Bay Journal

Cove Point: Mariners’s safe harbor now threatened by ships

  • By Kent Mountford on November 01, 2001
The arrow (added here) on Augustine Herrman’s 1670 map of the Bay shows the “Coave of the Patuxent River mouth, across the bight from Cedar Point. The Cove Point Lighthouse has operated continuously since 1828. It warned mariners away from grounding on this lovely but hazardous cusp in the
Chesapeake shoreline.  (Kent Mountford)

“Finding this eastern shore shallow broken islands and for the most part without fresh water; we passed the straits of Limbo (today’s Hooper Straits) for the western shore: so broad is the Bay here, we could scarce perceive the great high cliffs on the other side: by them we anchored that night and called them Rocky Point.”

Written in June 1608 by Anthony Bagnall, Nathaniel Powell and Anas Todkill

Last October, I anchored off Barren Island, one of the islets referred to in the above passage. It was a rapid autumn sunset with water taking the colors of oiled orange and indigo. The sky above Calvert Cliffs and Rocky Point, which lay across the Bay,graded from a smoky hue to yellow-green. Looking higher, I saw the increasingly dark steel blue of night. Venus was the first celestial body visible. Below it, on the horizon, was the insistent sweep, every 10 seconds, of the Cove Point Lighthouse, which sits on a sandy promontory just south of Rocky Point.

Cove Point was created from sediments eroded from the steep cliffs and borne along shore by currents in a process called littoral drift. Biologist/historian J. Court Stevenson, of the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory, has researched this unusual feature and finds that, while built of — and on — shifting sands, its configuration has been quite stable across the centuries, forming on each side a broad cove in the coastline. The cove on the east shelters mariners from westerly winds, while the other cove protects them from the northerlies. These refuges — lifesaving to ships in the days of sail — are useful for small boats even today.

While the coves on either side sometimes offer shelter, the point is a hazard. According to maritime historian Don Shomette, seven vessels are known to have been wrecked in the vicinity.

Cove Point is in constant dynamic equilibrium, with sand flowing in from two directions to form a long, submerged sand spit and a shallow, turbulent bar — a stark contrast in the otherwise unbroken phalanx of Calvert Cliffs, which extend without natural harbors for miles to the southwest and northwest on either side of the promontory.

The land itself is low and sandy, backed by wetland areas isolated from the Bay by shifting sandbars and the development of a lens of freshwater. The lens is formed by rain that has accumulated is stored by humic soil and vegetated beaches.

This freshwater floats on top, preventing the intrusion of salty Bay water from beneath, and nurturing diverse flora. In a 1996 survey here, botanist Brent Steury found 397 vascular plant species, including 41 rare, endangered or threatened species.

The earliest designation I can find of this site is on a 1670 map, “Surveyed and Exactly Drawne by the Only Labour & Endeavor of Augustin Herrman, Bohemiensis.” Cove Point is called The Coave, (The name, Cove Point, doesn’t appear on a map until 1775.) and in the vicinity are four or five plantation houses. Stevenson presents evidence that one of these was Great Eltonhead Manor, carved from the immense land holdings of Cecelius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, and his successors in the new Colony of Mary-Land.

This tract was laid out by Robert Clarke in 1652 for Edward Elton, Esq. Its bounds read in part: “from the end of the north line into a great swamp or moor called Eltonhead’s Moor being near the coves of the said river on the east and south with the said river containing and now laid out for five thousand acres more or less.” I suspect Clarke’s survey spoke of the same marsh which remains so diverse today.

When John Smith and his crew sailed this coastline in 1608, they found no inhabitants in 30 leagues, describing it as “well watered but very mountainous and barren, the valleys very fertile, but extreme thick (with) small wood, well as trees, and much frequented with wolves, bears deer and other wild beasts.”

When the land was later parceled out, the plantation above Cove Point and below Rocky Point, in 1669, was named “Devil’s Woodyard,” implying that tangled growth was still the case 61 years after Smith’s exploration. Alexander Somervell called another nearby property “Wolf’s Hold.”

A mill, built on the Eltonhead lands about this time, may have belonged to one of the planters, Col. William Fitzhugh, who was a member of the colonial council under Maryland’s royal governor, and would later conduct business with George Washington.

At the start of the American Revolution, Fitzhugh gave up his half pension for earlier military service to the British Crown. By some accounts, he was still a wavering patriot until shortly before the Declaration of Independence, when Fitzhugh became a strong supporter of the cause, although at the age of 50, he was too old to serve actively.

“Old Colonel Fitzhugh” became a colorful figure in post-Revolutionary War Calvert County. While publicly complaining about his personal losses in the revolution, he led a patrician lifestyle not unlike the English nobility from whom he had just gained independence: traveling in an imported English carriage, preceded by a boy in livery and two mounted outriders, with a bugle to announce his approach.

