By Gregory J. MahallNovember 4, 2019
Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland -- One could do a random poll of the APG workforce asking the question "Do you know what Pooles Island is?" and it is highly likely that the majority of responders would not know of the 280-acre, narrow island owned as part of APG off the southern end of the Edgewood peninsula.
And now, the restored Pooles Island lighthouse will appear in a Maryland Public Television (MPT) documentary on "Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay," slated for airing in spring 2020. A television crew from MPT was transported to the island for initial filming in late October; a final air date is yet to be determined.
"APG is a base unique to all of DoD," said APG Garrison commander Col. Timothy E. Druell. "Included in our key DoD mission are responsibilities to environmental stewardship, historical preservation and restoration, and being great neighbors to our surrounding community. Army efforts at the Poole Island Light are reflective of our commitment to excellence in those areas.
"We were thrilled to support MPT in this effort and look forward to the finished project."
There are still nine active lighthouses in Virginia with another 16 active in Maryland. Almost all, with the exception of Virginia's Assateague Island Lght, are associated with water on the Chesapeake Bay. The Pooles Island Light will be in grand, historical company.
"Of the thousands of people that work here at APG, I'd be willing to bet less than 100 know about Pooles Island," said Mark T. Gallihue, a historian with APG Garrison. "The Pooles Island Light is situated on the northwest corner of the island, which sits near the mouths of the Gunpowder and Bush Rivers.
"It was first charted by Captain John Smith and many believe he named it Powell's Island for a crew member, but it eventually evolved to Pooles Island likely due to the spring-fed pools of water found on the island."
The island traces its bountiful history back to the earliest days of America. It served as a supply base for Washington's Army in the Revolutionary War. It was occupied and plundered by British soldiers in the War of 1812. In the following peacetime, it became famous for its crops, especially peaches. In 1824, it was designated and marked for lighthouse construction by Congress and the Government purchased a parcel of land for $500 on March 25, 1825.
In April 1925, John Donahoo was contracted to construct the lighthouse. If you think it a replica of Concord Point lighthouse in Havre de Grace or Turkey Point Light in Elkton, you are correct; Donahoo built those as well. The conical tower on Pooles stands 40 feet, 6 inches tall with a diameter of 18 feet at its base tapering to 9.5 feet in the light room. It is made of granite blocks imported from Port Deposit. Maryland-made true and true.
The light was improved and maintained as needed over the years but became a part of Aberdeen Proving Ground on its inception in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. Given the dangerous nature of artillery fire at the proving ground the last lightkeeper was removed in 1918. Pooles Island is currently inaccessible to the public due to both the island's status as a military reservation and from live fire exercises . In addition, the threat from unexploded ordnance presents a risk to anyone venturing on the island. Garrison Explosive Ordnance Detachment experts did a visual scan of the island prior to the MPT visit as a safety precaution as well.
"The island is configured a lot like the state of New Jersey," Gallihue said. "Wider at top and bottom, more narrow in the middle. The northern end would be the only inhabitable part, the middle section is wetlands and pools, the southern section is pretty much owned by ospreys and blue herons.
"And they can be quite nasty to unwanted intruders."
The light is the oldest, still-standing light in Maryland, fourth oldest light in the bay, and is the longest, continuously-operating light as well.
In 1994, the Army submitted a proposal to place the Pooles Island Light on the National Register of Historic Places. This included a plan to stabilize and clean the light's tower. Despite the operational light, the lighthouse itself had been abandoned for nearly 50 years. The restoration was launched in 1997 and repairs were made to the tower's exterior, lantern, gallery, roof and balustrade. Mortar joints and fault lines imperiled the tower's integrity.
"Restoration was a challenge," said Michael G. Wise, a member of APG Garrison involved with the 1994 restoration project. "The island is about as remote as one can get here on the bustling East Coast and at APG. There is really nothing out there save it.
"The island had no pier access so we had to barge everything in including a landing ramp. Simple items were not so simple --- pressure washing the exterior meant hauling in a 1,200 gallon water tank to feed the pressure washer. Ivy covered the tower and presented an organic issue as did algae and mildew build up. Once the cleaning was done and the tower's weaknesses further exposed, we had to find a unique mortar that was strong enough to hold but also had the flexibility to endure the atmospheric effects on the granite caused by changing weather conditions."
The restoration effort also included unbricking and reinstalling three sets of double-hung windows in the tower and replicating the tower's original tongue-and-groove mahogany door.
"Each project presents unique challenges," Wise said. "For example, here we had to use lamb-wool rollers to apply the necessary coats of paint to the exterior. High winds prevented the use of a paint sprayer."
Then-APG Commander Maj. Gen. Nick Justice presided over the relighting of the old lighthouse, now equipped with solar lighting, in 2011. Justice described the lighthouse as "symbolic, almost religious …, symbolism for guiding us" at a time when Base Realignment and Closure activities were having a major impact on APG's mission moving forward.
Poole's Island has benefited ecologically from the Army's stewardship. While habitat losses in the Chesapeake continue to mount, the reservation has become a beautiful wildlife sanctuary. Man is no longer able to take advantage of the island's fertile soil, but eagles, blue herons, geese, osprey, and a small herd of deer are now thriving on their island home.
We can't wait to see the old guardian "shine" with MPT's help.