Digest>Archives> April 2001

Two Lights on the Hill

By Rev. William Q. Simms

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Concord Point Lighthouse
Photo by: Scott B. Fredericks

To most lighthouse enthusiasts the title that I have given to this article probably evokes an image of double light towers at a single light station, such as the twin towers of Navesink in New Jersey. The “Hill” that I am referring to, however, is the cemetery overlooking Havre de Grace, Maryland, known as “Angel Hill Cemetery,” and the two lights, who now rest there, are John O’Neill and John Donahoo. Both of these men are well known for their contributions to Chesapeake Bay lighthouse history. They were truly “lights” to the mariner and benefactors, each in his own way, to their home town of Havre de Grace at the mouth of the Susquehanna River as it enters the mighty bay. The town’s name is French for “Harbor of Grace.”

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Tombstone of John Donahoo who built twelve ...
Photo by: William Q. Simms

John O’Neill died in 1838 and John Donahoo followed him some twenty years later. The Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre de Grace still stands as sturdy today as on the day it was constructed in 1827. The 36-foot light tower is an unofficial monument to these two men: John Donahoo who built it and John O’Neill who was its very first keeper. Each man is a legend unto himself for reasons that I will attempt to explain here. Their respective stories have become clearer to me as I’ve tried to learn more about them in preparing for my role as a volunteer docent at the lighthouse.

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Grave marker of John O’Neill who was the first ...
Photo by: Rev. William Q. Simms

In 1826, the government purchased a small tract of land for a light station on the west bank of the Susquehanna River at a projection of the shore known as Concord Point. At that time there was much commercial activity on the river as supplies were shipped downstream from the rich interior of Pennsylvania. At Port Deposit and Havre de Grace many of these goods were transferred onto larger ships for transport to such big ports as Baltimore. In addition, there was heavy commercial fishing activity in the area. A light at Concord Point was deemed necessary therefore, to respond to the increasing navigational needs in the upper Bay. John Donahoo, a local businessman, won the contract for erecting the lighthouse and nearby keeper’s residence. A quarry in Port Deposit, about a mile upriver, supplied the granite used in the tower. Being so readily available, granite was also chosen for the steps leading to the lantern, which was originally fitted with nine lamps and reflectors.

Each time I climb the tower to inspect it before beginning my tour of duty as “keeper of the day” for the tourists, I am amazed at how well John Donahoo constructed his lighthouse. One can even notice the finger-like grooves carved into the stone steps that were made while extracting the granite from the quarry. The stone slabs of the steps being interlocked with the tower wall makes for a very sturdy structure. The keeper’s residence, likewise constructed of granite, is not adjacent to the tower because insufficient land was available for both structures. The house was built on a separate lot a short block away. Among the few improvements to the tower over the subsequent years were the replacement of the lantern with a newer style in 1867 and of the old lighting system with a sixth order Fresnel lens in 1869 and a fifth order lens in 1891.

As a builder of twelve lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay area, John Donahoo enjoyed an excellent reputation. Not included in this number is the Bodkin Island light, which he did not construct himself, but merely performed some subsequent work on the site. His good reputation may have been somewhat marred by the work he did on the towers at Thomas Point and Fog Point. Lighthouse author Pat Vojtech (Lighting the Bay) offers a defense of Donahoo’s work at these sites by explaining that at Thomas Point there was need to remove Donahoo’s tower because of land erosion, and at Fog Point the problem may not have been poor construction, as much as erosion and sea spray and the marshy condition of the soil. Seven of Donahoo’s lighthouses still stand: Pooles Island (1825), Concord Point (1827), Cove Point (1828), Point Lookout (1830), Turkey Point (1833), Piney Point (1836), and Fishing Battery Island (1853). His lighthouses were basically of two styles. Most were conical towers constructed of either granite or brick with a separate keeper’s residence; others were lanterns set atop the keeper’s dwelling, usually as a way to lessen expenses. The tower at Concord Point is the second oldest lighthouse still standing in Maryland.

