Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2012

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Keeper Thomas J. Steinhise Awarded Life-Saving Medal

By Jim Claflin


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Once again we have picked up some unusually revealing photos at auction that I thought would be of interest. Many early photos have a story to tell, and these are no different. The photos show Keeper Thomas J. Steinhise at Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse in Maryland. Note in the photos these rare views of the Coast Guard civilian light keeper’s uniform, both dress and work uniform, and particularly the hat insignia.

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One of the actions that crosses the boundaries between personnel of the Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Coast Guard are acts of bravery to save the life of another. Lighthouse Keepers risked their lives to save others, but rarely did such acts rise to the level where they were recognized with the award of this nation’s highest civilian life-saving award – the Congressional Life Saving Medal. One keeper received such recognition in the fall of 1933.

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Thomas Jefferson Steinhise was born September 29, 1878 at Leonardtown, MD., and before entering the Lighthouse service, he worked as waterman and a blacksmith. In August 1918, he joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service and was assigned as Assistant Keeper of Tangier Sound Light Station in Virginia. He served there with his brother-in-law, who was the Principal Keeper at the time. By February of 1919, Steinhise was promoted to Keeper and transferred to the Lower Cedar Point lighthouse on the Potomac River. For unknown reasons he resigned from the Lighthouse Service eight months later. However, Mr. Steinhise rejoined the Lighthouse Service in March of 1927. He was soon assigned to the Ragged Point Lighthouse (on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake Bay) before being transferred to Seven Foot Knoll Light Station on December 16, 1930. He would serve here 10 ½ years as Keeper.

Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse is the oldest surviving screw pile lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay. The lighthouse was built in 1856 at the mouth of the Patapsco River, where it marked the shoal known as Seven Foot Knoll, for 133 years. Memories of a keeper’s life at Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse (courtesy LighthouseFriends.com) were shared by the family of Keeper Steinhise: “Steinhise’s family did not live at the station with him, but rather saw him eight days out of the month during his shore leave. Steinhise shared his duties with another keeper, and each man spent eight days entirely alone at the light while his partner was ashore. According to Steinhise, a good keeper required a multitude of skills including painting, carpentry, navigation and cooking.”

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. At about 10:30pm on August 20, the tugboat Point Breeze lost way and began to founder in heavy seas off Seven Foot Knoll. As the tug began to sink, her captain sounded the whistle and ordered his crew to abandon ship. Keeper Thomas Steinhise heard a boat’s whistle and the shouts of the fourteen men, and with the help of his son Earl, prepared his twenty-one foot motorboat to head out to assist.

The sea at the lighthouse was a tempest, as the waves struck and broke over the small boat as they lowered it from its davits. They were able to climb down into the boat but now, after repeated tries, the motor on the boat refused to start. Keeper Steinhise was forced to row the boat through fifteen-foot waves and hurricane force winds to reach the men, who by now were scattered in all directions. It was difficult to decide who to save first, but soon they began pulling one man after another over the gunnels and into the small craft. By the time another tug had arrived on the scene to assist in the rescue, Steinhise and his son had pulled six men from the water. The pair fought the storm for another hour to return to the lighthouse with the survivors.

Although one of the men rescued could not be revived, Keeper Steinhise and his son had saved five men in nearly untenable conditions. For his bravery, Keeper Steinhise would be awarded the Congressional Silver Life Saving Medal, one of only a handful of light-keepers in history to receive such a commendation.

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 passed away on July 22, 1949. At his funeral, many of the surviving crew members from the Point Breeze were in attendance to help honor this faithful keeper.

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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