Illuminating the way: Women lighthouse keepers of the Great Lakes

 Women feature

In a Feb. 27 Facebook post, Bill Meahan said the following, regarding female lighthouse keepers on the Great Lakes …

“Note these women do not wear spandex nor possess some supernatural power, they are simply strong and capable women doing what strong and capable women do and have always done.”

Saturday Evening Post cover depicting a lighthouse keeper and family during Christmas time, Dec. 28, 1946.

Saturday Evening Post cover depicting a lighthouse keeper and family during Christmas time, Dec. 28, 1946.

Meahan’s words are perfect to tee up a look back on the long history of these “strong and capable” women, who labored to ensure the safety of mariners navigating dangerous shores.

Celebrated every March in the United States, Women’s History Month traces its beginnings to the first International Women’s Day in 1911. But, 79 years before that, women started making history on the Great Lakes by becoming federal-employed lighthouse keepers.

Responsibilities of a lighthouse keeper were not only limited to keeping the lamps lit from sunset to sunrise but also included record keeping and acting as a tour guide for visitors. The keeper’s residence also had to be kept clean. Meals and laundry had to be taken care of and, if the station was blessed with land, there were often gardens and livestock to attend to. Another responsibility was to assist mariners on sinking ships and rescue distressed people in the water.

The majority of women lighthouse keepers saved lives, not only indirectly by keeping their lamps and fog horns operating, but also directly by rescuing people from the treacherous waters of the Great Lakes. They took their job very seriously and rose to the challenges of lighthouse keeping with strength and determination.

Just as male lighthouse keepers, the female keepers had family members to help with some of these tasks, but ultimately the responsibility was theirs.

Many years before women had the ability to vote in the United States, these female lighthouse keepers not only had federally appointed jobs, but they received equal pay. Several female lighthouse keepers in the Great Lakes, such as Jane Enos, had lower-paid male assistants. Enos became keeper of the St. Joseph Lighthouse in St. Joseph, Mich., after her husband, the previous keeper, died. She served as primary keeper from 1876-1881 and had several male assistants.

The vast majority of women lighthouse keepers were the widows of keepers or the relatives of male lighthouse keepers. These women often already possessed the knowledge and skills needed to keep the light on and kept the appointment due to their own merits.

Many wives worked closely beside their husbands keeping the lights burning bright, but when husbands died, their wives did not let the light die with them. They were able to procure the appointment as primary lighthouse keeper.

The first woman to become a lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes was Rachel Wolcott.

Revolutionary War veteran, Benajah Wolcott, was the first keeper of the Marblehead Lighthouse, located in Sandusky, Ohio. After being appointed keeper in 1822, the Wolcotts moved onto the lighthouse property. Each night of the shipping season, they would climb the lighthouse tower, light the 13 lamps and keep them lit until sunrise.

When Benajah died of cholera in 1832, Rachel took over. Two years later, Rachel married Jeremiah Van Benschoten, who became the light’s third keeper.

In 1849, Catherine Shook became the first female lighthouse keeper in the state of Michigan upon the death of her husband, Peter, after the boat he was on capsized in Lake Huron. Peter had only been keeper for a year when he died, leaving Catherine alone at the lighthouse with eight children.

Sarah Lane was keeper of the Mission Point Lighthouse in Mission Point, Mich., from 1906-1908.

Sarah Lane was keeper of the Mission Point Lighthouse in Old Mission Point, Mich., from 1906-1908.

Katherine “Kate” Marvin became the second keeper of Squaw Point Lighthouse, located 1 mile south of Gladstone, Mich., upon the death of her husband, Lemuel in 1898. Lemuel had only been there for six months before his death. Kate served as keeper for a trial period before she was given the official position. She served for six years while raising 10 children, a record amongst lighthouse keepers on the Great Lakes.

In 1906, Sarah Lane took on the position of lighthouse keeper at Mission Point Lighthouse, located in Old Mission Point, Mich., after her husband, John, died. Sarah was assistant to John for 15 years and then by herself for several more years making her the only woman to serve alone at the light.

Eva Pape became keeper of the North Point Lighthouse, in Sheboygan, Wis., in 1869, not upon her husband’s death but after he was hurt in an accident involving a cannon. Eva would serve as primary lighthouse keeper for 16 years.

Some women held the position of lighthouse keeper only briefly while waiting for their deceased husband’s replacement.

