Point Lookout Lighthouse
by Robert Hall
Raymond Hartzel was stationed at Piney Point in 1963, and would often see Point Lookout Lighthouse by boat. After his tour at Piney Point, he was transferred to Baltimore. As luck would have it, John Zurowski was in Baltimore one day talking about an opening for a second class position at Point Lookout, so Mr. Hartzel applied and was accepted. He relieved Vernon Williams, however, Mr. Hartzel never met Vernon Williams because Mr. Williams had to move out before the Hartzel's could move in. Mr. Zurowski had been hoping to move from his smaller quarters in the south side buoy shed to the north side of the lighthouse, but Mr. Hartzel's appointment nixed that plan.
Mr. Hartzel and his wife of six months moved into the spacious north side of the lighthouse in February 1964. Only the south side had accommodations for the keeper, such as a remote radio and telephone. To simplify his duties, Mr. Hartzel ran a phone line to the north side, so he didn't have to spend the bulk of his duty time in the radio room. The lighthouse keeper was a civilian named George Gatton. Although Mr. Hartzel was enlisted Coast Guard, he still reported to George Gatton. Mr. Gatton received different benefits, including civilian leave, which allowed him to spend more time away from the lighthouse than the enlisted men. When Mr. Gatton was on vacation, Mr. Hartzel was the officer in charge. Mr. Gatton lived at his own home in Ridge during the summer months; the rest of the year he lived in the south side of the lighthouse. With the exception of the keeper, the ranks of the coast guard were used instead of the typical lighthouse titles such as assistant keeper.
Mr. Hartzel stood duty during the week and on every 3rd weekend. His duties included keeping the lens clean and painting. His wife would help out from time to time by cleaning the lens and shining the brass in the cupola. Painting was an interesting experience because of the height of the lighthouse; there were holes in the eaves of the lighthouse to connect the scaffolding ropes. Mr. Hartzel said that after a few tries you got used to the scaffolding and dangling on the side of the lighthouse. Oh his duty nights, Mr. Hartzel would set the alarm for every 2 hours to ensure that it was not foggy. He slept in the north side bedroom and looked out the window; if he could see Point No Point light, then he knew all was well. If he couldn't see Point No Point light, he would have to go to the north buoy shed and start up the compressors and activate the foghorn. The fog tower, currently located at St Michaels Maritime Museum, was in place at the lighthouse, however, it was intended as a backup and was never used during Mr. Hartzel's time at the point. Mr. Hartzel reported that the best nights of sleep were when it was foggy and the foghorn was already running, because he didn't have to check for foggy conditions every two hours. Mr. Hartzel's family in Pennsylvania enjoyed visits to the lighthouse.
The daily work routine at the lighthouse included muster at 8 am in the radio room, where all 3 men would meet to discuss the watch turnover and the change in duty status. Around 10 am, the group would go to one of the men's quarters for coffee. The coffee meeting location would rotate among the quarters. When there was no work that needed to be done at the lighthouse, the men would sit in the swing beside the north side buoy shed.
Additional personnel stationed at the lighthouse included John Zurowski, a fireman from Connecticut and John Rollinson, also a fireman from Cape Hatteras. Mr. Hartzel had a falling out with John Zurowski, because John's wife was interfering with their outside duties, and Mr. Hartzel spoke up. Mr. Rollinson lived with his wife May and their two young sons in the apartment in the south side buoy shed. Mr. Hartzel and his wife were good friends with the Rollinson's and spent many evenings playing cards together. TV reception was lousy, unless the Navy beacons would drop offline, then the reception would be great. Shortly before the lighthouse was decommissioned, Mr. Rollinson was promoted to third class. Sadly, Mr. Rollinson died sometime later while serving in Mississippi on the buoy tender White Alder.
In 1963, the lighthouse was trimmed in forest green. The light was fixed white and didn't turn at all. The lens was so big that there was barely enough room to get in the cupola to change the bulb. Upstairs, all 3 rooms were used as bedrooms. The water pump was in the north side basement, near the furnace and there were never any problems with water quality. The basement never flooded during his tour of duty. The park rangers were talking about moving into the lighthouse after it was decommissioned, but living in the lighthouse was expensive, especially to keep the place warm.
The front of the south side buoy shed contained a two-bedroom house, complete with a kitchen and living room. The north buoy shed contained the radio room, paint shop and generator room. The lighthouse had commercial power, but also had a backup generator in the far end of the north side shed. In addition to the generator there were two gasoline compressors that operated the foghorn.
