Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2012

Heroic Rescue at Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse

Light Keeper’s Son Tells of a Strange Ghostly Clutch of Drowned Crewman That Waked Him to Reveal the Peril of a Stranded Ship


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The following story, in its entirety was taken from a 1936 edition of the American Weekly that was written from an interview with Captain Steinhise and his son Earl.

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Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse as it appeared in ...

It was on August 20, 1933 when the cold clammy hand of the ghost of a drowned man waked the sleeping son of the keeper of Maryland’s Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse in the midst of a gigantic storm said Earl Steinhheise, the assistant keeper. And then, following what the young man feels sure was a ghostly warning, a heroic rescue of five sailors was made.

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Vintage image of Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse.

Seven-Foot Knoll Light is a small beacon six miles from shore, and it was on that stormy night in August of 1933 that Captain Thomas J. Steinhise, the keeper of the light established a new record for heroism in the Lighthouse Service. The elder Steinhise, manning a twenty-one-foot open boat in a mountainous sea, succeeded in rescuing from raging waters five sailors from a foundered tug, and the body of the drowned chief engineer.

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Silver Life-Saving Medal awardee Captain Thomas ...

And it was for his feat of heroism that Captain Steinhise was awarded a Government medal for unusual bravery, and received a citation form his chief, the Secretary of Commerce. The job of tending the light at Seven Foot Knoll is not the most enviable in the world. True, there is lots of quiet, for the lighthouse is planted in the Chesapeake Bay, six miles from the western shore and about thirty miles from Baltimore. There are no noisy squawking radios, nor ear splitting traffic.

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The five men from the tugboat Point Breeze who ...

There is nothing to see but water – and plenty of it. But with a person cursed with a too-vivid imagination, or one of neurasthenic tendencies, tending the light at this dangerous shoal would be in the nature of a nightmare, particularly when the waters of the bay kicked up during a severe blow, which it frequently does.

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Earl Steinhice [Steinhise], son of Seven Foot ...

Captain Steinhise, however, is not afflicted with a supersensitive nervous system. He is a sturdy specimen of a sea-dog – built like a square-rigged ship, carrying 200 pounds of bone and brawn. His face is tanned to the color of fine russet leather; around his eyes are networks of tiny sun wrinkles, the heritage of all men who spend most of their lives outdoors. And when one meets his level gaze, one instinctively feels that here indeed is a man to whom fear is absolutely foreign.

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The Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse as it appears ...
Photo by: Brian D. Seltzer.)

Captain Steinhise, but for the exception of a brief half-dozen years when he piled the trade of blacksmith in a Southern Maryland community, has been a deep-water man all his life. A native of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, he could box the compass before he could write his own name. For years he sailed with the fishing fleet before he accepted the post of keeper of Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse in 1919. He is fifty-seven years old, and expects to “Tend Light” until the Government retires him at the age of sixty-five. Then he will retire to his three-story brick-row house in Baltimore with his six sons and four daughters.

Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse is built upon nine stout steel poles. The floor of the beacon is in about ten feet from the surface of the water at high tide. The light itself is a common oil lamp, similar to those in use in households a half century ago. Surrounding the oil lamp is a glass cylinder, about six inches thick, which magnifies the beam. A reflector projects the beam in all directions, and the light is visible to ships traversing the channel for a distance of eighteen miles, warning mariners of the treacherous shoals.

Inhabitants of the Atlantic coast, from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, will not forget in a hurry those three thrilling days in August 1933, when the ninety-mile-an-hour hurricane swept the seaboard, causing millions of dollars loss in property and lives. The storm began late Sunday night, August 20. By Monday night the wind had increased to a variety of fifty miles an hour, and the tide was rising rapidly.

Captain Steinhise and his son, Earl, trimmed the light for the night and prepared to weather the storm, which hourly grew more intense, About 11 o’clock the captain knocked the ashes from his pipe and rumbled, “Better get some sleep son. I’ll keep watch.”

Earl, accordingly, went to his bunk and soon fell asleep, oblivious to the devilish shriek of the hurricane and thunderous pounding of the sea on the pilings.