Ann Edson and her sister-in-law both had to serve as lighthouse keepers on islands outside of Toledo, Ohio, after both their husbands died. Nathan Edson was lighthouse keeper on Turtle Island and Marvin Golden, who was married to Nathan’s sister, was lighthouse keeper on West Sister Island when Nathan’s father died. While taking the body to the mainland for interment, the men disappeared. The boat was found several days later on its side with both men still tied to it.

Harriet Towner’s husband kept the lighthouse at Michigan City, Ind., operating for three years before his death in 1844. Then Harriet served as keeper with her sister, Abigail Coit, serving as her assistant until 1853.

Another way that women were assigned as primary lighthouse keeper was when their husband left for military service.

Anastasia “Eliza” Truckey served as lighthouse keeper of the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse in Marquette, Mich., while her husband was away for war. Nelson Truckey left Eliza and their 4 children for three years to fight with the 27th Michigan Infantry during the Civil War. During that time, Eliza kept the light burning without an assistant to help her.

In 1894, Jennie Beamer took over the Big Bay Point Lighthouse, in Big Bay Point, Mich., on Lake Superior, while her husband fought in the Spanish-American War.

While many women who served as lighthouse keepers did so at the same lighthouse as their father or husband, Mary Ann Wheatley did not. Her husband, William Wheatley, died at his post at the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. Mary Ann was given the assignment of lighthouse keeper at the Eagle Harbor Range Lighthouse, in Eagle Harbor, Mich., located on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Mary Ann was the first female keeper of the range light and served there for seven years.

Georgia Stebbins keeper of the North Point Lighthouse in Milwaukee from 1881-1907.

Georgia Stebbins keeper of the North Point Lighthouse in Milwaukee from 1881-1907.

Caroline Litigot did get appointed as lighthouse keeper of the same lighthouse her husband kept but not for many years later. Barney Litigot was appointed keeper of the Mamajuda Lighthouse on the Detroit River but then died later that year. Caroline did not become the keeper for 12 years.

Though many women lighthouse keepers were widows of the previous keeper, Georgia Stebbins followed in the footsteps of her father. In 1873, Georgia was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the doctors gave her very little time left to live but recommended that she move to the Midwest for clean air and a chance at life. Twenty-seven-year-old Georgia packed up her belongings and moved to Milwaukee where her father had just been appointed lighthouse keeper of the North Point Lighthouse.

Upon arriving, Georgia found both her parents ill and so she began her work as the lighthouse keeper in their place. Every night, she would climb to the top of the tower and light the lamp. Every four hours, she would refill the lamp with oil, trim the wick and clean the windows.

Georgia preformed her father’s work for seven years, until the U.S. Lighthouse Service appointed her official keeper. Georgia continued the work for 26 more years.

Many women faced the challenging assignment of serving at remote station such as Mary Beedon and Mary Gigandet who both served at the Au Sable Light in Michigan. This lighthouse was located along the southern shore of Lake Superior 12 miles from the nearest village. A narrow path at the base of sand dunes was the only way to get to the lighthouse for more than 50 years. In bad weather, the path was impassable.

Mary Corgan served as assistant to her husband at two Michigan lighthouses. While stationed on Manitou Island located in Lake Michigan, Mary gave birth to their first child in a boat on the way to the doctor’s office on the mainland 12 miles from the island.

Gull Rock Lighthouse, located on a small remote island more than two miles off the Michigan shoreline, is made of hard rock with little soil.  The lighthouse was home to lighthouse keepers Mary Corgan, Alice Nolen and Mary Cocking.

Gull Rock Lighthouse, located on a small remote island more than two miles off the Michigan shoreline, is made of hard rock with little soil.
The lighthouse was home to lighthouse keepers Mary Corgan, Alice Nolen and Mary Cocking.

Mary Corgan’s second assignment was the Gull Rock Lighthouse, on the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, in Lake Superior. Also serving there were Mary Cocking and Alice Nolen, making this lighthouse the record holder for most women keepers in the Great Lakes.

Gull Rock Lighthouse is located on a small remote island more than 2 miles off the Michigan shoreline. The half-acre island is made of hard rock with little soil on which to garden. Though women were not able to be primary lighthouse keeper at lighthouses on islands like Gull Rock, they were able to assist their husbands there.

Records show that a few women lighthouse keepers were unhappy with their profession. Lighthouse duty can be remote and lonely, if not just plain hard work.

Though the lighthouse at Calumet Harbor, Ind., was just a few miles from Chicago and many updates had been made to the lighthouse, keeper Mary Ryan was very unhappy there and reported her unhappiness in the lighthouse log books.