Cove Point appears on a map by Dennis Griffith published in 1795, which shows what may be Fitzhugh’s mill on the Eltonhead lands. Grain from his land went to his mill. The flour was made into ship’s biscuit at his bakery, and then sold to provision the tobacco fleet and other vessels lying off the Patuxent Custom’s House at Rousby Hall. Some of that fleet also loaded tobacco from Fitzhugh’s plantations.

Fitzhugh’s is not the only story here. The history of land transfers in Southern Calvert County is complex, involving many family names still in the area, speculators from the Eastern Shore and a family whose wealth came from the South American guano trade, as well as proposals to build a railroad that would open the Patuxent to the international shipping trade.

Dorcas Bourne, a widow in one of the county’s prominent 19th century families, sold about four acres of land to the U.S. government and in 1828, John Donahoo of Havre de Grace, MD, built a brick lighthouse on the site. It was 40 feet high and equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. James Somerville, the first lighthouse keeper, was paid $350 a year.

Erosion soon threatened the lighthouse as the point swung slowly southwest. The shoreline was armored with rock on more than one occasion, a fortification which must be maintained if the lighthouse is to survive.

The Websters, Solomons Island merchants originally from Deal Island on the Eastern Shore, controlled much of the land in the early 20th century, including the area near Cove Point. The family left their name on the Cove Point topographical “quadrat” map as “Webster Ponds,” the shallow marshy sloughs inside the point’s perimeter beaches.

Cooke Webster sold lots for summer cottages along the sandy shoreline southwest of the light, shortly before World War II. They had simple, “point” wells, pipe and a conical screen tip driven into the sands and freshwater lens. Wastes are returned to the same aquifer through their septic fields, a problem for the residents. Today, deeper wells into confined aquifers at much greater depths assure most homes’ drinking supply.

During World War II, private land on nearby Solomons Harbor was transformed into an amphibious attack training facility. Cove Point, with its sandy beaches and forest-backed cliffs, was chosen for mock invasions. Contemporary photographs show the beaches covered with combat-attired soldiers and military vehicles, as well as landing craft at the water’s edge. The adjacent summer cottages all seem to have survived the invasions.

A nearby outcrop of rocky limonite ore has been carved with hundreds of names, including one legible “E.M. Riddle, 1944.” I’ve often wondered if he survived the invasion for which he trained here.

After the war, loggers would not purchase standing timber from Cove Point beaches for fear that pieces of shrapnel and other ordnance embedded in them would jam in the gullets (the space between the teeth) of their sawmills’ blades and break them.

The beaches would soon play another pivotal role in the community. Among the casualties of the war were ships from India traveling to Baltimore carrying titanium ore in their ballast, which were sunk by German submarines. Titanium is a light, strong and relatively rare metal used in military aircraft, climbing gear and corrosion-proof marine hardware. Titanium dioxide is also what makes white paint “white.”

Harold E. Vokes, in his “Geology of Maryland, 1957,” reported that in 1953, ilmenite sands, rich in ferrotitanium, about half iron, half titanium, had been found near Cove Point. At that point, the resource was unexploited.

Most of us, visiting Atlantic Coast beaches, have seen ilmenite. It is the fine black sand that darkens beaches when storms blow aside the lighter grains of translucent quartz. It’s ironic that ilmenite, black in color, has become the source of our “whitest whites.”

A private enterprise, Titanium Ore Corp., was formed to extract the Cove Point ilmenite deposits.

Solomons resident Jimmy Langley visited its plant in 1955 as part of a county-sponsored series of 4th grade field trips designed to acquaint local children with future job opportunities in the area.

He remembers a barge extracting sand offshore and conveyer belts with water sprays. Because ilmenite is heavier than quartz, it separates in a water-sand slurry, concentrating to the point that electromagnets can pick it up as almost pure ferrotitanium grains and deposit them in trucks, which hauled the mineral off to a refining facility. The separated quartz sand, Langley recalls, was returned to Chesapeake Bay.

What grade-school-age Langley will never forget, though, were the eye-popping mounds of Miocene fossil sharks’ teeth that had been tossed aside.

A U.S. Coast Guard aerial photograph of the titanium plant circa 1962 shows a crane for unloading barges still on the beach. Titanium Ore Corp.’s process and the available reserves were apparently insufficient, though, and the enterprise was later abandoned. The plant fell into ruin.

Cove Point’s beaches were again free for picnickers, boaters and fossil hunters to roam and explore.

Much of the surrounding land was still in private hands and efforts were afoot to include the sandy promontory — from its wetlands down to the historic lighthouse — in a proposed Calvert Cliffs State Park.

In the early 1970s, a flyer from the Sierra Club warned that the site was again under industrial development pressure, this time from a consortium of Columbia Gas and Consolidated Gas, with El Paso Algeria as a transportation partner.

