Digest>Archives> February 1997

Our Women Lighthouse-Keepers

Reprinted from The Designer Magazine-1904

By Mary Richards Gray


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Mrs. Emma Lassen

In isolated spots, where there is need of aid to all who travel by water, stand our lighthouses. So exacting is the service required of those who tend them, so lonely and monotonous the life, and so uncertain the hours, it would naturally seem the last calling in the world for women and yet there are a number of women lighthouse-keepers. No one part of the country claims more than another, there being six on the Pacific Coast, four on Lake Michigan, eight on the Atlantic and nine on the Gulf and lakes around New Orleans. When we consider that we have more than thirteen hundred lighthouses and thirty-one hundred and sixty-three lighted aids to navigation, and that there are only twenty-seven women in the service, the proportion is small indeed. The story each of these twenty-seven women tells of her reasons for taking up so unusual an occupation is the same in almost every case. She began by giving assistance to father or husband and in that way became familiar with the work, then, when death claimed her supporter, continued in the service.

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Mrs. Mary E Bethel

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Mrs. Daniel Williams

The preparation needed and the requirements are not as high as in many other callings: sufficient education to make out requisitions and account for supplies, physical strength, courage, ability to handle the appliances used in and about a light station and make ordinary repairs. The one thing outranking all others in the making of "the keeper of a good light" is devotion to duty. One man held up as a model is Worthylake, the keeper of the first Boston Light. Once, in time of danger and storm, he sacrificed his own personal interests to such an extent as to allow his sheep to be washed off the island without making an effort to rescue them, because he was needed at his light. Whatever else he may or may not have done, history does not record. This was sufficient to give him an enduring place in the annals of the service. Another hero was the keeper of a light on Chesapeake Bay. The bay having frozen over, navigation was closed and the grinding and packing of the ice threatened destruction to the tower at any moment. No orders came relieving the two keepers of their duties. As the danger increased, one man left; the other stayed at his post of duty, and when the building fell was, with difficulty, rescued. The deserter, who had common sense on his side, was dismissed from the service, while his companion was promoted for faithfulness to duty. When we take into account long years of service and cases of emergency work, in the one important thing, devotion to duty, women are not lacking.

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Little Traverse Lighthouse Harbor Point Michigan.

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Turkey Point Lighthouse, Maryland

The theory of coast lighting being that each coast shall be so set with towers that the rays from the lights shall meet and pass each other in order that a vessel need never be out of sight of a guiding beacon, many exist merely to complete the system and occupy places of no especial danger. To these unimportant, rather than the more exposed places, women are assigned. The duties are quite as strict here as elsewhere, but there is not the strain and anxiety which comes where the light towers invite the fury of every passing storm. No woman in the service, for example, has had the experience of the keeper of Minot's Point Light, an exposed tower standing on rocks out at sea in one of the most dangerous spots known to mariners. The history of this tower gives casualties of every sort and rarely a storm passes without claiming some victims. The number of ships wrecked here is legion. One winter morning the keeper looked out upon eight. His life is one of awful strain in comparison with the places where "nothing ever happens." Nine hours is the average day's work, but in times of storm the keeper on for the regular three hours' watch must pass from the light to the fog station and operate the signals, resorting to the ringing of a bell by hand if the machinery gives out. The good keeper knows no set hours, no measure for his efforts.

In point of achievement Mrs. Daniel Williams, one of the four women light-keepers on Lake Michigan, stands first. In addition to "keeping a good light" for thirty years, she has written a book called "A Child of the Sea; and Life Among the Mormons." It is no unusual thing for a man to combine some simple occupation, such as teaching a village school or studying sea birds with that of keeping a light station, the distracting business of keeping summer boarders being about the only one forbidden; but most women find housekeeping and the care of a family quite enough without attempting to satisfy the exactions of editors and publishers. Mrs. Williams's autobiographical sketch smacks of the north and the sea and tells much of frontier life. Born on Beaver Island, in the days of Mormon sway under King Strange, she has seen Michigan grow from a wooded Indian encampment to its present populous and well cultivated condition. Strong and robust of physique, though now nearly sixty years of age, she is the pioneer type. Intense interest and sympathy with all things human are predominating traits of a nature softened and mellowed by the awful experience of seeing two sailor brothers, three nephews and a husband go to a watery graves. In her book she tells of the death of her husband; and why she went into the service:

"One dark and stormy night we heard the flapping of sails and saw lights flashing in the darkness. A ship was in distress. After a hard struggle she reached the harbor and was leaking so badly that she sank. My husband in his efforts to assist those in trouble lost his life. He was drowned with a companion, the first mate of the schooner, Thomas Howland. The bodies were never recovered, and only those who have passed through the same experience know what a sorrow it is to lose your loved ones by drowning and not be able to recover the remains. It is a sorrow that never ends through life.