Several of her log book entries follow:

Dec. 4, 1873: Wind so bad, I think it will blow the tower over.

Dec. 25, 1873: I was supposed to have been informed when this light would be discontinued, not a vessel since the 15th of Nov. and nothing to light for and this is such a dreary place to be all alone in.

April 7, 1874: So dull, this place it is killing me. Wind blowing violently.

April 15, 1874: Oh, for a home in the sunny south, such a climate.

April 16, 1874: Such a time, everyone is in despaired think summer is never coming.

May 2, 1874: Nothing but gloom without and WITH IN.

May 31, 1874: So dull in South Chicago. This place is growing down all the time.

April 22, 1880: I think some changes will have to be made this is not a fit place for anyone to live in.

July 31, 1880: This has been the most trying month of my keeping a light house, the most important question, can anything worse come?

Aug. 28, 1880: The light house Engineers never do anything for me.

Aug. 30, 1880: Oh what a place.

Oct. 1, 1880: The news is that the light will soon go from me forever.

Nov. 1, 1880: This is all gloom and darkness.

Even though Ryan was obviously unhappy at her job, she stayed at the lighthouse for seven years.

Reports of improper behavior were rare among women lighthouse keepers, but it did happen.

In 1877, Annie McGuire became keeper of the Pentwater Lighthouse in Pentwater, Mich., upon her husband’s resignation. In 1885, she was removed from the position for drunkenness and irregular habits.

Being a lighthouse keeper was not easy and, sometimes, the lighthouses themselves were unsafe. Several women lost their lives while being lighthouse keepers.

Julia Sheridan was the lighthouse keeper at the South Manitou Island Lighthouse from 1872-1878, when she and her husband both drowned on their way to the mainland.

Julia Sheridan was the lighthouse keeper at the South Manitou Island Lighthouse from 1872-1878, when she and her husband both drowned on their way to the mainland.

Julia Sheridan served as assistant to her husband, the primary keeper at the South Manitou Island Lighthouse in Lake Michigan, for six years until their deaths. On a return trip from the mainland, Sheridan and her husband drowned after their boat capsized. Neither body was ever recovered.

Minnie Cochems is another woman who gave her life. Minnie and her husband William Cochems were the lighthouse keepers of Sherwood Pint Lighthouse in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Mary faithfully tended the lighthouse for almost 40 years before she died getting out of bed. William stayed on as keeper for several more years and erected a birdbath in Minnie’s memory which still stands on the property today. The lighthouse later was passed to the Coast Guard and was updated with automated lights.

The Coast Guard still owns the property, and it has been used as a camping ground for Coast Guardsmen and their families. While vacationing there, many people have claimed to have been visited by a ghost. Some claimed to have heard walking on stairs, voices, and mysterious cleaning such as dishes washed and beds made. These claims prompted personnel with the Northern Alliance of Paranormal Investigators to visit the lighthouse.

Though the paranormal investigators found no concrete evidence of ghosts, there were events and sounds that could not be attributed to anything or anyone specific.

Another female lighthouse keeper to pass away on duty was Mary Terry, keeper of Sand Point Lighthouse in Escanaba, Mich. She died in a fire under mysterious circumstances in 1886.

Terry’s husband was appointed as the first keeper of the lighthouse but died before it was finished being built. Terry was able to become keeper and lit the lamp for the first time. She did not have children and lived at the lighthouse alone for two years before she died.

The lighthouse caught fire and Terry was burnt to death inside. An investigation into the fire found that the door to the house had been forced open and only fragments of her body were found.

Little is known about some of the women lighthouse keepers, and some their names are not even known, such as Mrs. William Monroe, who was keeper of the Muskegon Lighthouse for 10 years after her husband’s death. There are no records of her first name.

Anna Garrity was keeper of the Presque Isle Harbor Range Light in Presque Isle, Mich., from 1903-1926.

Anna Garrity was keeper of the Presque Isle Harbor Range Light in Presque Isle, Mich., from 1903-1926.

Just like their male counterparts, many women lighthouse keepers served for life. Anna Garrity was born into a family of lighthouse keepers. Her parents, Patrick and Mary Garrity, were both lighthouse keepers. In 1861, Patrick became lighthouse keeper of the Old Presque Lighthouse, in Presque Isle, Mich., before being transferred to the New Presque Isle Lighthouse in 1871. Several Garrity family members served at the New Presque Isle Lighthouse as well. Following three Garrity family members, Anna became keeper of the Presque Isle Harbor Range Light in 1903, at the age of 31. Anna kept this light on for more than 23 years.

