Heroic light keepers of Chesapeake Bay

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Winter came down cold and hard across Chesapeake Bay in 1881. The previous summer had been one of the hottest on record, but anyone working on or around the bay that winter could only long for a bit of that heat. In February, an arctic chill settled across the mid-Atlantic. The fields and marshes froze iron hard. And yet there was a kind of beauty to the cold that seemed to scrub the air clean. At night, the stars glittered like bright gems in the clear sky.

For the two men assigned to the Sharps Island lighthouse near Tilghmann Island, it was cold and forlorn duty. They must have watched with trepidation as the ice surrounding their graceful lighthouse thickened and spread for as far as the eye could see, with an occasional streak of open water like a blue ribbon. Not a steamer, not a tugboat, not even the sail of a skipjack out oystering could be seen. They were utterly alone in a world gone icy and white. 

When the wind died down at night, they could hear troubling sounds. Contrary to what one might think, ice is far from silent. The great sheets shifted in the currents, creaking and groaning. It was as if the frigid darkness around them had come alive.

And then the worst happened in the early morning darkness of Feb. 10. Ice started to pile up against the spindly legs of the lighthouse. The men could feel the floor beneath them shudder from the pressure. The lighthouse began to list to one side like a ship that had taken on too much water. The two men had a boat and could have tried tried to make it to safety, but they would not abandon their post.

 Their screwpile lighthouse was lifted by the force of the ice, turned on its side, and carried away. For the daylight hours and then again into the night, the keepers clung to the wreckage. When they were finally rescued, the keepers managed to save the all-important lens that amplified the light. In an official report to Congress, their superiors in the Lighthouse Service praised the men for not abandoning their station:

 One instance of heroism is that of the keepers of Sharps Island light-house, in Chesapeake Bay. The structure was lifted from its foundation in February, 1881, thrown over on its side, and carried away by ice. The keeper and his assistant clung to the floating house, and, although one of their boats remained uninjured, they drifted in the bay 16 1/2 hours without fire or food, always in imminent danger, as the heavy floating ice often piled up against and threatened to swamp the house. It grounded, however, full of water, on an island shortly after midnight, at high tide. Satisfied that it would not float off again, soon the two keepers got ashore, and when the tide had fallen they returned, saved and took to the shore the lens, its pedestal, the oil, the library (much damaged by water), and even the empty oil cans, and then reported the facts through their inspector to the Board. … the two keepers who had spent those terrible hours afloat in Sharps Island light-house, and then saved its apparatus, were highly complimented by a letter direct from the Board itself …

While it is not part of the light-keeper’s duty as such to look after wrecks, or to succor the distressed, many acts of heroism have been performed by keepers of lighthouses. In those instances where, in doing so, they have endangered their own lives, they have received from the Secretary of the Treasury gold or silver medals in proportion to the danger incurred, not as compensation, but rather as marks of appreciation for their services.

From GREAT STORMS OF THE CHESAPEAKE: LEGENDARY HURRICANES, BLIZZARDS, FOGS AND FREEZES 

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