"Life to me then seemed darker than the midnight storm that raged for three days upon the deep, dark waters. I was weak from sorrow, but realized that though the life that was dearest to me had gone, yet there were others out on the dark and treacherous waters who needed to catch the shining light from my tower. Nothing roused me but that thought. I gave all my life and energy to the work which seemed given me to do. The lighthouse was the only home I had and I was glad and willing to do my best in the service."

The point of land occupied by the Little Traverse Light is the one on which the Harbor Point Association, made up of wealthy men from Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit has chosen as a place of summer residence. Here a magnificent hotel and numbers of beautiful houses and cottages fairly crowd upon the Government property. The life of a charming summer resort frequented by the wealthiest and most exclusive of Americans is yearly brought to Mrs. Williams's door. Then her duties are more onerous than at other times, for one day each week she obliged to keep open house to the visitors who come from the Point, as well as from the nearby resorts-Charlevoix, Petoskey and Mackinac-and to show to all the view from the tower and explain the workings of the light and the fog signal. While the summer at times brings too much social life, the winter, when navigation is closed on account of ice and storms, has too little. The cottagers go, the fall storms, with winds and lashing waves, come and continue until the cold and ice make navigation an impossibility. Then, bound in by the elements, the keeper longs for the life of the summer, though comfortable in her cozy, small, warm home. Interest in her second husband's business of photography and plenty of work-these are the panacea for loneliness.

Another light-keeper who has had the experience of seeing a city grow up around a lonely station is Mrs. Georgia Stebbins of North Point, Milwaukee. For years, the lighthouse perched upon a high bluff was known as the Mariner's Beacon; and, as Jefferson Davis of Confederate fame built it while United States engineer, there was attached to it a sentimental interest. The winds and storms to the fury of which it was peculiarly exposed did not prove its destruction, but the sinking of the ground on which it stood. One spring morning, when the frost was going out of the ground, the keepers on look out found themselves twenty feet nearer Lake Michigan than on the previous day, and with only sixteen feet between them and the treacherous waters. The Government, feeling that it was unwise to await any further trouble, put up a new station immediately. Not so picturesque as the old structure, the new one is unique in that it now stands in the city, the approach to it being by a handsome driveway through a park in the fashionable residence part of Milwaukee. Within the surprisingly short space of ten years the city has extended itself out to this part of the north shore. Mrs Stebbins, who comes from the classic town of New York, renowned in song as "Jordan am a hard road to trabble," in youth learned the hard road of unswerving devotion to duty, and for thirty-three consecutive summers has tended her light faithfully and well.

At Alpena and Sturgeon Bay, where women are in charge, the closing of navigation gives them work for only a part of the year.

On the Atlantic Coast at Newport, R. I., and South Norwalk, Connecticut, Tompkinsville and Rondout, New York, Saltersville, New Jersey, Turkey Point and Milestown, Maryland and St. Simon's Mills, Georgia, women either have full charge or assist in tending the lights.

At South Norwalk, on Long Island Sound, Mrs. Lassen assist her husband by taking charge of the Grassy Hammock Beacon, while he cares for four others. Their life has in it the spice of variety. They occupy the old unlighted station Smith Island which the Government feels needs caretakers and attend their five lights, set on top of beacons, requiring a round trip of twelve miles each time that all are put in order. These beacons are supposed to be eight-day lights and burn constantly, their reservoirs holding sufficient oil, two gallon, to last that length of time. As the efficiency of a light depends in good measure upon the care given it, these keepers do not wait the eight days, but go the rounds every third on fourth day, unless storms prevent. They always find plenty of trimming of wicks and cleaning of chimneys to do. In the summer time, the long trip is made in a small launch, but when winter sets in it is impossible to use this and they then resort to a row-boat. Often they get caught in the ice floes and have to ask the owners of the oyster steamers to tow them home. Here, as everywhere along the New England coast, the cold and storms give much trouble. The one storm from which all others date and by which all others are measured-there is always one-occurred in November, 1901. Then one beacon and all the small boats were destroyed and the launch filled with sand but finally saved. The summer time, when the Sound is filled with sail boats and floating craft of all kinds, brings many distractions, but the winter in bleak and dreary, though navigation never closes as on Lake Michigan.

Several of the light stations on the Atlantic kept by women are in such unexposed places that "nothing ever happens." The days are one monotonous round of duty. At Turkey Point Station, where Mrs. Georgia S. Bloomfield is keeper, the monotony of the keeper's life is relieved by the interest in a growing family. The station far up the Chesapeake Bay has the saving grace of a picturesque location, being on a high bluff between two rivers. Many of the others have not this much to recommend them for interest.

