Concord Point Lighthouse has friends who want to restore it as a museum

July 16, 1995|By Philip Hosmer | Philip Hosmer,Special to The Sun

For the last 70 years, the John O'Neill House has been a tavern, a house of prostitution, a restaurant, a rowdy nightclub, and is now a dilapidated, vacant eyesore.

It wasn't always like that. For nearly 100 years before 1920, it was the home of the Concord Point Lighthouse keeper.

When the city of Havre de Grace gained possession of the property in the mid-1980s, an effort began to restore the old house to its original state and turn it into a museum. A group to oversee the house's restoration, the Friends of the Concord Point Lighthouse Inc., has procured a series of grants for the O'Neill House, the latest of which was $20,000 from the Maryland Historical Trust awarded this month.

The grant has given new hope to the restoration effort, which has been stalled several times by lack of funding. It will pay for the demolition this summer of the modern additions to the original two-story house, clearing the way for the final phase of interior restoration. After the demolition process, archaeologists will search for artifacts that long have been covered by a dance floor, kitchen and bar that were built onto the original structure. Artifacts will be put on display in the museum, and the house will be decorated and equipped as it was in 1884. Organizers hope the museum will give the public a glimpse into the life of the lighthouse keepers.

The O'Neill House, at Concord and Lafayette streets, will be a part of the cultural and historical development under way along the Havre De Grace waterfront.

"We're very fortunate, because it was not long ago that people were talking about tearing this place down," said Elsie Stackhouse, president of Friends of the Concord Point Lighthouse. "If it had been torn down, history would have been lost. We're rescuing this place."

The house was the home of John O'Neill, the first keeper of the Concord Point lighthouse, from 1827 to 1836. After his death, his wife and son watched over the lighthouse. For nearly 100 years, O'Neill's descendants lived in the house and continued to oversee the lighthouse -- until 1920 when it was automated.

John O'Neill, 75, a sixth-generation descendant, is grateful that the O'Neill house is being restored. He said he plans to donate to the project.

"I think it's a very nice way to recognize that my family's been in this country for more than 200 years," Mr. O'Neill said. "The house is a focal point of Havre de Grace's history, and it's a good thing to save it."

Perhaps the best-known story about John O'Neill the lighthouse keeper stems from May 13, 1813, during the War of 1812, when a flotilla of British warships appeared at the shore of Havre de Grace. The ships and crews had just ransacked Charlestown in Cecil County.

O'Neill, who was a lieutenant in the local militia, assumed that the British were preparing to invade the town. He ran to Concord Point, where a battery of three cannons was and began firing at the ships. The British returned fire, and O'Neill's leg was injured in the battle.

When British soldiers stormed ashore, he was captured.

The British admiral considered hanging O'Neill, thinking he was a civilian rebel. But O'Neill's life was spared when his 16-year-old daughter, Matilda, rowed out to the warship alone and pleaded for her father's life.

The admiral was so impressed by the young girl's valor, he agreed to release O'Neill and gave Matilda a purple velvet snuff box as a token of his admiration.

The snuff box was handed down through the O'Neill family and is on display at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

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