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Negative forty below

It’s been cold the last few nights for those of us who live on and around the Bay. The thermometer in my living room registered a toasty 50 degrees Fahrenheit at 8 pm yesterday evening, but that was far preferable to the glacial 22 degrees being suffered by the loudly complaining geese on the creek outside. But as any old-timer will tell you, this is hardly “cold”. My grandfather Hartley Bayne, a weathered Eastern Shoreman if there ever was one,  recalls a winter in the 1940’s when he and some friends drove an old Packard from Chestertown, 20 miles up the Chester River, downstream and around the Bay side to Rock Hall. Their ‘road’ was made of river ice, two feet thick. Even that seems balmy compared to the coldest winter on record in Maryland in 1912, when temperatures were observed to have dropped to an immobilizing -40 degrees below zero.

Few people would venture out in such conditions, the exception generally being the foolhardy (for example, teenagers, like my grandfather was at the time of his Packard joy ride) or those on vessels that braved the conditions professionally, like tugboats and skipjacks. But for some, venturing out wasn’t the issue; you were already trapped in a Chesapeake that had transformed from gigantic moat to icy tundra. You were a Bay lighthouse keeper.

     

One of the distinctive features of Chesapeake lighthouses, the screw-pile legs, also proved to be one of their most dangerous. Screw-pile legs offered numerous advantages over tower-style lighthouses (the usual kind you imagine when you think ‘lighthouse’): they provided stability on the Bay’s soft, sandy bottom, they allowed the lighthouse to be positioned so as to warn watercraft away from shoals or sandbars that were often miles out in the water, plus they were cheap and quick to build. Screw-pile lighthouses proliferated in the Chesapeake after the Civil War, replacing lightships (boats with warning lights and bells onboard) with these permanent structures. Soon their spindly legs and hexagonal or octagonal shapes could be seen on rivers and creeks throughout the Chesapeake, perched over the water like so many exposed honeycombs.

Those spidery little supports were also the fatal flaw of the screw-pile design. They worked beautifully in the summer, spring, and fall, providing consistent guidance to vessels on the Bay and offering space inside generous enough to house two keepers who kept the lamps lit and the fog bells ringing. But in deep winter, when ice locked the Bay into frozen, hushed stasis, the delicate iron pilings were nothing but brittle twigs in the face of the ice floes that moved towards the ocean during the inevitable thaw. Silent monoliths while in motion, the enormous shards of ice screamed with collision as they pounded the lighthouses, creating a din like a million Colt revolvers firing. When the supports buckled, some of the lighthouses simply toppled over, their lights extinguished by the water and keepers scrambling for shore. In the case of the Hooper Strait Lighthouse in 1877, there was another terrifying option: the lighthouse started to move.

The support sheared off at the base, the Hooper Strait lighthouse had nothing to tether it, and it began to float down the Chesapeake like an enormous decoy floe. The keepers had no recourse but to lower their lifeboat and struggle over the chunks of jagged unstable ice towards the almost invisible shoreline that lay several miles away.  From the account written by Keeper John S. Cornwell on January 8th 1877, “We escaped from our perilous condition by the aid of one of the boats belonging to the house which we pulled on the ice. We remained on the ice for twenty four hours without anything to shelter us, in consequence of which both of us became frost bitten the effects of which we are now suffering…”

The Keeper Cornwell and his assistant, Alexander S. Conway, we rescued the next morning after a bitterly cold night on the ice, and taken to a nearby island where, weakened by harrowing escape and without means of communication, they had no way of letting the authorities or their families know they had survived the disaster. It would be two weeks before they were able to notify anyone.

Other accounts of similar experiences abound in logbooks of Chesapeake keepers. Within the Museum’s photography collection, there’s an image of a rescue party recovering two keepers from a later-style caisson lighthouse at Craighill Channel in the winter of 1936. Standing on the hard-packed ice, the rescued men wearily smoke cigarettes, celebrating their slippery escape, while the lifeboat hangs uselessly off the lighthouse behind them. 

        

The life-threatening winters were  not only the serious downside of lighthouse keeping, which provided steady pay, housing, and a pension and was therefore a rather sought-after post. Those harrowing Januaries when sharp-edged bergs roughed the horizon line were also a reason women were not permitted to tend lighthouses- it was considered out-of-the-question for delicate females to perform such a dangerous occupation.

So what happened to the two-frost bitten keepers, stranded in the middle of an ice-encrusted Bay? Well, when the Hooper Strait lighthouse was rebuilt in 1879, John S. Cornwell signed on again, returning to his (we assume) now-stabilized post, several miles out in the Chesapeake. Alexander S. Conway, however, took his remaining fingers and toes elsewhere and is lost to our records. He had learned the hard way the steep price you can pay when you challenge the Chesapeake in winter and lose.