In addition to erecting the beautiful Concord Point light tower in his own home town where it is now a major tourist attraction, John Donahoo also served his community in various civic roles. He was a judge of elections, a member of the school committee, and a town commissioner. As a businessman, Donahoo was involved in fishing, real estate and construction. But Donahoo is probably best known today as an important, reliable and respected lighthouse builder on the Bay. He had rightly earned the confidence of Captain William Barney, the Naval Officer in charge of the construction of Maryland lighthouses at the time, and Stephen Pleasanton, the government appointed overseer of lighthouses in the United States from 1820 until 1852. Mariners over the years have relied on the light from Donahoo’s towers to guide them safely through the waters of the upper Chesapeake Bay area, and lighthouse lovers today continue to admire the lighthouses that still perpetuate his memory.

Also buried in Angel Hill Cemetery is Havre de Grace’s other lighthouse celebrity, John O’Neill, who is still revered today. Although O’Neill was the first keeper of the Concord Point Lighthouse, he is mainly known for his singular defense of the town when the British invaded it during the War of 1812. For some months the Chesapeake Bay had virtually become a British lake. In the spring of 1813, British Rear Admiral George Cockburn was concentrating his naval efforts in the upper Bay. The local state militia had been on the alert in Havre de Grace for a few days because of several indications that the British might attack. On the morning of May 3rd, however, the townsfolk woke to the frightening glare of rockets and the warning sound of drums and soon discovered that a British rocket boat and about nineteen row barges had appeared on the horizon. The residents were unaware that this was to be the fateful day for their town. Only John O’Neill remained on the alert manning one of the cannons at the Potato Battery when the invaders landed not far from him. Those few who had been with him soon left. The brave O’Neill made a vain attempt to repel the enemy when the cannon recoiled and injured his thigh. Limping back to town seeking help against the invaders, John O’Neill was eventually captured and taken to Admiral Cockburn’s flagship, the Maidstone. It was there that he was sentenced to be hanged for treason.

In the meantime, the British spread havoc throughout the town. After landing near the battery, they turned its guns on the town. The enemy then set out to burn, plunder and destroy. Household items were damaged or stolen by the British. It is believed that Admiral Cockburn himself found a coach that he admired and ordered it transferred to his ship. The townsfolk were terrified and confusion reigned during the few hours of the British occupation. About forty of the sixty or so houses in Havre de Grace were left burning.

Meanwhile, John O’Neill was detained under the threat of death on board the Maidstone. His teenage daughter Matilda, according to the traditional story, heard about her father’s plight and somehow was able to board the Admiral’s ship and pleaded with him for the life of her father. Admiral Cockburn explained to her that O’Neill was going to be hanged because he had committed treason by firing upon the British when they landed earlier that morning. Matilda was able to eventually produce documents showing that her father was a member of the state militia who was fighting for his homeland; hence he was not simply a citizen rebelling against His Majesty the King. The Admiral released John O’Neill and was so impressed with Matilda’s bravery that he presented her with his personal tortoise shell snuffbox as a memento. That very snuffbox is now in the Maryland Historical Society museum in Baltimore and I have had the privilege of holding it in my hand! John O’Neill was a local hero and being so well respected in Havre de Grace as its Defender, President John Quincy Adams appointed him the first keeper of the Concord Point Lighthouse when it was completed in 1827. He faithfully held this position until his death in 1838. He was indeed the patriarch of the family from whom most of the later keepers of Concord Point Light descended. In fact, the last keeper was his great grandson!

Today, an old rustic cannon that is believed to have been pulled from the river years ago sits on the lighthouse property as a reminder of the grim morning so many years ago that saw the British approach Concord Point. They may have been victorious at Havre de Grace, but the next year the British were repulsed at North Point and Fort McHenry in Baltimore’s harbor. As for the lighthouse at Concord Point, the Coast Guard decommissioned it in 1975. The lighthouse is now owned by the town and administered by a loyal group of volunteers called “The Friends of Concord Point Lighthouse.” This group is presently planning to restore the keeper’s house. They also keep the venerable tower lighted each night as a reminder of its long history of service to the men of the sea and as a tribute to its builder, John Donahoo, and its brave first keeper, John O’Neill. They both now rest peacefully as the highly revered “two lights” on Angel Hill.

The Concord Point Lighthouse is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 - 5:00 pm from April through October.

This story appeared in the April 2001 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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