The Secret Lives of Parks

The Beacon

Episode Summary

The Chesapeake Bay is a storied waterway where the Atlantic Ocean meets a series of rivers. It is home to Native American history, early European settlements, maritime traditions and rich Civil War history. After years of work, new legislation could soon preserve many of the region’s distinctive sites and stories as a new national recreation area.

Episode Notes

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in America and a storied waterway where the Atlantic Ocean meets a series of rivers. It’s the place where Algonquian Chief Powhatan met with early English settlers in the 1600s; where the first enslaved people were brought to America; where Harriet Tubman was born and emancipated herself and many others; and where a Civil War fort became a destination of hope for enslaved people seeking freedom. It’s also a beautiful landscape with bountiful wildlife and ample recreational opportunities.

Over the summer, members of Congress introduced a bill that would create a new national recreation area that includes these sites and many others.

Advocates throughout the Mid-Atlantic are passionate about preserving Chesapeake history. This episode, host Jennifer Errick speaks with Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse General Manager John Potvin, National Parks Conservation Association Senior Program Director Pam Goddard, and founding Chesapeake Conservancy Board Member John Reynolds about why the Chesapeake Bay is historically rich, nationally significant and special to so many people.

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Episode 24, The Beacon, was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.

Special thanks to Ed Stierli.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Learn more about the Chesapeake Conservancy at

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.

Learn more and join us at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 24
The Beacon

Jennifer Errick: What do a squawking lighthouse, a Civil War fortress and the childhood home of Harriet Tubman have in common?

They're all major tourist destinations along the Chesapeake Bay. Over the summer, members of Congress introduced a bill that would create a new national recreation area, including these sites and many others. This episode we talk with some of the people involved in preserving key pieces of Mid-Atlantic history.

I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is the Secret Lives of Parks.

The park system is home to rare natural wonders and feats of human ingenuity. Some of the only old growth, giant sequoias left on earth. The steps where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. The last stand of tallgrass prairie in Kansas.

A couple of months ago, I got to step inside one of these unique places that serves as a relic from another time, like a kind of dodo bird among historic structures. It even made bird noises, though they were pretty jarring.

This rare place is the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse. It's the last screw-pile lighthouse still in operation in the Chesapeake Bay, out of the 40 or so that once lit the way for sailors navigating the rocky coast.

True to its name, the structure was secured to its location off the coast of Annapolis, Maryland by screwing its cast iron piles into the bottom of the bay. Unlike a typical lighthouse design, which resembles a single vertical pillar, the Thomas Point Lighthouse is wide and angular. It has a hexagonal shaped cabin that sits like the body of an insect on top of seven cast iron beams. The building features dormer style windows beneath a cupola housing its reconstructed beacon, which once operated day and night, powered by kerosene that a lighthouse keeper needed to replenish every four hours. Today it runs on solar powered batteries.

The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is one of several key sites that could help anchor a much larger proposed national recreation area throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Lawmakers finally introduced a bipartisan bill this past summer that if passed would make this long-awaited recreation area a reality.

John Potvin: Lighthouses are like human beings, they're multifaceted.

Jennifer Errick: That's Captain John Potvin, General Manager of the Thomas Point, Shoal Lighthouse, and a longtime volunteer with the US Lighthouse Society, which partners with the city of Annapolis to preserve and maintain the historic structure. On the day I visit in late August, he leads a tour for a group of eight of us, pointing out the many fine details of the structure from the Cyprus wood interior to the counterweights on the windows, to the recordings of those godawful squawking noises, which mimic a seagull in distress and help to keep the birds away.

John Potvin: Because what is the mission of a seagull? If it isn't white, make it so. So, we're trying to keep it as pristine as possible.

Jennifer Errick: Though the local fishermen aren't crazy about the sound, the perpetual chirping is a reasonable trade-off to make. A team of volunteer preservationists has devoted hours of labor to rehabilitating every part of the structure and Potvin wants each coat of paint to last as long as possible.

Each room inside the lighthouse is restored to reflect a different era in time. From 1875 when the structure was built, to 1986 when the light was automated and the building no longer needed to house two men for three to five years at a time in its isolated quarters.

One of Potvin's favorite items is in the kitchen, a room restored to its 1875 appearance.

John Potvin: This is a waffle maker. So, back in the day, 1875, they've got a waffle maker out here, and when the waffles are done, they twist it. Okay, you get that in the hotel. Even maybe have that at home. Look at this, check this out.

You got diamonds, you got hearts, you got... What do you think they were using the waffles for? Cards. So, a lot of people lost their breakfast because they lost a bet.

