In our nation’s early years, waterways provided the only means of effective transportation and communication. In 1789, Congress made aids to navigation, including lighthouses, the responsibility of the federal government instead of individual states. Cape Henry and other Virginia locations on the Chesapeake received the first lighthouses. Finally in 1819, Congress authorized the first Maryland lights at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. The next 2 lighthouses were authorized in 1824 for Thomas Point Bar (entrance to Annapolis) and Pooles Island (guiding ships to the Gunpowder River and points north). The next year, the federal government authorized construction of a lighthouse on Concord Point in Havre de Grace at the entrance to the Susquehanna River.
Finding a Site for the Light Station
Stephen Pleasanton, 5th auditor of the Treasury, was responsible for all aids to navigation. He sent Naval officer William Barney to Havre de Grace to obtain property on Concord Point for the light station. Barney’s task proved to be difficult because valuable fisheries lined the river bank and no one would sell their land. Finally the town commissioners agreed to provide the end of Lafayette Street for the lighthouse, but the keeper’s house and garden would have to be some distance away. In 1826, the State of Maryland authorized the city to transfer the end of Lafayette Street to the federal government. In May of 1827 the federal government signed deeds for both the 22 foot square plot on the riverbank and a 1 acre parcel landside. This unusual arrangement meant the keeper’s quarters would be 200 feet from the lighthouse, a sizable distance in poor weather.
Barney publicized the request for contract bids in the regional papers. John Donahoo, a Havre de Grace resident, was the low-bidder at $3500. He had demonstrated himself to be a good contractor with the first Thomas Point and Pooles Island lights. Awarded the contract in May 1827, he completed the tower and dwelling by November. Donahoo went on to build a total of 12 lighthouses in Maryland, many of which are still in existence today. He was born in Harford County in 1786 and served in the Maryland Militia during the War of 1812. He was involved in efforts to rebuild Havre de Grace after it was burned by the British in May of 1813. He served as a town commissioner for 16 years and built a large warehouse downtown which still exists today. Donahoo died in 1858 and is buried in Angel Hill Cemetary in Havre de Grace.
Concord Point Lighthouse and Keeper’s House were constructed according to the government’s specifications. The original contracts are in the National Archives. Donahoo chose to use local granite from Port Deposit, Maryland. The stone was barged down the Susquehanna River to the construction site. The stone tower extends below ground to bedrock. It is 26 feet tall with a lantern on top, bringing the total height to 36 feet with a focal plane of 32 feet. The walls at the base are 3’1” thick and narrow to 18” at the top. The 27 steps are solid granite stones that rest upon each other and are dovetailed into the walls. An eight-rung ships ladder goes from a stone landing through a trap door to the lantern. The nine-sided lantern is metal with wood walls, 3 brass wall vents, a copper roof, ventilation ball and lightning rod.
The original contract for the keeper’s house gives the clearest picture of the keeper’s property built in 1827. No known photographs exist until after renovations in 1884. The original dwelling house, also built of local granite, was 34 by 20 feet with an attached kitchen, 14 by 12 feet. The first floor was divided into 2 rooms, with a chimney and 3 windows in each and an entry in between. The half-story above had 2 sleeping chambers, each with a window. The basement went the full length of the house with the stone walls 20 inches thick. The kitchen included a chimney with a fire place, a sizable oven, a sink with a spout through the wall, 2 windows, an outside door and a door to communicate with the rest of the house. The contract also specified a stone privy and a well.
The Havre de Grace Light Station, as it was officially known, went into service in November 1827 for a total cost of $3500. It was always known locally as Concord Point Lighthouse.
The First Keeper
Lighthouse keepers during the early 1800’s were appointed by the President of the United States. Fifth Auditor Stephen Pleasonton would submit the names of all applicants along with his recommendation to the president. In a letter dated October 25, 1827 to President John Quincy Adams, Pleasonton lists the nine applicants for the lighthouse at Concord Point, including Donahoo, the builder. The letter closes with Pleasonton’s endorsement of John O’Neill, a member of the militia and a hero of the War of 1812. President Adams appoints John O’Neill as keeper on November 3, 1827 for a salary of $350/yr. Lt. O’Neill served as keeper until his death in 1838. Four generations of the O’Neills would serve as keepers at Havre de Grace, a unique situation among keepers of the Chesapeake lighthouses.
After the death of John O’Neill, several men served as keepers until John O’Neill, Jr. was appointed in 1861. Thomas Courtney and John Blaney appear to have alternated as keepers until Thomas Sutor was appointed in 1853. John O’Neill, Jr. was appointed April 12, 1861 and served until his death in 1863. His widow, Esther O’Neill, was official keeper from 1863 until her retirement in 1881. She was assisted by Gabriel Evans, her son-in-law, for some of this time. Her son, Capt. Henry E. O’Neill was made acting keeper in 1881 and promoted to official keeper in 1885. He was the last official keeper and served until his death in 1919. His son, Henry F. O’Neill (Harry) served as custodian/laborer until the keeper’s property was sold in 1920.
Official Changes to the Lighthouse
Originally illuminated with 9 whale oil lamps with 16 inch reflectors, the Lighthouse was upgraded with a Steamer’s lens in 1855 and a 6th order Fresnel lens in 1869. A larger 5th order Fresnel lens was installed in 1891. In November 1918, the Lighthouse Service decided to automate the light by changing from oil to electricity, eliminating the need for a keeper. Capt. O’Neill was due to retire in December and could remain in the house as custodian. The town’s electric current proved to be unsatisfactory, so instead a white flashing acetylene gas light was installed. By 1927, commercial grade electricity was available and the light was converted to a red, flashing electric light with the 5th order lens. Red light was chosen due to too many white lights in the vicinity. By the 1970’s the light had been changed to green flashing.
Changes to the Dwelling
In 1884, the Lighthouse Board authorized improvements to the keeper’s house. These included raising the roof line to make four bedrooms on the second story, raising the level of the floor in the original kitchen, and building a summer kitchen room on the back. The out buildings also appeared to have been improved and enlarged as seen in photographs dated 1905. Capt. O’Neill received permission to add a small pantry to the back porch. Records also indicate that wood walkways connected the house to the privy and outbuildings and a railing was installed in the later years.
The Lighthouse had been automated for a year by the time Capt. O’Neill died in December 1919, The Lighthouse Board chose to retain only the Lighthouse and sold the keeper’s property to Michael Fahey in April 1920 for $4000. This property changed hands at least 10 times and was a rooming house, restaurant and bar. Major changes occurred to the house between 1947 and 1965 resulting in the original structure being “entombed” with modern additions.
The U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility for all lighthouses in 1939. The maintenance of Concord Point Lighthouse fell to the Coast Guard 5th District in Portsmouth, Virginia until it was decommissioned in 1975.