The hue and cry was substantial. In addition to environmental concerns, local residents were appalled that the facility for combustible gas would be built only a few miles from the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.

But economic forces were stronger: This was around the time of the “fuel crisis” of 1973, when gasoline went from 16 cents to more than a dollar a gallon.

Plans to include the land, marsh and beaches as part of the state park ended, although the wetland itself was largely protected under a Cove Point Natural Heritage Trust.

The consortium proposed a massive pier stretching a mile offshore into deep water to accommodate thousand-foot cryo-tankers carrying natural gas from Algeria.

The gas was extracted from wells, liquefied by compression and transported aboard ships in huge spherical tanks at around 270 degrees below zero. Navigation on the Bay would essentially stop while these giants maneuvered into place.

Natural gas, even when compressed to the fluid state is a light cargo, and despite the immense size of these vessels, the difference in draft for a ship empty and fully laden, Langley said, was only about 3 feet. Winds had to be moderate when ships were offloading because at speeds of 25 knots or more, there was a risk of the large vessels breaking down the pier.

The liquefied gas would be pumped into huge silos on the property, each of which would hold 375,000 barrels of liquid.

An immense cleared swath of land and buried pipeline would be trenched across the county toward lucrative markets in the Metro Washington-Baltimore area. The fluid was slowly warmed, until it evaporated, increasing almost 600-fold in volume, and the gas would be sent on its way.

The pier became an island offloading facility connected to Cove Point with a 1.25-mile pair of tunnels, under water, beach and marsh. Langley, who went to work at the plant, said employees reached the offshore facility through one of these underwater tunnels riding one of the almost 100 bicycles that the company purchased locally. He could hear motor boats on the Bay above, and said it was like being in a submarine.

The old titanium plant remains were razed and the new facility built. Construction supplies included what was then the largest ever order for stainless steel pipe. The tanks were insulated with thousands of cubic yards of vermiculite, a light and completely fireproof mica product. It took about a year to cool down the receiving equipment with liquid nitrogen. The overall cost was more than a half-billion dollars. There were plans for more than 30 ships to be built, including the El Paso Cove Point.

Only small number of ships ever completed deliveries to the site, because when fuel prices soared, the Algerian providers wanted to have parity in BTU content with other petroleum products. When U.S. prices for imported energy, which were controlled by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, didn’t match their expectations, shipments ceased. The entire complex was shut down and Cove Point went back to sleep for a couple of decades.

Cove Point Lighthouse, once a prominent sentinel along the Chesapeake, became a feeble thing winking behind the massive offshore terminal. As part of Coast Guard economy measures, it was eventually automated, its live-in lighthouse keeper deactivated, and the lighthouse given to the Calvert Marine Museum to manage as a tourist attraction.

Paradoxically, the abandoned pier has proved to be a massive fish attractant. I have seen 50 boats clustered around and under its tangle of huge concrete pilings on a weekend.

Capt. John Bailey, a commercial towboat operator in Solomons, says that in the summer, he gets a call almost daily for boater assistance from this area — out of gas, won’t start — which gives an indication of the number of people using the site.

Williams Gas, which purchased the facility from Columbia Gas, has proposed reopening Cove Point LNG terminal and is offering Cove Point Terminal as a receiving point for offshore natural gas producers. So far, BP-Amoco, Coral (the American division of Royal Dutch Shell) and once again, El Paso Gas, have expressed interest. Williams proposes building another containment tank, this one with 850,000 barrels liquid capacity.

The same concerns of three decades ago were raised again, but economic forces and a desire for “clean” energy are, if anything, more intense.

“How could we,” says a local resident, “waste all the resources already invested?”

The terrible events of Sept. 11 and the subsequent actions against terrorism make the issue even more complex. One wonders about any such large energy facility’s potential as a terrorist target. A resident described herself as living in the “Bermuda Triangle” of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, nuclear power plant and liquid natural gas terminal.

Cove Point, in heavy weather, has for 400 years been a challenging corner for mariners to turn in the Bay. Navigational restrictions for the thousands of recreational boaters in middle Chesapeake Bay and for commercial shipping for the foreseeable future could be onerous and are under review with the Coast Guard as this is written.

Fishermen, no doubt, will be rankled at the loss of their ability to seek quarry in and around this complex.

Turning from the cooling air of that October anchorage to go below into my cabin, I was stunned to find a perfect full moon risen just over the horizon in the Honga River, reflected in a Bay so calm that just a single image appeared in the water next to me, tranquil and lovely.

Soon, Cove Point’s light could again be lost in the blaze of lights at the operating LNG Terminal.

Visits to Cove Point Lighthouse can be arranged through the Calvert Marine Museum, 410-326-2042.

A history of land ownership around Cove Point was prepared in 1997 by J. Court Stevenson and Karen Sundberg for the Cove Point Natural Heritage Trust, 410-414-3311

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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