Jennifer Errick: As Potvin guides us around the different rooms, he asks questions, challenging us to imagine what unfamiliar objects were used for. He peppers us with trivia, everything from a lighthouse keeper's salary...

John Potvin: What was the average salary of a lighthouse keeper in 1825? $600. So in 1939, when the Lighthouse Service left there, what was the average annual salary for a Lighthouse Keeper? $600. They never got a raise. That's all they ever got.

Jennifer Errick: the daily coffee ration…

John Potvin: This is one and a half ounces of coffee. That's all they are allotted.

Jennifer Errick: …to the uniforms the men were required to wear, despite living in isolation, a half hour boat ride from shore.

John Potvin: Their uniforms were wool, so can you imagine how hot that was in the summertime? But they had to have them ironed because there were quality control inspections from the Lighthouse Service that would come out unannounced to make sure that they were in uniform, the place was tidy and well kept. Otherwise, they'd earn demerits.

Jennifer Errick: He points to a picture on the wall and tells us about a tour he once gave to a celebrity guest.

John Potvin: That's Jimmy Buffet, he was here a few years ago. I gave him a three-hour tour of the lighthouse. I thought it was going to never end, but he did sing two songs while he was here. One of the songs that he sang out here, when he was sitting in that room right there, is called Coast of Marseilles. The other one has not been published yet, it’ll be on his next album, and I can't tell you the name of it, but I can tell you the song was written by James Taylor. And I said, “Well, how do you get permission to play his song?" He said, "Well I'm having dinner with him Sunday night, I’ll just ask him.

Jennifer Errick: I'm not much of a parrot head myself, but when I learned that Jimmy Buffet had passed away the day after we took this tour, it felt special to know I'd stood in the spot where he made one of his last recordings.

John Potvin: So, as you go up these stairs, bear to the left because it gets very narrow on the right side.

Jennifer Errick: In 2004, the federal government transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the city of Annapolis, and Potvin shows us a picture of the spartan conditions of the building at that time.

John Potvin: This is what it looked like when it came here in 2004. Okay, so it was a mess. All of the walls were covered with lead paint. The electrical conduits were strung and there were no furnishings whatsoever at all. So, what we've methodically done since 2004 is a group of preservationists, all volunteers, have come through and removed the lead from this lighthouse, all the lead paint. We trained them and then they took everything off with moon suits and everything and restored this to what you see today.

Jennifer Errick: That this single building has inspired so many volunteers to devote their time and care to it speaks to how special it is to people in the region. It's become an icon of coastal Maryland and has received national recognition for its significance.

John Potvin: We are a National Historic Landmark, one of only 12 lighthouses in the country that has this designation, and we're rather proud of that.

Jennifer Errick: Advocates hope the famed structure can continue to serve as a beacon, bringing more people out to explore the Chesapeake. More on that after the break.


[promotional break]


Pam Goddard: Just sitting here and hearing the water and seeing the breeze, it's just so calming and restorative to know you can just sit here and soak in the beauty of a place. It's really special.

Jennifer Errick: That's Pam Goddard, Senior Program Director for the National Parks Conservation's Mid-Atlantic region. She lives about 45 minutes from the Annapolis Dock where we left for our tour of the lighthouse, and she's been working for more than 12 years to see the Chesapeake region recognized as a national recreation area.

Pam Goddard: National Parks Conservation Association has been very involved from start to finish in helping to draft legislation, scoping out areas that should be included in a potential park, and then building support for this idea.

Jennifer Errick: Goddard explains that there are currently only 18 national recreation areas in the country, and these parks are a bit different from other sites that are managed by the National Park Service.

Pam Goddard: So, a national recreation area is a little different, and its goal is to promote outdoor recreation and access, which is really important to NPCA. Less than 2% of the 11,000-mile shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is open to the public, so we want a national park that's welcoming to people. We've worked on public access, outdoor recreation and then telling all the stories of the Chesapeake Bay.

Jennifer Errick: Creating more access points for visitors means partnering with organizations across the region to help connect people with more places to go.

Pam Goddard: There are lots of different museums and different national park sites in the watershed that tell bits of stories, but the NRA's designation is designed to introduce people to all these places so they have a more full story of everything that's happened in this area of the country.

Jennifer Errick: One of Goddard's favorite sites is about 200 miles south of the lighthouse in Annapolis, a historic site known as Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Virginia. It's the place where privateers from the Netherlands brought the first enslaved people to America in 1619. It later became the site of a civil war fort where union officers refused to return enslaved people to Confederates, declaring them contraband of war. This act effectively freed thousands of people well before the 13th Amendment was ratified and the site became known as Freedom's Fortress. Goddard worked with community members to help establish the fort and surrounding area as a national monument in 2011.