There were no shipwrecks or other disasters during his tour, but the storms passing over the point were a sight to behold, but otherwise Point Lookout was a very enjoyable tour of duty. I asked Mr Hartzel if he knew what ever became of the fresnel lens, and as far as he knew it was supposed to be donated to the museum in Leonardtown. The current location of the fresnel lens is unknown.
Mr. Hartzel said that other than violent storms or requests to help someone get their car out of the sand at three am, he had no unusual experiences in the lighthouse. One bad thunderstorm melted the radio contacts together and melted the filaments in some of the light bulbs. One day while he was eating supper, he looked out window and saw a woman changing her bathing suit next to her car. He called out to George Gatton, who was sitting on the porch. Mr. Hartzel's wife Mary asked what they were talking about and he pointed outside, and was promptly smacked in the head.
The Navy would practice low-level flight operations near the lighthouse. The Navy would notify the lighthouse about a planned operation, which would sometimes take place days later. The planes shook the house, and one day Mr. Hartzel looked out the window and noticed a jet coming right for the lighthouse at eye level. The plane had stalled and there were a few tense moments, but luckily the pilot managed to restart the engine when the plane was about twenty feet off the water.
As for the reports of ghostly activity, Mr. Hartzel said they had no problems with anything that went bump in the night. In fact, living in the lighthouse was not really scary, except for strangers seeking assistance in the middle of the night. The family's rat terrier slept in the north side basement for two years and never acted strangely. One time the dog wouldn't leave her chair in the basement and the reason was that she had been lying on a mouse and it was as flat as a pancake. Mice and mosquitoes were a big problem at the lighthouse. The mice problem was handled in a conventional manner. To combat the summertime mosquitoes, Mr. Hartzel invented his own spraying machine using a lawn mower. He secured a two gallon tank on the handle bars and ran tubing down to a piece of pipe that injected the insecticide into the exhaust. He also had a valve at the bottom of the tank to regulate the amount of insecticide. Every evening around sunset, he would make the rounds to control the mosquitoes, and the fog generated in the exhaust worked really well. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, as anyone who has spent time at the point after sunset can attest!
The decommissioning was not planned very far in advance, maybe 6 months, although there had been talk of the shutdown for a while. The decommissioning was sad because everyone stationed at Point Lookout knew they would have to leave the place that they had enjoyed so much. It was disheartening to watch the replacement buoy being erected off the point, knowing that the buoy would eventually replace the lighthouse. The Coast Guard operated the new beacon in test mode for a month and the new buoy served as an eerie reminder that their time at Point Lookout was quickly coming to an end.
In the month before the lighthouse was decommissioned, George Gatton retired, leaving Mr. Hartzel and his wife alone on the grounds. If Mr. Hartzel had to make a run into town, he just left his wife on station, as directed by the Coast Guard. A young single man eventually moved into the South Side of the lighthouse to provide coverage.
On January 11, 1966, Mr. Hartzel received the official communication to discontinue operations. Based on the orders, he lowered the flag and turned off the light for the last time. Mr. Hartzel retained the message authorizing the discontinuation of the light along with the last flag that flew at Point Lookout. Mr. Hartzel had to drive to Baltimore to show his commanding officer the tattered flag in order to obtain permission to keep it. Mr. Hartzel plans to donate the flag to the lighthouse once a museum is established. He said he was sorry to see the lighthouse decommissioned, it was one of his best tours in the Coast Guard and the people in the area were very nice.
Mr. Hartzel continued to live in the lighthouse until the end of January. Crews from Piney Point guarded the lighthouse in shifts until it was turned over to the state.
Mr. Hartzel continued to serve in the Coast Guard until he retired in 1987. After Point Lookout, he was stationed on the cutter Chinook, based out of Baltimore. He also served for a year in Kayak Island, Alaska at the Cape St. Elias Light Station and even spent a few months taking care of the generator at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.
Mr. Hartzel drove from his home in Pennsylvania to the open house in 2002, but because of the renovations, he was not able to see the interior of the lighthouse. He hopes to return for a future open house and noted that it was a shame the way it was torn up inside.
Many thanks to Raymond Hartzel for sharing his experiences. Mr. Hartzel's pictures can be found in the Raymond Hartzel album, under the Pictures link.