Keeper Bio: Shawn, Walter M.


Date of Service: 1895 – 1908

1862: Born on February 14 in Queen Anne’s County, Eastern Shore, MD.

1869-1870: Family moves to Gloucester County, VA.

1880: Works as a farmer.                    

1888: Works as a lumberman.  Marries Virginia E. Davis on December 26.  The couple raises three children, Lessie, Linwood, and Estelle.

1895-1901: Serves as 2nd Assistant Keeper at Wolf Trap Lighthouse (VA).  Annual salary $500.

1901-1902: Serves as 1st Assistant Keeper at Wolf Trap Lighthouse (VA). Annual salary $550.

1902-1903: Serves as 1st Assistant Keeper at Smith Point Lighthouse (VA).  Annual salary $550. 

1903-1904: Serves as 2nd Assistant Keeper at New Cape Henry Lighthouse (VA).  Annual salary $500.

1904: Serves as Keeper at Love Point Lighthouse (MD).  

1904-1908: Serves as Keeper at Thimble Shoal Lighthouse (VA), which was a screwpile lighthouse at the time.  Annual salary $640.  

1908:  On the evening of January 26 near Thimble Shoal Lighthouse, Keeper Shawn and his assistant heroically rescue three adults and one child from a small boat after the barge Mascot sank, during a fierce storm.

1908: Retires from U.S. Lighthouse Service in July.  Returns to Mathews County to work as a lumberman and farmer.

1915:  Beloved wife and mother Virginia dies on December 28.

1920:  Lives briefly in Newport News, VA, and works in the tool room at the shipyard.       

1924:  Serves as postmaster at Foster, VA, and runs a general store there for many years.

1940: Dies on September 13 at age 78 and buried at Trinity Church Cemetery,  Foster, VA.  Survived by wife Bertha who dies in 1958. 

Keeper Walter M. Shawn Anecdote

Keeper Shawn served at five different light stations during his career with the

US Lighthouse Service.  Four of these stations are still standing today.  His last tenure was at Thimble Shoal Lighthouse, a screwpile lighthouse at that time and one of the most accident-prone locations in the Chesapeake Bay.  On Sunday, January 26, 1908, about a mile off Thimble Shoal Lighthouse, Keeper Shawn and his assistant rescued three adults and one child from a 12-foot boat, after the barge Mascot sank during a gale with waves running 25 feet high.

The Mascot, carrying about 710 tons of coal, was one of five barges in tow from Baltimore in route to the National Soldiers Home, Hampton, VA.  At 10 pm, with winds blowing at an estimated rate of 70 miles per hour, an unknown schooner was blown between the Mascot and the four barges ahead of her, cutting the tow line. Then leaking, the Mascot was set adrift in 54 feet of water.  Captain Middleton and his brother, the mate, launched a 12-foot boat and brought the Captain’s wife and their three-year-old child on board.  As the small boat pulled away, the barge Mascot gave a mighty lurch and disappeared into the bay. 

With the fierce storm still raging, Keeper Shawn and his assistant rowed from the lighthouse and transferred Mrs. Middleton and her child into their larger craft.  In time, all were safe inside the lighthouse, deeply grateful that their lives had been spared.  No doubt, the heroic work of Keeper Shawn and his assistant was greatly appreciated by Captain Middleton and his family, and the rescue was widely acclaimed.

After his Lighthouse Service, Keeper Shawn continued in government service as a postmaster and operated a store in Foster, VA.  His granddaughter Shirley Owens Shea recalls receiving sweet treats from her generous grandfather when she visited the store.

Sources: Lighthouse Friends –; Mary C. Godsey; Shirley Shea; The Mathews Journal –  February 13, 1908, and August 6, 1908; Lighthouses of Maryland and Virginia: History, Mystery, Legends & Lore by Bob Trapani, Jr.;  Chapter data base; and Chapter Historian, Jennifer Jones.                                                                                                               

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