In 1798, Washington called again for the erection of a fort near Warburton Manor, noting that, “Should proper works be erected here it would not be in the power of all the navies of Europe to pass this place.” After Britain and France threatened hostilities against the fledgling America, four acres were promptly purchased from the Digges family. Work on Fort Warburton began in the spring of 1808 and was completed by the end of the following year.
After the war, Pierre L’Enfant, the capital’s architect, and Colonel Walker K. Armistead were employed to construct a new fort, which was finally finished in 1824. It wasn’t until 1856, however, that the first communication occurred about establishing a lighthouse at this important point located near the junction of Piscataway Creek, Swan Creek, and the Potomac River. The man who authorized the lighthouse was none other than Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, soon to be president of the Confederacy. As the lighthouse would be on military grounds, Davis imposed the following conditions: “the light shall be placed upon the wharf and not within any of the fortifications, and ... the light keeper shall be subordinate to the military command of the post and public ground in all that relates to police and discipline.” In addition, it was noted that it would be convenient if the Ordnance Sergeant, who was already in charge of other public property, could care for the light.
The initial light at the fort had to be built for only $500, so it consisted of merely an eighteen-and-a-half-foot cast-iron tower topped with a feeble illuminating apparatus. This column, installed on November 7, 1857, was considered merely a ‘temporary’ stopgap to supply river going vessels with at least some form of navigational aid. Ordnance Sergeant Joseph Cameron was the first steward of the beacon and served until 1869.
Protestations regarding the inadequacy of the light were soon made, and in 1870 corrective action was taken. In that year, the Lighthouse Board reported that “the framework of a beacon-light to replace the temporary post and lantern at Fort Washington” had been constructed at the Lazaretto lighthouse depot. The steamship tender Tulip transported the sixteen-foot tower to the Potomac fortress in February 1870. This new structure was actually shorter than its predecessor, but it was more effective due to its position near the end of the wharf. A small addition was made to the light tower in 1874 so the keeper would have a place to spend the night when stormy weather forced him to remain at the light.
In 1870, Sergeant Edward Kelly, the second keeper of the light, requested a raise, prompting the Local Superintendent of Lights to send the following to the Lighthouse Board:
I most respectfully recommend that your Hon. body raise the pay of the Light House Keeper at Fort Washington, Md, from one hundred & eighty dollars ($180) per annum to three hundred ($300) per An. I doubt whether there is a light station on the Potomac river that requires more labor & attention to keep clean & in order than the Light at Fort Washington, and as this light is a very important one, I most earnestly recommend that a salary sufficient to secure an efficient Keeper be allowed …Keeper Kelly got his raise, and two years later, he solicited an increase to $480 because he had to visit the light multiple times each night from his house, located over a quarter-of-a-mile away. Kelly threatened to resign if he didn’t get the raise, and it appears that was the case, as he left the station in 1872.
This amount was never granted, so in 1901 the Board decided to modify the fog bell tower to accommodate a light. It reported that “four new caps were put on the sills of the fog bell tower...and a platform was built on them to support a lens lantern.” The old light tower was soon demolished, and although placing the light atop the fog bell tower was intended as a temporary measure, it is still home to Fort Washington Light today. The lower portion of the bell tower was floored and enclosed in 1904, allowing supplies for the light to be stored inside.
The fort’s strategic significance had come to an end after the Civil War, and it was abandoned in 1872. However, when war with England again seemed a possibility, a trio of Rodman smooth-bore guns, supported by ninety soldiers of the Fourth Artillery Battery, was placed in position overlooking the river in 1896. The men also had at their disposal an electrically controlled minefield. The fort later served as home to the Third Battalion Twelfth Infantry following World War I.
Keeper Daniel McCahan was reprimanded in 1890 for failing to salute the lighthouse tender Jessamine on July 7 and 8 and for being out of uniform on those dates. Six years later, Keeper McCahan was found “physically incapacitated for the performance of his duties” and was replaced by Samuel Jones.
The light was electrified on February 1, 1920, and the following year, an electric bell striker was installed in the tower, changing the fog bell’s characteristic to a single blow every fifteen seconds. Keeper Gary E. Powell was transferred from Fort Washington Lighthouse to Cedar Point Lighthouse in 1925, and responsibility for the light at Fort Washington was assumed by the War Department.
In 1939, the fortress grounds were slated to be used as the terminal point for a proposed bridge across the Potomac, but World War II interrupted the plans, and the fort eventually fell under the purview of the National Park Service. While the fort was changing hands, the lighthouse remained an active aid to navigation controlled by the Coast Guard. In 1948, the station consisted of the fog bell tower with a light, a seven-room keeper’s house, a wooden dock, and a boathouse, and the station’s sole keeper was tasked with maintaining twenty-one other lights and five lighted buoys up and down the Potomac River. This was a forty-mile round trip, and certainly a tall order, despite automation.
The wooden, dual light/fog bell tower is now all that remains of the station. While Fort Washington is a public museum-piece, the lighthouse itself is closed to public inspection. After 9/11, the area immediately around the lighthouse was fenced off and became home to sophisticated military defense equipment. Signs on the fence carried a notice forbidding photography of the area, though several pictures taken during this time period can be found on the internet. The dark-colored equipment has now been removed from the area, and lighthouse visitors are free again to attempt to capture the humble lighthouse in a flattering light.
The tower was turned over to the National Park Service in 2005, and a major restoration of the structure was carried out in 2009 by the service’s Historic Preservation Training Center. Ongoing maintenance of the tower is performed by the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.
Head Keepers: Joseph Cameron (1857 – 1869), Edward Kelly (1869 – 1872), Lewis Phillips (1872 – 1873), Henry M. Wills (1873 – 1882), John M. Howell (1882 – 1883), Thomas L. Hannon (1883), Jonathan Pierpont (1883 – 1886), William T. Davis (1886 – 1889), Daniel McCahan (1889 – 1896), Samuel Jones (1896 – 1900), William S. Stinchcomb (1900 – 1919), Gary E. Powell (1919 – 1925).