“I don’t know how long I had been asleep” Earl related. “But I awoke with a start. It seemed that someone – or some THING – had laid a cold clammy hand on my bare arm, which lay outside the covers. I can never tell you how startled I was. Imagine how surprised you would be if someone laid a dead fish on your arm when you were sound asleep. Then you would know how I felt.

“I didn’t see anything – it was pitch dark. But I Could feel there was something wrong – something uncanny – ghostly! Outside, the hurricane, which had grown in force since I went to sleep, was a howling gale. The lighthouse shivered and shook as the big combers crashed against the pilings. It was terrifying. I can tell you!”

Earl sat up in his bunk and listened. Was that a whistle feebly sounding above the howling wind? He strained his ears – every nerve taut, every muscle tense. Again that faint, hoarse blast – one, two, three, four distant shrieks in rapid succession.

“A distress signal!”’ shouted the young man, leaping from his oilskins and sou’wester. Opening the door which led to the tiny deck which runs around the lighthouse, Earl beheld a shadowy form clinging to the rail, peering into the blackness. “What’s up?” asked Earl breathlessly, as he recognized his father.

“There’s a steamer of some kind in distress out there,” Captain Steinhise roared above the wind. “She’s tootin’ her whistle – giving the distress signal – four sharp blasts. Hear ‘em?”

“What are you going to do about it?” the son asked. The older man turned sharply and faced the youth. “Do?” he shouted. “Why, I’m going out there and get those poor devils out of the mess they’re in.”

“But,” expostulated the young man, “You’ll never make it in this sea. That dinky boat we’ve got won’t weather a blow like this. You’ll never make it!”

Captain Steinhise, without another word, turned and lowered himself through the trap door in the floor the lighthouse into the frail motor dory.

“I’ll go with up pop,” shouted the youth, “You can’t make it alone.”

“No son, you gotta stay here with the light. That’s an order. I’m captain here.”

According to Earl’s recollections, the waves were about fifteen feet high at this time, and the tide was running like a millrace. The little boat bobbed crazily like a cork, threatening to dash itself to splinters against the pilings and carry the doughty captain to his death. Earl clung to the iron ladder which descended from the floor lighthouse and held a flashlight torch while his father was trying to get the boat under control.

The launch, which is used by the lighthouse crew for conveyance to and from the shore to their post, is equipped with a one-cylinder marine engine. Captain Steinhise tried again and again to start the engine, but his efforts were fruitless. A giant wave splashed its spray into the open boat, putting the engine out of commission.

“Pop, turn back! You can’t make it!” shouted Earl, fearing for his father’s safety.

Suddenly the boat was from the young man’s view, carried outward by the wind and the tide – fortunately in the direction of the crippled vessel. As Captain Steinhise tells it, he never was closer to death in all the years he had followed the sea than he was at that moment.

With the engine ‘dead,’ the tide was swiftly carrying his frail craft out into the terrifying darkness. A single long oar was the only means he had for controlling the boat, a very difficult task in such a sea.

All around him in the Stygian darkness, he could hear the agonized voices of the helpless sailors, struggling for life in the frothing water, and the heroic captain strained every muscle desperately to control his little craft sufficiently to reach the drowning men.

Looming up in the dark, his eyes, singing with salt spray, soon made out the distressed craft. It was the tug, Point Breeze, out of Baltimore that afternoon on a voyage to Gibson’s Island to tow back a scow filed with mud from a dredging operation. Buffeted by the hurricane, the tug had foundered on the dangerous Seven Foot Knoll shoals, about 100 yards from the lighthouse, and in thirteen feet of water. It listing badly to port.

As Captain Steinhise’s boat was swept toward the damaged vessel, only the superstructure was visible. Clinging to the pilot house he could dimly discern several figures, clutching to the iron stations for their lives. Realizing the tug and its occupants were in no immediate danger, Steinheise devoted his efforts to picking up the men who he had seen struggling in the water and whose heart-rending appeals for aid he had heard.

One by one, guided only by the shouts of the sailors, he maneuvered his boat until he had picked up the men. Then, deciding to make another attempt to start the engine, he “turned it over - and – glory be! – there was a faint sput-sput!” Another try, and the motor started.

Putting for the lighthouse, he was about to attempt the dangerous return trip with four rescued men, when alongside the boat appeared the dead white face of a corpse, supported by a nearby exhausted simmer.

