Digest>Archives> February 2003

The Steamboat Light

By Richard Clayton

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Robert Fulton, 1895.

At the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay, about forty miles northeast of Baltimore, is the quaint harbor called Havre de Grace. During the Revolutionary War General Lafayette, who visited this port several times, mentioned that the area reminded him of the French seaport, LeHavre. In 1785 the town was incorporated with the French name meaning “Harbor of Grace.” In 1791, the city narrowly lost out to Washington, DC as the nation’s capitol. The Susquehanna River flows south into the bay and meets the tidal flow, causing hazardous conditions. In the Indian language, it meant “river of islands.” About fifty-five miles up the river from Havre de Grace lies Harrisburg, the Capital City of Pennsylvania. In 1807 Robert Fulton demonstrated the practicality of steamboats on the Hudson. After the War of 1812 had ended, America showed the Old World what steam could do on freshwater. It was tricky for sailing ships to navigate even the largest rivers, but by the late 1820’s steamboats were in full operation on such waterways as the Susquehanna River.

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Point Concord, Havre De Grace, MD from an old ...

Ocean going sailing vessels would make port at Havre de Grace and transfer their cargo to river steamboats. Apart from cheapness and smoothness of water carriage, steamboats added speed unattainable for any distance on land until railroads were well developed. Six miles per hour was fast on major stage runs; steam could knock off 12 to 15 and the engines were just as fresh after hundreds of miles. Soon, regular passenger service on steamboats were commonplace trips between Harrisburg and Baltimore. Dense fog and foul weather would come in quickly at the northernmost point of the Chesapeake Bay. The tip of the peninsula, where steamboats coming down the Susquehanna River needed to make a 90° turn into the Bay, was called Concord Point.

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A steamboat race on the Ohio River, Louisville ...

In 1827, John Donahoo was hired to build a 36-foot tower with 3-foot thick granite walls at the point. The lantern was originally lit with nine whale oil lamps with 16-inch tin reflectors. John Donahoo built it. Because John O’Neill was a real fighting Irishman, a true hero to Havre de Grace, he was made the first keeper of the lighthouse. In appreciation of his deeds and because of his great popularity, a pact was extended to his family that his descendants would have first choice in manning the Light in future years. John O’Neill had served under General Henry Lee in 1794 and had helped quell the Whiskey Insurrection. Then he had settled down to operating a nail factory. In 1812, a new war came and the British set out to teach the “Yankee upstarts” a thing or two.

British warships had sailed up into Chesapeake Bay and with the latest type of rocket and bomb boats; plundered various Islands, poured rockets into Baltimore and then set sail up toward the head of the Bay. In the early hours of May 3, 1813, nineteen British barges edged close in and let loose a barrage. Bombs and rockets smashed into houses, the militia fled to the near-by woods and soon only Lieutenant John O’Neill was left to man the battery that overlooked the water, which consisted of three cannons. “When the alarm was given, I ran to the battery,” John O’Neill later wrote in a letter, describing the fight. “And I found but one man there and two or three came later. However, after a few shots, they retreated and left me alone in the battery. The grapeshot flew very thick about me, I loaded the gun myself, without anyone to serve the vent, which you know is very dangerous, and fired her, when she recoiled and ran over my thigh. I retreated down to town and joined Mr. Barnes with a musket and fired on the barges while we had ammunition and then retreated to the common where I kept waving my hat at the militia who had run away, to come to our assistance, but they proved cowardly and would not come back.” An English officer, followed by a party of marines, caught up with the injured O’Neill, seized him, and had him carted off to the British flagship Maidstone. The town was nearly leveled and then landing parties stormed through the town, putting houses to the torch and looting. In four hours it was over.

Rumors reached the town that John O’Neill was to be executed the next day. Matilda, his young daughter, rowed out to the Maidstone and, with tears in her eyes, pleaded with tough old Rear Admiral George Cockburn to spare her father’s life. The admiral is said to have been so impressed by the girl’s courage that he agreed. Further, he gave her a gift before she left—his own snuffbox.

John O’Neill was a hero, not only in Maryland, but elsewhere. The citizens of Philadelphia presented him with a handsome sword. So, in 1827, when the lighthouse was erected at Concord Point, there wasn’t really any question as to who should be appointed to the post —- old John O’Neill. The old hero watched the steamboats ply the waters of the river, tended the light and taught his young son the ways of being a keeper. He held the position for eleven years before he died in 1838. His son, John O’Neill, Jr. took over the lighthouse duties at the beginning of the Canal Era. In 1839, the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal opened Central Pennsylvania to Philadelphia and Baltimore. During the Civil War, the lighthouse was on confederate soil, but stayed in operation. John O’Neill, Jr. died in 1863 and his wife, Esther, manned the light for 11 years while raising her children. In 1878, her son, Henry O’Neill was appointed head keeper at Concord Light. It was the beginning of the Victorian era in America and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Large boats hauling iron machinery steamed down the Susquehanna River as passenger boats with newly arrived immigrants went upstream. Havre de Grace was a bustling city. Henry served as the Keeper for forty-one years. He died in 1919, a year after the armistice that ended World War 1. Harry O’Neill, Henry’s son, was appointed Keeper at Concord Point that same year.

By this time, small ships had replaced the old steamboats. Travel on the Susquehanna had been replaced by railroads and everyone talked about the airplanes that filled the skies. The United States was prospering. Prohibition was in place. In 1929, after ten years service, Harry was transferred to another station and the old Concord Lighthouse was automated. Four generations of the O’Neill family had tended the Light for over one hundred years at Concord Point, Maryland. The snuffbox given to Matilda by the British Admiral Cockburn and the sword presented to John O’Neill by the people of Philadelphia are on display at the Maryland Historical Society. The Lighthouse is located in the Town of Havre de Grace, in Concord Point Park at Concord and Lafayette Streets. The light is the oldest continuously operated lighthouse in the State of Maryland.

This story appeared in the February 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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