubly
The lighthouse was fully automated in 1932, a time when automation was overtaking many Chesapeake lights. Thereafter, the structure began to deteriorate until, on July 16, 1956 a fire gutted the building and raged across the island. Residents reported seeing smoke coming from-the island as early as 8:00 am, but the fire department was not called until 6 o’clock in the evening. By the time fire fighters could be ferried to the island with portable equipment, the lighthouse was beyond repair, and deeming the structure a danger, the navy dynamited the remains. The scattered bricks, catwalk, and twisted railing still lay along the shoreline.
There are several stories as to how the fire was started. Many believe that the building burned because it was struck by lighting. A local newspaper article suggested that ordinance from the nearby Navel Proving Ground started the fires. Some residents reported seeing a shell burst near the island. Another story told by a local fisherman is that the cause of the fires was arson. He tells that he and his crew were hauling seine near the island when he noticed three men land near the lighthouse in a rowboat. A short time later three men left and smoke and flames were seen billowing up under the wooden porch of the lighthouse. The fishing crew then went to the building and tried to put out the fire but they only had one bucket in which to carry water from the river, and it was too slow. After realizing that their efforts were to no avail, the fisherman thought it best to leave because he was afraid someone would think he had set it on fire.
On May 19th 1864, the lighthouse was almost destroyed. This time it was due to the war between the states, or as many in Southern Maryland called it the war of Northern Invasion. In a report made by commander Foxhall Parker of the Potomac Flotilla to the secretary of the Navy in Washington: ” I have to report to the Department that on the night of the 19th instant twelve rebel’s headed by a man named Goldsmith landed in a small boat at Blackistone’s Island and destroyed the lens and lamp, and carried off fifteen gallons of oil belonging to the light house… I am of the opinion that while there are so many rebelsympathizersin Maryland and on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, none of the lighthouses there located are safe without a guard to protect them.”
The Union officer’s report differs with Captain Goldsmith’s account of the raid he conducted. Goldsmith, a St. Mary’s Countian, who lived not far from the island at Enfield his family’s house on St. Patrick’s Creek. He said that he had only four men with him: Lieutenant Tom Parker, Lieutenant James Parker, J. Spalding and a blackman negro named Louis. The thirty foot boat they used was named The Swan, which Goldsmith used for similar missions throughout the war. He said that they eluded a Union gunboat that night, landed on the island, wrecked the lamp and took 200 gallons of oil, all of the fixtures, and the tender (small boat). They had planned to dynamite the lighthouse, but the keeper, Jerome McWilliams persuaded them to spare it because it was his home, and his wife was with child.
Some say that McWilliams and CaptainGoldsmith knew each other and that is why the lighthouse was not destroyed. This is probably true due to the closeness of Goldsmith’s house to the island. And the fact that Captain Goldsmith purchased the island in 1836 then later sold it to Benjamin Gwinn Harris, who then sold it to Dr. Joseph L. McWilliams in 1845.
At any rate, after the skirmish, it was not Mr. McWillliams but rather his pregnant wife and her sister-in-law who tended the light until Federal forces arrived from nearby Point Lookout. Solders remained at the site and a Federal gunboat cruised nearby until the war ended.