Making the most of an incredible asset

Submitted to Dorchester Banner
Cambridge Lighthouse

Editor’s note: The monthly Heritage Partner Spotlight focuses on our Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area (HCCHA) partners and how they have supported heritage tourism in Dorchester County with a project funded by either a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) grant or a HCCHA mini-grant.

This month’s spotlight shines on the Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation. Their story goes back many decades, but it is one that the organization is dedicated to seeing continue well into the future.

In keeping with their commitment to historic preservation, the HCCHA also has been committed to supporting their efforts.

CAMBRIDGE – The Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation came into existence after the Lighthouse was built in 2012. The construction happened under the auspices of a different nonprofit, which transferred ownership of the Lighthouse to the city and then closed its doors.

“That’s when we came along,” said Jim Duffy, executive director of the Cambridge Lighthouse Foundation. “Our role is to make sure our community makes the most of the incredible asset we now have in the Choptank River Lighthouse. That means organizing community volunteers who are dedicated to the cause. That means building the Lighthouse into a showcase for our maritime heritage.
“That means promoting and marketing the Lighthouse in ways that build visitation not just to the beacon itself, but to other businesses and attractions around the county. It means making the Lighthouse fun and fascinating for visitors. Whether they’re from Hawaii or Hurlock or Hong Kong, we want them to feel so welcome and engaged that they go back home raving about our community to family and friends. Our volunteers do a great job of that.”

Dedicated to preservation
The foundation’s mission also includes a significant preservation element. A leadership team from the board of directors is working with the city and the group that manages the Cambridge Marina to maintain the structure so that future generations can also make the most of this incredible asset.

The organization’s vision has been constant over the years, but its activities continue to grow in significant ways. As resources and volunteer numbers increase, the foundation has gained the capacity to do new things, such as waterfront yoga classes or putting up temporary exhibits that are seen by many thousands of people.

“We’re really lucky to be doing the work we do in such a generous community,” Mr. Duffy said. “We have a volunteer board of directors, of course, and they’re uncommonly engaged and dedicated.
“The biggest group of our volunteers are the ‘lighthouse keepers.’ These folks commit to doing one shift every month at the lighthouse greeting visitors, answering questions, and generally being a goodwill ambassador for Dorchester County. It’s really a fun little job that lets you meet all kinds of interesting people from around the region and the country – and even the world.”

A new exhibit at the lighthouse was funded with a Heritage Area Mini-Grant.

Grant-funded projects
A recent Heritage Area mini-grant in 2019 helped put the Lighthouse Foundation in position to do some fun and interesting things in concert with the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, “Water/Ways.”

• They held a well-attended talk at the Dorchester Center for the Arts about the history of the lighthouse. The star of that show was Jack Messick, the son of the last live-aboard keeper on the original Choptank River Lighthouse. Mr. Messick shared wonderful childhood memories of visiting his father out on the Lighthouse.

• The mini-grant helped the foundation try something brand new with a “Sunset Yoga at the Lighthouse” event. The 30 spots sold out very quickly, and now they are thinking about doing more of that kind of event.

• The grant also helped pay for the design and fabrication of the new “Age of Steam” exhibit about the steamboat era on the Choptank and Little Choptank Rivers. That exhibit will stay up at least through the 2020 season, so it will reach a much bigger audience than saw it during the “Water/Ways” show.

The “keepers” staff the lighthouse on weekends, but the building is open for self-guided tours seven days a week.

Volunteer
The Lighthouse Foundation is recruiting volunteers. Last year’s roster was about 25 people, with lawyers, teachers, musicians, event organizers and medical professionals. They had moms who did shifts with kids, too, and the kids got some community service hours in. There are no special qualifications. They do a little training session for everyone.

Make a Gift
Once a year, the foundation reaches out and asks people to make an annual gift to support their nonprofit and the efforts of the hard-working volunteers.

Every year, there is a big fundraising party and auction called “Light Night.” That’s another area where volunteers are engaged – in planning and executing the event.

Activities and projects
• The installation of architectural-style “monument lighting” outside the lighthouse to make it as much of a community icon at night as it is in the day. People now can see the lighthouse clearly as they cross the Choptank River.

• Hosting group tours, including cruise ship passengers and school groups and groups meeting at the Hyatt, etc.

• In addition to the museum-quality permanent exhibits on the first floor of the lighthouse, installation of two temporary exhibits on the second floor: The first (now closed) featured Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. The second, which is brand new, focuses on the steamships of the 1800s and early 1900s and how they impacted the towns of Dorchester County.

• Collaborating with the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society on the Maryland Lighthouse Challenge, which has people coming from all over the country for a weekend-long road trip to 12 or so different lighthouses.

• Presentations with expert speakers on the history of the lighthouse, as well as about slavery and the Underground Railroad.

• Ongoing efforts related to the “Preservation Project,” to make sure the lighthouse is in tip-top shape for future generations. Work in 2020 will focus on the understructure, where the waves and the salt water have been doing their thing for seven years now and a little bit of rust is showing.

“Tackling this now is an expensive job,” Duffy said. “But it’s downright cheap compared to what would happen if we just let it go year after year.”

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