Coast Guard modernizes Fort McHenry aid to navigation range lights


BALTIMORE - Fort McHenry is shown during an overflight of the Baltimore harbor, June 28, 2010. The structure on the water's edge is the front light of the Fort McHenry Range, a critical aid-to-navigation system for navigating the channel. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Post written by Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Runt

As our country’s bicentennial quickly approaches, cities around the United States and Canada are preparing for a two-year celebration of the pivotal events in our nation’s history. Baltimore is one of the cities that will be commemorating the significant battles that took place in and around its historic harbor during the War of 1812.

One hundred years following the historic 25-hour naval bombardment of Fort McHenry that took place on September 13, 1814, Baltimore had become a significant port of entry for immigrants entering the United States, second to Ellis Island in New York. Baltimore’s importance as a port of entry evolved due to the close proximity of shipping traffic and railroad stations within the city. As the country grew, those same attributes made the port advantageous to cargo ships for importing and exporting goods to and from all over the world through Baltimore.

Mariners navigating the Patapsco River can do so a bit safer today thanks to the Coast Guard’s recently completed upgrades to the Fort McHenry Range, a critical aid to navigation light system for guiding shipping traffic into the Port of Baltimore.

The Fort McHenry Range is a tandem of lights at different elevations that assist ships entering the port by aligning them one-over-the-other, reassuring the ship’s captain and pilots their vessel is in mid-channel and in safe water for their entrance to the city.

The lower of the two lights in the system is the front light; the higher is the rear light. In the case of the Fort McHenry Range, the front light was originally constructed on the fort at a height of 41 feet in 1913, 99 years following the renowned nautical battle at the fort. The current structure was built in 1934, again at a height of 41 feet.

The rear light is located approximately one mile behind the front light and was originally built in 1934 at a height of 113 feet and then rebuilt in 1963 maintaining the height of 113 feet. This light is also located on a historically significant site in the city – the location was once part of the property housing the Baltimore Immigration Station.

Both lights were originally outfitted with 24” RL-24 drum lanterns creating a highly focused beam of light down the center of the channel. Each of the towers and lights were designed relative to Baltimore’s skyline lighting and waterway usage in the area during the 1960’s. Due to the increased usage and growth of the city over the last fifty years, the range lights needed to be reconstructed and modernized with updated equipment to meet the port’s needs for today and for years to come.

BALTIMORE - The Fort McHenry Range is shown near the Baltimore harbor, October 4, 2011. The light is used as a key aid to navigation system aligning the front and rear light to maneuver ships into the Baltimore harbor. U.S. Coast Guard photo

The Coast Guard temporarily switched off power to both lights to facilitate the upgrades in June 2011. The front light’s rehabilitation and optics update included two new RL-24 lanterns with 1,000-watt lamps in each lantern. The rear tower was removed, and a new one was built to a height of 155 feet and updated with three new RL-24 lanterns outfitted with 1,000-watt lamps in each lantern.

The Fort McHenry Range’s daytime characteristic of both the front and rear light are fixed white. The nighttime characteristics of the range were changed to a fixed red for the rear light and a fixed green for the front light. This project was completed in September 2011, and both lights were reenergized lighting the way for safer navigation of mariners entering the Port of Baltimore.

The increased lantern intensity of the range and the new height of the rear light will ensure better visibility to the waterway users and allow for safer transits of deep-draft vessels arriving in Baltimore.

As mariners on the Patapsco River, and travelers on Interstate 695 cross over the Francis Scott Key Bridge, look north toward Baltimore the upgraded Fort McHenry Range can clearly be seen as both the front and rear-range lights line up over the center of the channel. They’ll be looking at the current aids to navigation lights, but could be easily reminiscing about the significant moments in our nation’s rich history that took place in the very same harbor over the last 200 years.

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