The dead man was Percy Harrison, chief engineer of the ill-fated Point Breeze. He and five other members of this crew of fourteen sailors had leaped from the tug when she struck the shoal. They were afraid the vessel would sink completely and they would be sucked down to a certain death.

J. Frank Stevens, a deckhand, after swimming about for some minutes, came upon the body of Harrison. Hoping there was a spark of life left, Stevens towed away the body to the lighthouse tender’s already over-loaded boat.

Steinheise’s fight to reach the lighthouse was even more heart-breaking than his efforts to pick up the drowning men, despite the fact that his engine had started. The tide and the wind were both against him. And, so it was nearly an hour before the little craft, greatly overloaded with its human cargo, at last reached the lighthouse and safety.

The rescue sailors were exhausted. They lay panting on the narrow deck, while Earl Steinhise dug up blankets and poured hot coffee down their throats. Captain Steinheise refused to rest.

“I’ve got to get those men off that tug,” he said with determination. However, just as he was about to try to reach the foundered vessel once more, the tug Sarah hove in sight and took off the remaining sailors. Steaming up the channel of Baltimore. Later the Sarah returned and carried the men that Captain Steinheise had rescued to the Maryland port.

It was more than two years later that Captain Steinheise was ordered to appear at the Baltimore headquarters of the United States Lighthouse Service.

When Captain Steinhise entered the Federal Building, he was more puzzled than ever. Motion picture machines were grinding; photographer’s flash-lights were popping and a crowd of Commerce Department “big wigs” greeted him with wide smiles and out stretched hands.

“”I don’t understand all this, “ mumbled the old sea-dog. “What’s it mean?”

“No trouble at all - it means that you’re elected to receive the Commerce Department silver medal for exceptional heroism on the night of August 21, 1933.” Replied Mr. H. Almy, District Lighthouse Engineer, at the Customs House.

Of course, Captain Steinhise was thrilled to receive the medal, and much pleased as he read the following citation, signed by the Honorable Daniel C. Roper, Secretary of Commerce:

“Dear Mr. Steinhise:

“I have been very much impressed in reading a report relative to your action at 12:30 o’clock on the morning of August 21, 1933, in rescuing five men from the water when they went down with the tugboat, Point Breeze, in the vicinity of your station. I note that conditions were extremely hazardous and that, when you set out in your launch to go to the men the seas were breaking over your boat and that the men were calling to you from all directions.

“It gives me sincere pleasure to commend you in the warmest terms for your heroic action under these hazardous conditions, and to have the matter made a part of your official history.

Sincerely yours,

Daniel C. Roper,

Secretary of Commerce.”

Young Earl Steinhise, of course, is proud of his father’s exploits, but he cannot altogether agree with “Pop” that his sudden awakening that fateful night was not due to some psychic manifestation which he cannot explain.

“I felt that ghostly hand just as plain as could be,” says Earl. With evident sincerity, “and I just knew something was the matter. I don’t believe inspirits: but sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t the ghost of the dead chief engineer who wanted to warn me that his pals were drowning nearby. Maybe the spook figured father never could make it alone in that launch and so it waked me up to go along too. IT may be something to laugh off, but I can’t quite do that.”

Editor’s Note:

In doing our research in trying to locate additional photographs to go with the story, we found several variations of the Captain’s last name. As well as Steinhise, we found his last name spelled as Steinhice, Steinheise and Steinheiser. Finding various spellings of the last names of lighthouse keepers is not uncommon when one does research. This can be from the way people in the past have construed someone’s hand-writing or because they simply misspelled it and others carried it forward in future stories or documents.

However, the truth is that the Captain’s real last name was Steinhice. In later years, Sylvia Hillman, his granddaughter, provided the following information that provides some clarification, when she said: “He was very modest about his great courage, but his pride really became evident as the result of a clerical error. Upon accepting the Silver Life Saving Medal in 1936 he was shocked to find his last name inscribed incorrectly as Steinhise. He must have known a little about how the bureaucracy in the federal government works. Because he surmised that it would be less difficult to change the way he spelled his name than to get the government to correct their mistake, so from that moment forward Steinhice became Steinhise.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 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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