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Charmed Life

To the Lighthouse

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 8/16/2000

There are almost as many strange tales about Edgar Allan Poe as there are strange tales written by him. Some (like his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin) are known to be true; others (like the circumstances of his death in Baltimore in 1849) are subjects of dispute and speculation. One of my favorites in the latter category concerns an April Fools' Day prank, circa 1830: Poe is said to have bought a newspaper ad announcing that a man would fly from the recently built Shot Tower (then the tallest building in America) to the recently built Lazaretto Lighthouse, two miles away in what is now Canton. A crowd turned out to watch the takeoff, but eventually realized they'd been hornswoggled. Various versions of this yarn have seen print; some sources add that the Lazaretto may have inspired a short story, "The Lighthouse," that Poe never finished.

I learned all this extremely important stuff a couple of years ago while researching Poe's prank for an April Fools' feature in City Paper ("These Foolish Things," 4/1/98). From yellow newspaper clippings I gleaned that the curiously named lighthouse, shown in old photos as a squat whitewashed tower, was demolished in 1926 and replaced by a somewhat taller steel structure that stood 100 yards closer to the shoreline. In the 1950s, the replacement tower was itself retired from service when Coast Guard officials decided it was of little practical use to harbor pilots.

Recently, to my surprise, I noticed that the Lazaretto Lighthouse is still marked on city maps, directly across the mouth of Baltimore Harbor from Fort McHenry, at Lazaretto Point. This needed checking out. I drove to the end of Mertens Avenue, off Clinton Street. There stood the huge, blue-lettered silo of the Lehigh Cement Co., which I'd seen countless times from the Fort McHenry Tunnel toll plaza. Nearby, on the shore, like a ghost of bricks and mortar, stood a small white tower identical to the one in depicted in ancient clippings. Had the Lazaretto, like Lazarus, risen from the dead? I went back to my original sources but found nothing about a replica being built.

What I did dredge up took me back 200 years, a time when this spot was known as Gorsuch Point, after a prominent early settler. In 1801, city fathers turned the site into a "lazaretto," or quarantine hospital, for isolating victims of contagious diseases. According to Water Taxi owner Ed Kane, a harbor-history buff, there are at least 14 places around the world with "lazaretto" in their names, a legacy of this crude but widespread health-maintenance practice. In an era of constant immigration and rampant disease, Kane speculates, everybody in town was probably aware of the lazaretto, and popular usage led to the point being renamed.

The original lighthouse, and a detached cottage to house the keeper, was built on the site in 1831 by one John Donohoo. It used 11 oil lamps with reflectors to send out a strong beam marking the harbor entrance. In 1852, it was fitted with Fresnel lenses, a new invention that drastically increased the light's efficiency. A decade later, however, rich veins of iron ore were found on the site, and soon the lighthouse was surrounded by smelting furnaces that glowed red at night, obscuring the beacon. For the rest of the 19th century, the harbor's Lighthouse Board struggled with ways to provide a more useful, visible signal at the Lazaretto site. In 1916, the old landmark became the first electric lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Then, to the dismay of nostalgic locals, came the demolition in 1926 and the erection of the short-lived steel tower.

The new lighthouse, a faithful replica, stands on the property of the Rukert Terminals Corp., a local family-owned firm that has off-loaded, warehoused, and distributed cargo since 1921. Because the company's late president, Norman Rukert Sr., was a well-known custodian of harbor lore, I immediately suspected that he'd had something to do with rebuilding the maritime relic.

George "Bud" Nixon, the company's current president and Norman Rukert Sr.'s nephew, confirmed my hunch: Re-creating the lighthouse was indeed his uncle's idea. "He thought it was a neat thing to do, and we all agreed," Nixon told me. But nothing was done until after Norman Sr. died in 1985. His successors (who include current chief executive officer Norman Rukert Jr.) followed through on the plan.

"We had the building replicated as closely as we could," Nixon told me. "We went to the National Archives and got the original blueprints." As to location, he is less certain: "It's pretty close to where it was . . . but who the hell knows where it was?" The reborn lighthouse was dedicated to Norman Sr.'s memory.

"There's a light on it," Nixon says, "but it's no longer an aid to navigation." Its function is now geared toward nostalgia, and tourism. "Baltimore's become so popular as a destination, especially for the cruising set," Nixon muses. "You could say [the lighthouse] is our contribution to the continuing emergence of Baltimore."

Mystery solved. But Poe lovers, please note: That short story is still unfinished.

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