Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse

Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse

Seven Foot Knoll: The Keepers

For most of its history Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse was manned by keepers of the US Lighthouse Service, and later the US Coast Guard. As an isolated station, Seven Foot Knoll was designed for three keepers – a principal and two assistants – which allowed for regular rotations ashore.

The duties of keepers were often routine but were nonetheless essential. Each night at sundown the beacon lamp was lit and had to remain so until sunrise the following morning – a task which required vigilance and regular maintenance. Each morning, the beacon lens and lamp were thoroughly cleaned and made ready for use that evening. In times of fog, the fog bell had to be sounded continuously which required winding the station's bell machine every 45 minutes until the fog lifted.

- A Life of Isolation -

Despite the availability of shore leave, many apparently found life at Seven Foot Knoll difficult, and the early history of the station is dotted with resignations and appointments of both keepers and assistants. In 1873 for example, the Lighthouse Service received a report that the position of assistant keeper at Seven Foot Knoll had been vacant from July 1, 1872 until March 31, 1873. The difficulty of retaining keepers was echoed again some 40 years later in report by the 5th Lighthouse District Inspector who cited that between January 1913 and May 1916 six assistant keepers had come and gone. “….[T]his difficulty,” he wrote, “is in great measure due to the extremely uncomfortable condition of the station during the winter months on account of cold…it is very much larger in floor area than the usual screw-pile lighthouse…three of the rooms in particular are of very large size….It appears that the station was originally provided with a heating stove in addition to the cook stove, but this has been taken down and the smoke pipe discontinued for the reason that the fuel allowance was insufficient to run two stoves during the winter.” On the Inspector's recommendation, the station heating stove was re-installed and the annual coal allowance increased from four to six tons. “This allowance is in excess of that supplied to any other station on marine site in this district,” concluded the Inspector, “but it is believed to be entirely warranted by the extraordinary conditions at this station.”

During the late 19th Century, at least two keepers had their families with them at Seven Foot Knoll – a practice which was not strictly permitted by the Lighthouse Service at offshore lighthouses. This practice may have been both the cause and result of the staffing difficulties at Seven Foot Knoll. The following letter of resignation from Assistant Keeper Joseph Worthington gives a rare glimpse into the domestic side of life at Seven Foot Knoll:

“Baltimore, February 26, 1870

To George S. Boutwell, Secretary of the Treasury

Dear Sir,

A few days ago I was appointed an assistant light house keeper at the Seven Foot Knoll [when] Edward Bell resigned. I have since understood that Mr. Lucas, the principal lighthouse keeper has his wife and two children living there which is the first time that I ever knew that the government allowed this. As all knoll lights have a principal [and] 2 assistants and all shore lights have 1 man and his family the result [is] that Mr. Lucas and his wife and children live together- that is cook and eat…while the other two men that are put there by the government have to do their own cooking – Mr. Lucas by this way of proceeding will always cause dissatisfaction among the assistants, and it will be hard [to] get any man to stay any length of time because he is violating the rule by having his wife and children living in a knoll light… and the other two men must live in one corner of the lighthouse while him and his wife must play the king and queen in the other part a nice state of things I must confess- when I was on a visit at the knoll in the summer of 1868 there were 3 men who mess together and there was no trouble but since Mr. Lucas has been down there with his wife and children and changing the rules there has been a great deal of trouble about getting a man or men to stay there. My reasons for addressing you this letter is that [I] intend to resign my commission as assistant keeper at the Seven Foot Knoll under the above circumstances and my reasons herein are stated hoping you are enjoying excellent health. I am with the greatest sincerity Joseph F. Worthington No. 11 N. Central Avenue North of Baltimore St. Baltimore, MD”

- Growing Up at Seven Foot Knoll -

James T. Bowling (Keeper 1874-1879) also kept his family at Seven Foot Knoll, though it it not known if this was officially sanctioned. Bowling's daughter, Knolie, who was born at the lighthouse in 1875, painted an interesting picture of life at Seven Foot Knoll in the following excerpts from a 1936 Baltimore News story:

“There are five large rooms and we had a piano and a big bookcase with no end of books which occupied our time during the long winter evenings. Mother had been a school teacher and she taught us, because we had no way to get to and from shore for school.

“Father had many friends among the tugboat captains and at rare intervals he would signal one of them to stop and take him to shore.

