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Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse manager lauded for preservation efforts as rising sea levels threaten to undo work

Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse manager lauded for preservation efforts as rising sea levels threaten to undo work

For nearly a decade, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse has been John Potvin’s happy place.

When Potvin retired a decade ago, his wife wanted him to stay active. The iconic screw pile lighthouse, visible from his house and only a 10-minute boat ride from the end of his dock in Annapolis, caught his eye. At first, he volunteered to apply a fresh coat of paint to the structure. From there, he was hooked.

“I saw it from my house, and I loved it, and I wanted to perpetuate it,” he said. “I wanted to make sure it stood the test of time.”

Over the last nine years, Potvin, now 71, has quickly risen through the ranks of volunteers at the lighthouse. After spending two years painting the structure as a preservationist and another two as director of preservation, he was made manager of the lighthouse in 2019.

When he took over, however, the lighthouse, the last of its kind on the Chesapeake Bay, was in peril — the steel beams and tie rods that supported the beacon were corroding, and a wooden beam that supported the outdoor bathroom had cracked. A successful fundraising campaign and a year’s worth of repairs later, the lighthouse was stabilized for another 40 to 60 years, Potvin said.

On Friday, Potvin’s efforts to ensure the lighthouse will stand for generations to come were recognized with a Maryland Preservation Award from the Maryland Historical Trust for outstanding individual leadership at the local level.

Potvin is one of 11 awardees being honored by the historical trust this year for noteworthy accomplishments in the preservation field. Later this month, Hot Sox Field at Wilson Park in Galesville will receive an award for outstanding stewardship of a cultural site, according to a news release.

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat who sponsored a bond initiative providing $50,000 for the steel beam and tie rod restoration in 2020, commended Potvin for his dedication.

“Witnessing your passion, the passion of the volunteers, made my job as your senator getting state money home very easy,” she said.

Del. Dana Jones, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County, said having the lighthouse in Annapolis is an “unbelievable honor.”

“We are so incredibly lucky to have constituents like you, who care so much and do so much for this district, in order to keep our heritage, our icons [and] our history alive,” she said. “I am so thankful for you, all that you have done.”

The lighthouse, built in 1875, has long marked the shoal in the bay for mariners. It was manned by civilian lighthouse keepers until the U.S. Coast Guard assumed control. In 1986, the beacon was fully automated. Since then, the lighthouse has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and is owned by the City of Annapolis.

Preservationists like Potvin, however, maintain the 149-year-old lighthouse. As its manager, Potvin is responsible for scheduling tours, training docents, writing grants and coordinating preservation activities.

“It’s all volunteer work, but it’s just a labor of love,” he said.

The preservation efforts never stop either. Today, much of the work centers on maintaining the exterior wooden siding — a material that’s prone to rotting in the sometimes harsh bay weather — and rolling on a fresh coat of paint every year.

“It’s a lighthouse in the middle of the bay getting eaten away [by] saltwater all the time,” he said. “There’ll always be something to be done out here.”

While some tasks remain constant, the worries of lighthouse volunteers have changed since the beacon first started shining. Bitterly cold winters and ice floes in the bay are no longer a primary concern — today it’s global warming and rising sea levels.

The “splash zone,” the steel structure supporting the lighthouse, is getting closer and closer to the water, Potvin said. A recent sea level assessment predicted water levels will rise 3 feet by 2050, he added. By 2100, levels could be 6 feet higher.

In January, historic high tides destroyed half of the wooden dock under the lighthouse, Potvin said — an indicator of the potential damage rising sea levels could bring.

Though questions remain as to how the lighthouse will be raised, Potvin is set on ensuring that it survives for the next 150 years, for his grandchildren and the generations to come.

“I think that this has become my legacy,” he said. “This will be my footprint in the sand.”

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