Faces of the Bay: Thomas Point Ferryman Howard Lewis

The Chesapeake Bay’s most prolific ferryman, Howard Lewis, speaks about his years shepherding visitors to Thomas Point Shoal Light

The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse is one of the most photographed and beloved symbols of the mid-Chesapeake Bay. It’s one of the only lighthouses you can visit by water to take a tour. If you book one of these coveted tours, the man who will get you out to the lighthouse is Howard Lewis, a deadrise captain who just happens to be the ancestor of a lighthouse keeper.

Lewis has been a lifelong Eastport resident. “I could look out the front door and see corn fields and horses,” he says of his childhood. “Now, I look at a shopping center.” Lewis says both the area and the Chesapeake ecosystem has changed significantly in his time. “I used to go down to all the docks in Eastport and scoop crabs off the pilings.”

In his teenage years, Lewis would go to Thomas Point, the peninsula where the South River meets the Bay. “We would go there and walk through the water, catching peeler crabs in the underwater grasses. There were more crabs than we could eat in a lifetime.” Things have changed since then, but Thomas Point is still a draw for people from all over the Bay region—especially its historic screwpile lighthouse, which sits a mile and a quarter offshore.

Lewis began volunteering with the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse when it transferred ownership to the City of Annapolis in 2004. After the Coast Guard transferred it to the City, the lighthouse was in rough shape. There was a significant amount of work that needed to be done, and volunteers were needed to do it. Lewis and his boat, Audacious, were there to help ferry people and materials to and from the lighthouse. “Someone told me they needed volunteers and it seemed like a fun project to get involved in. Well, here I am, 20 years later, doing the same thing.”

Audacious is a 38-foot Chesapeake Bay wooden deadrise. Built in 1980 by renowned Eastern Shore boatbuilder Roger Bloodsworth, Audacious is truly one of a kind. In addition to her service as a workboat for the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, Lewis uses her for his own recreational crabbing pleasure. “I may be biased, but I don’t think you can find a boat with prettier lines.”

John Potvin, who is now the manager of the Lighthouse, also started volunteering at the same time as Lewis. “John and I just clicked,” Lewis says. “I don’t know that I could find a better friend than John.”

Potvin and Lewis continued volunteering, developing a bond with each other and the Lighthouse. Eventually Potvin stepped in as Lighthouse manager and brought the idea of running tours. He pitched the idea to Lewis and asked him to run them with him, acting as captain of the tour boat.  They trained docents and established a connection with a waterman who let them use his Coast Guard-inspected vessel (Audacious is not inspected/approved as a USCG commercial vessel). For a few years, Potvin and Lewis utilized a boat from Tilghman Island, until the owner decided to sell it.

“It was a pain to deal with at the time, but it somewhat forced us to get a tour boat of  our own,” Lewis says. The two men found a 46-foot Markley, a fiberglass deadrise, and made it the official lighthouse tour boat. Their wives named the boat Bodacious. “That way [between Audacious and Bodacious] we could have an “A” & “B” boat,” Lewis says.

Lewis is the only one who drives the boats to the lighthouse. “Aside from me being the only one to have a captain’s license, it just made sense for me to drive the boat,” Lewis says. “I’ve docked at the lighthouse more times than anybody, including the Coast Guard.”

When visitors tour the lighthouse today, Lewis expertly maneuvers the 46-foot boat into position and Potvin ties her off. “It doesn’t matter the conditions, Howard could dock the boat here,” Potvin says. 

In an interesting twist, Lewis found that he has a family history on the lighthouse. “You know, my great-great-grandfather was the head lighthouse keeper here at one point,” he says. And sure enough, he can point to a plaque inside the lighthouse with the name Charles W. Hartmann, Lewis’s ancestor, who kept the light turning from 1898 to 1901. “I guess it’s in my blood.”

As a well-maintained National Historic Landmark, Thomas Point Light is a reminder of the past and represents what navigation was once like on the Bay. For many, the Thomas Point Shoal Light marks the way home. But for Howard Lewis, the lighthouse is home.

At last check, June tours of the lighthouse were sold out, but there are still tours available on limited dates for July through October. Find out more here.