Digest>Archives> September 2009

Women of the Lights

Harriett Colfax – All Were Her Friends


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A portrait of Harriet Colfax., keeper of the ...

When Dave Spencer was assigned as chief of the Michigan City Coast Guard Station in 1973, one of his jobs was to look after the East Pierhead Light that juts out into Lake Michigan.

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Built in 1858, to replace an earlier structure, ...
Photo by: Sarah Hoffert-Voll

It was a dirty, and sometimes dangerous, job. To get inside, he had to walk along an exposed steel catwalk, whether it was raining, the wind howling or it was covered in ice.

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The East Pierhead Lighthouse in Michigan City, ...
Photo by: Rick A. Richards

Once inside, Spencer checked the lower level of the 1904 structure for leaks, made sure all the electrical connections were secure, made sure there were no cracks in the windows, the building was air tight, and before leaving, polished the lens on the powerful light.. When he was done, he made the trip back along the catwalk.

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Winter conditions in Lake Michigan can be brutal, ...

Imagine making that trip in a long dress and petticoats, without the benefit of decent rain gear. She was appointed lighthouse keeper in 1861, and she didn’t walk the sturdy catwalk Spencer trod (hers was made of wood). Yet she made that trip countless times to make sure the light at the end of the 1,500-foot timber pier was lit each night - first with liquefied lard oil and later with kerosene - and stayed lit through the night.

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It's a long walk on the top of the walkway to ...
Photo by: Shirley Reeve

Even though the East Pierhead light has become an iconic image in Michigan City, Spencer said it didn’t impress him much. After assignments around the world in his 26 years with the Coast Guard, Spencer has seen and taken care of plenty of lighthouses.

“Most of them you could live in,” said Spencer. “Not this one.”

But not far away from the red and white pierhead light sits a more nondescript dark green building where Colfax and other lighthouse keepers and their families lived for decades. Today, the building is a museum, and Spencer said he would have loved to have been responsible for the seven-room building.

But that responsibility falls to the Michigan City Historical Society. Volunteer and museum docent Jackie Glidden shows visitors around, explaining the many nautical artifacts and detailing Colfax’s life, its most famous light keeper.

The museum gives visitors a glimpse into what life was like in a lighthouse in the late 1800s. Even though Michigan City didn’t become a city until July 4, 1836, discussion began in 1834 of building a lighthouse to guide vessels into Trail Creek, where there was a thriving lumber and grain industry.

On the day Michigan City was incorporated, the federal government agreed to spend $20,000 to begin harbor improvements to allow large vessels into Trail Creek. Within months, Congress appropriated money to build a lighthouse and by the summer of 1837, a brick tower had been constructed.

Twenty years later, that tower and the accompanying house were deteriorating because of shoddy construction and materials. In 1858, a new lighthouse was built.

Three years later, Colfax was named keeper. It was rare for a woman to get such an important federal appointment, and there was speculation that her cousin, U.S. Rep. Schuyler Colfax (later vice president under Ulysses S. Grant) may have pulled some strings to make that happen.

Even so, Harriet Colfax remained on the job for more than 43 years, until her retirement at age 80 in 1904.

The perks included a salary of $350 a year, place to live, annual provisions of 200 pounds of pork, 100 pounds of beef, 50 pounds of sugar, two barrels of flour, 24 pounds of coffee, lots of other supplies and a priceless view of the lake.

But the work was physically demanding and downright dangerous when the weather turned ugly.

In the book, “Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers,” by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford, Colfax was described as a small woman who taught voice and piano in her native Ogdenburg, N.Y. She moved to Michigan City in the 1850s with her brother, who founded the newspaper the Transcript, where she worked as the typesetter.

When ill health forced her brother to sell the newspaper, Harriet remained in Michigan City with her lifelong companion, Ann Hartwell, who was a school teacher. Within a few months, Colfax was appointed lighthouse keeper.

By 1871, lighthouse keepers were required to keep daily logs, and it’s the one kept by Harriet Colfax that offers a detailed glimpse into the life of a lighthouse keeper. Her journal is so meticulous that it’s now in the National Archives.

She recorded the weather, arrivals and departures and the correspondence she carried on with the government over bills and needed repairs.

Aug. 28, 1871: “Thunderstorms toward morning. Cool day with occasional showers. Heavy fog about midnight - shutting out the Beacon St. entirely from the Main light. Went down to investigate & found the lamp burning all right. 3 arrivals.”

Aug. 16, 1872: “This is the day on which the Comet was to strike the Earth and demolish all things terrestrial - but failed to come up to appointment. The elevated walk was run into by a Vessel entering the harbor & considerably damaged. 5 arrivals.”

Aug. 18, 1872: “Lock of Beacon (on the east pier) tampered with by some parties who had not the fear of the law before their eyes. Some delay in lighting up in consequence. No entrances today at this harbor.”

Some of Colfax’s entries showed the danger of her job, yet she wrote of them in a matter-of-fact manner.

Sept. 18, 1872: “Cold day. Heavy N.W. gale toward night. The waves dashing over both Piers, very nearly carrying me with them into the lake.”

Sept. 29, 1872: “Wind blowing a westerly gale all day & still rising at 5 p.m. Four vessels entered while the gale was at its height & ran against the elevated walk, breaking it in again. Went to the beacon tonight with considerable risk of life.”

She regularly petitioned the government for help with repairs to the light, in dredging the channel and for maintenance of the house where she and Hartwell lived for 43 years.

In their book, the Cliffords write of the concern Colfax had of an order from the Lighthouse Board over an official uniform for keepers of a double-breasted coat with yellow buttons, dark blue trousers and a cap with a metal lighthouse badge. Colfax received an answer from the inspector of the lighthouse service assuring her that “women keepers were exempted.”

Some of her journal entries were routine:

June 26, 1878: “Worked on my reports.”

But others weren’t.

June 28, 1878: “Rainy day. The Capt. of the Sch. Rouse Simmons was struck by an engine this evening when going to his vessel knocked over an embankment & killed.”

June, 29, 1878: “The Capt. Of the Sch. David Macy was drowned about 10 miles from this port.”

The final entries in Colfax’s log were routine. With the installation of the new East Pierhead light and the transfer of the main beacon from the house to the new pier, where it would be powered by electricity instead of kerosene, the day of her lighthouse keeping were coming to an end.

She was 80 years old and Colfax could no longer keep up with her duties. She resigned. She documented her final days.

Oct. 6, 1904: “Commenced taking inventory of public property.”

Oct. 8, 1904: “Sold household effects preparatory to vacating deal old St. House.”

Her last day on the job was Oct. 12, 1904. She died April 16, 1905, three months after her lifelong friend, Ann Hartwell passed on Jan. 22, 1905.

In her obituary in the Michigan City newspaper, Colfax was described as “perhaps one of the best known ladies in the state of Indiana or around the Great Lakes, and had received through her identification with the government lighthouse service perhaps more newspaper prominence throughout the country than any other one employee of the government.”

The article went on: “Deceased was a woman of most amiable disposition and all acquaintances were her friends.”

Colfax and Hartwell are buried side by side in Michigan City’s Greenwood Cemetery.

This story appeared in the September 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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