“Once when a storm blew up and prevented his return my mother tended the light and rang the fog bell all night.

“Part of our equipment was two small boats and in good weather Father would row to the nearest shore ....We had nets and lines and an abundance of sea food, which we traded with the farmers for vegetables.

“Under the living quarters we had a hog pen and chicken yard and there we kept our coal and wood. Several times our ‘barnyard' was swept away by storms, but we always managed to rescue the livestock and keep them in our living quarters until Father could rebuild their home. We even raised some vegetables in boxes on the big balcony, but it was hard work.

“On stormy nights wild fowl would lose their way and fly directly into the light. It was a simple matter in the morning to gather up enough fowl for our larder. Water was caught in rain barrels. In summer we had lots of visitors – fishing parties – but in winter no one came. In spring when the ice broke up it would pile up against the lighthouse, rocking it and scattering our furniture around. That was what made us change our home finally.”

Evidence suggests that increasing regulation within the Lighthouse Service by the late 19th Century put an end to the families living at Seven Foot Knoll. In fact, regulations published in 1880 stated that at “isolated stations, where there are two or more keepers, no women or children will be allowed to reside, unless by special permission of the Light-House Board previously obtained.”

By the 1930s, the need to retain keepers at Seven Foot Knoll was questioned. “It would appear…that the station is of minor importance as a general aid to navigation since the dredged channel is well marked by lighted buoys and range lights” observed the 5th Lighthouse District Chief Engineer in a January 1936 report. Although the technology existed to automate Seven Foot Knoll's light and fog signal, the Lighthouse Service viewed the lighthouse as more than just an aid to navigation. “[I}n regard to the possibility of making Seven Foot Knoll Light Station unwatched,” wrote 5th Lighthouse District Deputy Commissioner C.A. Park in 1936, “….It is noted that local interests would apparently be strongly opposed to such action because of life saving services rendered in the past by this station….” As a result, Seven Foot Knoll continued to be manned into 1948.

- Thomas J. Steinhise Keeper of Seven Foot Knoll 1930-1941 -

Thomas Jefferson Steinhise was the most well known keeper of Seven Foot Knoll, where he served for ten and half years of his career, He was born September 29, 1878 at Leonardtown MD., and before entering the Lighthouse service, he was waterman and a blacksmith.

On August 1, 1918, Steinhise joined the US. Lighthouse Service as assistant keeper of Tangier Sound Lighthouse in Virginia. He served there with his brother-in-law who was the Keeper. By February of 1919, he had gotten a promotion and was made keeper of the Lower Cedar Point lighthouse on the Potomac River, though for unknown reasons he resigned from the service eight months later. Mr. Steinhise rejoined the Lighthouse Service in March of 1927 and worked at the Ragged Point Lighthouses (all on the Potomac River) before being transferred to Seven Foot Knoll on December 16, 1930.

In August of 1933, a nor'easter hit Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay; a storm so powerful that it cut an inlet through Ocean city, MD. Around 10:30pm on August 20, the tugboat Point Breeze ran into trouble off Seven Foot Knoll. The captain of the tug ordered his crew to abandon ship as the tug went down. Thomas Steinhise heard the shouts of the fourteen men and with the help of his son Earl, prepared his twenty-one foot motorboat to go out and rescue them. As the motor on the boat would not start, he was forced to row the boast through fifteen-foot waves and hurricane force winds to reach the men. By the time another tug had arrived on the scene to assist in the rescue, he had pulled six men from the water and taken them to the lighthouse. Although one of the men had drowned, he had saved five men and for his bravery he was awarded the Commerce Department's Silver Life Saving Medal.

Here is the text of Steinhise's own account of the incident written in a memo to the Lighthouse Service:

About 12:30 a.m. this morning, the Tug Boat Point Breeze went down near this Light Station with fourteen people on board. I went out to save what I could. The men was scattered in all directions, and it was difficult who to save first as most was calling me to come to them. At first I had trouble with [the] engine as it was rough and sea breaking over [the] boat. One man was dead when I pulled him in the boat. I worked on him but to no avail as others was calling for help then. Another tug came and I had six, including the dead man, and taken them to the Lighthouse….

On May 31, 1941, Thomas Steinhise retired as keeper of Seven Foot Knoll citing pain in his back and knees (caused by constant stair climbing) and stomach ulcers as reasons. He died on July 22, 1949.