At Farmdale, in the dreary wastes of Southern Florida, miles from nowhere, at Key West, Pascagoula, Biloxi, and in five stations around New Orleans, women have charge of the lights. At Key West, the tropical vegetation makes a picturesque setting for the extremely tall white tower built on a coral reef. Here the keepers have much to do in caring for two beacons besides a regular station. The one great storm here occurred in 1876. Then the platform around the tower, and the boats, as well as the house in which the Bethels lived, were carried off. Mrs. Bethel, the assistant keeper, barely escaped drowning and took refuge in the woods with her brother.

At the Horn Island Station, where Mrs. Johnson is the assistant, the problem is one of shifting sands. In 1900, so serious had the question become, and so fast were the sands washing out from beneath the lighthouse, then on the south side of the island, that a new one was constructed on the east side, where the sands were coming in with equal rapidity. When finished, it stood on piles out in fully three feet of water; today it is on the mainland. Here the nearest town, Pascagoula, is nine miles distant and the Johnsons' nearest neighbors seven miles away. For dreariness and loneliness scarcely a station has more dismal location than this light, the only sign of life in sight, on the low-lying island.

At Biloxi, and on Lake Pontchartrain, dense tropical fogs give much trouble. On a low bar in a bleak and lonely spot at the entrance to Pass Manchac stands the light which Mrs. Succow tends. Her most exciting experience concerns a shipwreck which occurred years ago. Hearing the unmistakable signals of a vessel in distress she felt that she must answer though it necessitated leaving her baby son alone, perhaps for hours. Placing duty first, she went out in the skiff in the storm and succeeded in saving the crew of a foundered vessel. On her return she found the baby safe and still asleep, apparently not having roused during her absence. She says: "Old age has overtaken me at my post of duty but has not dealt unkindly with me. My baby boy, now a robust young man, assumes many of my tasks. Thirty-two years, I have served at this light-station faithfully and well, I hope."

Western women are in the service at Ilwaco, Angel and Mare Islands in San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Santa Barbara. At Ilwaco, in the most southwestern part of Washington, on a point of land jutting into the sea, where the Columbia pours its waters into the Pacific, rises a tall white tower. By day, with its background of dark forest, it is a striking object on the landscape, and at night its brilliant light makes it an equally striking object to mariners. Mrs. Bretherton is the second assistant here and gives devoted service to the work which furnishes a living and a home for herself and three young children. Fondness for the sea and the great outdoors, health, youth, and an interesting family make her life with its sorrow and hardships far from cheerless. With a little frock to make or the mending basket with its variety and exactions, the hours on watch pass quickly. Here, on this bold headland, marine disaster is not an unusual thing, but the experience most out of the ordinary which befell Mrs. Bretherton recently was the meeting with a cougar. The dwellings of the keepers are at a little distance from the light-tower, and at midnight when she went on duty a cougar darted across her path, going under the sidewalk, then into a runway leading to the ravine along the side of which the walk is built. In the runway, he stopped and turned to gaze at her, probably bewildered by the glare of the lantern. Driven from his lodgings by the logging operations in progress near by, he was out in search of new quarters. The meeting was as much of a surprise to him as to Mrs. Bretherton.

On Mare Island in San Francisco Bay, the station faces the Straits of Carquinez, standing seventy-four feet above the mean level of high water. Through these straits passes much important shipping-the traffic from the Sacramento River and Port Costa. The keepers here are never troubled with loneliness, because on the island is an important naval station with all its life and interests. At Angel Island the fixed red light at the southwestern point, shedding its radiance for fifteen or more miles, guides the mariner on his way to and from the beautiful Golden Gate. All vessels coming to San Francisco from far and near, all going to the most remote points of the earth, pass within range of this light. A military post and quarantine station give plenty of neighbors and life and amusement to the island.

At Santa Cruz the Lighthouse Board finds a trying problem in the encroachments made by the sea. Once the Government owned a tract of ten acres here, but now it has only nine, the sea having claimed one. A few years ago the lighthouse was removed inland three hundred and thirty-four feet, and now again the sea threatens to present a problem at almost any time.

At Santa Barbara, Mrs. Williams operates a light of the first order, and also holds the place of honor among women keepers for length of service, having received her appointment in 1865.

The lives of all these women run in the strict path of duty. Their histories are not of the sort "to point a moral or adorn a tale," yet are interesting. The very denial which one makes of having in her life the material from which to weave a story is the summary of a pathetic history, a dull uneventful life.

This story appeared in the February 1997 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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