For 43 years, Harriet Colfax kept the light burning bright in the Michigan City Lighthouse, making her the longest-serving woman keeper on the Great Lakes. Colfax lived in the lighthouse with Ann Hartwell, her confidante and companion of more than 70 years. Though she lived with Hartwell and had many assistants throughout the years, Colfax always lit the lamps herself.

Colfax and Hartwell met when they were children in New York and became inseparable after moving to Michigan City with their families. Hartwell became a school teacher and Colfax taught music until her cousin, Schuyler Colfax, vice president of the United States, appointed her keeper of the lighthouse. The two women lived in the lighthouse from 1861 until Colfax’s retirement at age 80 in 1904.

Numerous recorded accounts show Colfax and Hartwell to be the most well-known ladies in Michigan City and beacons of light in the community. The lighthouse came to be known as “Little Miss Colfax’s Light.”

Several months after retirement and moving out of the lighthouse, Colfax and Hartwell passed away within weeks of each other.

 

Harriet Colfax(left) served as keeper of the Michigan City, Ind., lighthouse from 1861-1904. Colfax lived in the lighthouse with Ann Hartwell(right), her confidante and companion.

Harriet Colfax(left) served as keeper of the Michigan City, Ind., lighthouse from 1861-1904.
Colfax lived in the lighthouse with Ann Hartwell(right), her confidante and companion.

Another woman who served for multiple years was Elizabeth Van Riper Williams, who served for 41 years.

Elizabeth’s first husband, Clement Van Riper, was appointed keeper of the Beaver Harbor Lighthouse in 1869. In 1972, he lost his life when he drowned while trying to rescue sailors from a sinking ship. Elizabeth was appointed to succeed him as keeper. In 1875, Elizabeth married Daniel Williams. She transferred to Harbor Springs, Mich., to be keeper of the Harbor Point Lighthouse in 1884.

Elizabeth Van Riper Williams was keeper of two lighthouses in Michigan from 1872-1913.

Elizabeth Van Riper Williams was keeper of two lighthouses in Michigan from 1872-1913.

Her memoir, “A Child of the Sea; and Life among the Mormons,” is a recollection of her life on the Great Lakes and her experiences with Native Americans and the Mormon colony on Beaver Island, Mich.

Born on Mackinac Island, Mich., Elizabeth’s gives a good historic account of life in Michigan during the 1800s and a window into the life of a woman lighthouse keeper.

Elizabeth and William died within 28 hours of one another in 1938.

With advances in modern technology, a large amount of the lighthouses had become automated by 1910, making lighthouse keeping an obsolete job. By the 1920s, only a few women lighthouse keepers were left on the Great Lakes.

Francis Wuori Johnson helped her Coast Guardsman husband run the White River Lighthouse Station, located on Lake Michigan near the city of Whitehall, Mich., in the early 1940s. She returned to the lighthouse in 1944 as the primary lighthouse keeper.

In 1953, Johnson was invited to be a contestant on the television program “What’s My Line.” During the show, a celebrity guest panel could not guess Johnson’s profession, and she was awarded a check for $50.

In 1954, Johnson retired, making her the last woman lighthouse keeper, ending a 121-year history of female lighthouse keepers on the Great Lakes.

The women lighthouse keepers of the Great Lakes served their country with distinction at a time when employment for women was very limited. They truly illuminated the path for future women.

 List of most of the women lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes:

 Microsoft Word - women list.docx

 

Francis Wuori Johnson was keeper of the White River Light from 1948-1954.

Francis Wuori Johnson was keeper of the White River Light from 1948-1954.

                       

White River Lighthouse is located on Lake Michigan near the city of Whitehall, Mich.

White River Lighthouse is located on Lake Michigan near the city of Whitehall, Mich.

                

Minnie Cochems and family sit on the step to the Sherwood Point Lighthouse in Stuegeon Bay, Wis.

Minnie Cochems and family sit on the step to the Sherwood Point Lighthouse in Stuegeon Bay, Wis.

       

U.S. Coast Guard Women Lighthouse Keepers & Other Female Employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Board/Service

WOMAN’S WORK: FEMALE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS IN THE EARLY REPUBLIC, 1820-1859

U.S. Lighthouse Service history

U.S. Coast Guard Gallery of interesting lighthouses and pictures

 

 

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One Response

  1. girl scout says:

    im a girl and i <3 this thing. im a girl scout and earning the junior light house badge.