Pam Goddard: Fort Monroe will always be very special to me. It's kind of a microcosm of the Chesapeake National Recreation area because there's a million stories there. You can hear about Captain John Smith's landing there. You can hear about the very first people enslaved there. You can hear about Harriet Tubman going there to nurse the ill during the Civil War and how it became Freedom's Fortress. You can also learn about warships during the war. Every time I go to Fort Monroe, I learn something new. And that's the beauty of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, is that there are so many things to see and do and learn here, and the CNRA will kind of give everybody a guidebook to all that.

Jennifer Errick: She mentioned some of the other important sites that a national recreation area would help to highlight and preserve, including the Native American village of Werowocomoco, that served as the headquarters for Chief Powhatan in the 1600's, as well as the first English settlement at Jamestown and the childhood home of the famed abolitionist and Freedom Fighter, Harriet Tubman.

Pam Goddard: It's vast and inspiring and as I said, it tells all the stories of our country. It tells about the first settlement, it tells about the Native Americans who lived here way before any English settlement began. It tells the history of our industry.

Jennifer Errick: It's also just a gorgeous, natural area for exploring.

Pam Goddard: It's just an amazing, beautiful place. I mean, you can go from spot to spot. You can go to Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and see amazing wildlife. You can go to the Harriet Tubman National Underground Railroad Museum and hear her about her history. So if you just take a boat out on any of the tributaries, you will recognize the beauty and the specialness of this area.

Jennifer Errick: The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the country, a place where the Atlantic Ocean meets with a series of rivers. And the key to interpreting a place so large is to bring local experts on board to continue telling the stories they know best.

Pam Goddard: So, the beauty of a national recreation area is that the Park Service doesn't have to own all the land or all the sites. I mean, there are going to be partner sites that are already run by the state or privately that we want to share with park goers, but the Park service doesn't have to run and own all of those. So even though on the map it'll look vast, the footprint, the physical acreage is pretty small. It will be in the hundreds of acres, which is unlike out west where we have vast parks of 10,000 acres, a million acres. So even though it's spread out on the map, we will not be asking the park service to own and manage all of that, nor should they.

Jennifer Errick: Goddard describes the park site as a way to open more doors across the region and help guide visitors to what they most want to see and learn.

Pam Goddard: There's a lot of stories, it's a long history and there's a lot to share, and we can't do it all in one place. So it's really a guidebook to all the different areas that you can go to learn more.

Jennifer Errick: John Reynolds, a founding board member of the Chesapeake Conservancy, is one of the people who's helping to build those partnerships across the region. Like Captain Potvin, Reynolds has devoted himself to volunteer work in his retirement. In his case, his day job was a 39-year career at the National Park Service that included serving as Deputy Director for the agency.

John Reynolds: So, you can identify me as a retired, happy National Park Service person.

Jennifer Errick: One of the major milestones he's achieved so far in his second career as a volunteer is leading a campaign to establish the Captain John Smith, Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the first water-based trail in the National Park system.

John Reynolds: I spent the next 10 years getting to know the Chesapeake and its major tributaries as a result of that.

Jennifer Errick: As Reynolds explored more of the area, the scope of his work naturally grew. He served on friends groups and advisory councils, building relationships with people around the region. He helped to launch the Chesapeake Conservancy with a goal of building support for the proposed national recreation area. This involves collaborating with a range of stakeholders from members of indigenous tribes such as the Rappahannock people of the region, to the watermen whose seafood serves as the economic backbone of the area, to the experts at natural areas and museums, state parks and historic societies who are the keepers of the Mid Atlantic's history and lore.

John Reynolds: I mean, these are just pieces of stories about the Chesapeake Bay that affected the creation of the nation and the history of how we treated human beings as slaves, and the history of Indigenous people who only recently have been recognized that they're actually still nations and they're still here. And this warp and weave of how the history of the country took place is so concentrated around the Chesapeake Bay, if you can just find opportunity to go find out where the stories are and build opportunity for the future.

Jennifer Errick: Although some people have expressed concern that a national recreation area would lead to government regulation of the bay — something Reynolds insists is not part of the legislation — overall, he's seen widespread support.

John Reynolds: In concept, nothing that we're proposing here is actually new. It's different, but it is not novelty so much as coordination and recognition of each other's values.

