Finding History and Beauty at St Clement’s Island State Park

St Clements Island

There is so much to love about this place. St Clement’s Island offers nature, history, scenic views of the Potomac River and a lighthouse. Between the spectacular views and history, this is an awesome daytrip destination.

Located in the Potomac River off of Colton’s Point in St. Mary’s County, this small state park is the site where English settlers aboard the Ark and the Dove landed in 1634 in what became Maryland. Catholic refugees from a very adamantly protestant England, they celebrated the landing with a Catholic mass. The island was uninhabited at the time. Then they reached out to the Native Americans to negotiate for some land. The Native Americans directed the English settlers to another peninsula, which eventually became St Mary’s City.

In fact, a visit to nearby St Mary’s City is the perfect pairing for this daytrip destination.

The British used the island as a base of operations during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. At the time, the island was known by the name of the family that owned it: Blackistone.

Blackistone Lighthouse on St Clement’s Island

The original Blackistone Lighthouse, dating to 1851, was a two-story, brick residence with the footprint of a narrow rectangle and a 40-foot tower extending from the center of its roofline. It’s quite a charming lighthouse. The lighthouse operated between 1851 and 1932.

Dr. Joseph L. McWilliam originally owned the land the lighthouse was built upon. McWilliam’s son, Jerome, was the first lightkeeper, succeeded by McWilliam’s himself. Then his daughter, Josephine McWilliams Freeman — 1 of only 29 female lightkeepers at the time, took over. She kept the light for 37 years, between 1871 and 1912.

During the Civil War, Confederates decided on May 19, 1864 to destroy the lighthouse. A local man who had joined the Confederates returned to St Clement’s Island with 12 other men to ensure the light could no longer serve navigation and destroy the lighthouse itself. At the time, Jerome McWilliam’s wife was pregnant. Jerome knew the man leading the Confederates and pleaded with him to spare the lighthouse itself, because of his wife’s condition. The Confederates granted his request, and only destroyed the lens and the lamp, taking the oil back with them. Mrs. McWilliams put a lantern in the window that night, and until the light could be repaired. Subsequently, U.S. troops guarded the light and the island.

Lighthouse Reconstructed

Unfortunately, the existing lighthouse is not the original — the original burned down in 1956. No one knows exactly WHY the original lighthouse burned down, and as our water taxi captain explained, there are three theories. The first theory is that an errant lighting strike took the lighthouse out. The second theory is that arsonists lit it on fire. The final theory is that the lighthouse was bombed as target practice when St Clement’s Island was controlled by the U.S. Navy. (Other Chesapeake lighthouses were bombed during this period, so the theory is entirely plausible.)

Josephine Mattingly, granddaughter of Josephine McWilliams Freeman, left a bequest to a group of local volunteers dedicated to preserving St Clement’s Island. This group, the St Clement’s Hundred, raised funding and petitioned the state park system to rebuild the lighthouse. Fortunately, the original plans and diagrams for the lighthouse still existed. With permission granted, the volunteers rebuilt this beautiful structure. It has everything but the lens! The reconstructed lighthouse — exactly like the original except it’s a few yards away (because of erosion) from its original location — opened in 2008.

Exhibits within the reconstructed lighthouse discuss what life was like for lightkeepers, details the history of the lighthouse and the island and share the turbulent events of the Confederate raid.

St Clement’s Island Museum

St Clement’s Island Museum is on the east shore of the Potomac River overlooking St Clement’s Island. This relatively small museum focuses on conditions in England that preceded the voyage to Maryland. Its exhibits examine the religious and political issues of the 16th and 17th centuries that led many from Europe to seek a new life in North America.

You’ll learn more about George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore’s vision, which was to found a colony incorporating religious views of tolerance. The religious refugees on the Ark and the Dove were seeking freedom to practice their religion. This also explains one of Maryland’s knicknames: “The Free State,” which references religious freedom.

Know Before You Go

Call the St Clement’s Island Museum (301-769-2222) for more information and schedule of operation of the water taxis to the island. Extenuating circumstances and adverse weather conditions will prevent the water taxi from operating. 

Bring a picnic as there are few food establishments close to either the museum or the state park. The park offers numerous benches and picnic tables. Even if you don’t bring a picnic, bring water.

There are also places where you can swim in the Potomac River, so bring all you need for swimming and spend a few hours enjoying the peace of the island. There are rustic bathrooms on the island.

The lighthouse is open most Saturdays between Memorial Day and October, but check the websites below for more information. Wear comfortable footwear as there is a decent walk on the island to the lighthouse.

The museum, the lighthouse and the state park, although not run by the same organizations, are closely entwined. In fact, to get to the island, unless you have your own private boat, you must go into the museum to pay (and summon) the water taxi. The museum is run by St Mary’s County; the lighthouse is operated by local volunteers.

Getting there: 38370 Point Breeze Rd, Coltons Point, MD
Hours: daylight
Websites: State Park, Museum

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