Jennifer Errick: No one can predict what will happen in Congress, but Reynolds, who is very experienced with park legislation, is really upbeat.

John Reynolds: I'm not only hopeful about the national recreation area being established, I'm optimistic. Could it happen this Congress? It's possible, at least theoretically, and it's happened in other cases historically, it's possible. It's probably equally possible that that won't happen, and it'll be reintroduced into the next Congress. And my experience says that sooner or later, really good ideas that are put together with a wide variety of people, becomes law. It may take time. I've seen it happen really quickly and unexpectedly, and I've seen it take what seems to be forever and suddenly the time is right and it happens.

Jennifer Errick: Of course, Reynolds has a preference in the timing.

John Reynolds: I would far prefer that it happened quickly, because I'd like to see the opportunities start to become flowers growing instead of seeds being planted. On the other hand, if it has to wait, the opportunities will still be there. The Chesapeake Conservancy, like NPCA, is going to be in it for the long haul. If it takes a long haul, you know what? We'll do it.

Jennifer Errick: A few weeks after my tour of the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, I asked Captain John Potvin if he'd be willing to chat with me again. And fortunately, he's easy to convince. I enjoyed learning about the waffle iron and the seagull squawker and the ritually ironed wool suits of the lighthouse keepers. But I also wanted to know more about his connection to the place. I mean, why has he spent so many years devoting his free time to this one very old building with so many specialized needs?

John Potvin: It is visible from my house, so I see it every day. It is such a cool looking structure that I want to keep on seeing it.

Jennifer Errick: Fortunately, his significant other also encouraged him in his interests.

John Potvin: I retired in 2015, and my wife said, "You can't just sit around the house and do nothing. You have to do something." So, she said, "Why don't you see if somebody's looking for a volunteer or something?" So, I checked out and somebody was running an ad in the newspaper wanting painters for the lighthouse. So, I went out there as a painter and they said, well, at least you know which side of the brush to hold. So, that's where I started.

Jennifer Errick: Over time, he took on more and more responsibility, and he jokes about the promotions he received as a result.

John Potvin: When they moved me from a volunteer to the role of preservation manager, they doubled my salary from zero to zero-zero, and then when they made me the lighthouse manager, they tripled my salary to zero-zero-zero.

Jennifer Errick: Jokes aside, Potvin makes clear that he gets compensated for his time in other ways.

John Potvin: It's not the money that matters. What matters to me is the pleasure that people take when they go out and see this lighthouse. I get more payment from people smiling when they come off this lighthouse at what they've seen. That's where my payment is.

Jennifer Errick: Potvin's background is in property management, so he was up for taking on a preservation project of this size.

John Potvin: I'm a maintenance guru. I'm a guy that likes to maintain things. So, when I retired, I needed to channel my efforts into something else that could allow me to continue to maintain something, and this lighthouse just fell into my lap.

Jennifer Errick: He's also a trained storyteller who enjoys sharing this skill with others.

John Potvin: Preservation is the number one thing that we do out there. But more importantly, there's a tour program out there that we bring the public out to see this marvelous example of what it was like to live in 1875 on the lighthouse in the Bay. I'm responsible for making sure that we have docents who are trained. We have about 25 active docents right now that take the public out to this lighthouse.

Jennifer Errick: Potvin is eager to expand the number of tours his group of volunteers can give each season, and he hopes that a new national recreation area will offer more resources for staffing and support.

John Potvin: Part of the whole premise of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area is to get the public out onto the water. People that don't have an opportunity to go out and see things like this. And so our goal is eventually with the National Park Service to have the ability to increase the number of tours out here, at least double them. That is going to require more docents. It's going to require a lot more organizational structure, and I'm hoping that with our partnering of the National Park Service, that a lot of that can happen right here in Annapolis.

Jennifer Errick: There's another important reason Potvin could use more support. While his spouse was instrumental in inspiring him back in 2015 to get out and volunteer, like a ship in a strong current, her course might have shifted a bit since the journey began.

John Potvin: I'm not sure that she's happy about it anymore. I spend more time on this lighthouse than I do at home.

Jennifer Errick: If that's the case, the captain's wife is one of many stakeholders with a vested interest in seeing a new national recreation area take shape — one that will celebrate the lands and waters and history just outside her window.

[end theme]

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Episode 24, The Beacon was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.

Special thanks to Ed Stierli.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Learn more about the Chesapeake Conservancy at

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks, for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.

And we're proud of it too.

You can join the fight to preserve the Chesapeake Bay and all of our nationally significant lands and waters. Learn more and join us at