Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2006

Women of the Lights

Fannie Salter at Turkey Point

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Fannie Salter on the stairs of the Turkey Point ...

Like so many dedicated and selfless lighthouse keepers throughout history, Fannie Salter of Maryland’s Turkey Point Light modestly downplayed her long years of faithful service, calling it an “easy-like chore.” Turkey Point may have been a relatively peaceful lighthouse location compared to many others, but there’s no doubt that Fannie Salter’s faithful operation of the light and fogbell played a vital role in safe navigation through Chesapeake Bay for 22 years.

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Fannie Salter on the lantern gallery of the ...

Turkey Point Light, located on a 100-foot bluff at the end of Elk Neck, where the Elk and Northeast Rivers converge, bears the distinction of having had women keepers

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Turkey Point Light as it appears today.

for most of its 117 years as a staffed station. Just 11 years after the light was established

in 1833, Keeper Robert Lusby died and

his wife, Elizabeth, was appointed as his replacement. Elizabeth Lusby served for 18 years. Rebecca Crouch was the next female keeper, taking over for her husband, John, who died in 1873. After Rebecca’s death in 1895, her daughter, Georgiana S. Brumfield, became the next keeper. She retired in 1919 after 62 years of life at Turkey Point.

C. W. “Harry” Salter became keeper in 1922 and died only three years later. His wife, Fannie May, was an obvious candidate to replace him. She had already been assisting her husband at other lighthouses for 23 years. But the authorities at first refused to grant her the appointment, citing her age (42) and the fact that she had three children. Fearful of being suddenly unemployed and homeless, Fannie appealed her case to one of the state’s U.S. senators. Before long, she was appointed as a keeper by order of President Calvin Coolidge.

Asked about the loneliness of the job at the isolated Turkey Point, Fannie once said,

“I like it quiet.” It was 14 miles over rough roads from the lighthouse to the nearest store, so the keepers had to be largely

self-sufficient. Like the keepers before her, Fannie maintained a vegetable garden and kept animals at the station, including sheep, horses, chickens and of course — turkeys.

Fannie admitted, in a 1938 interview, that lightkeeping wasn’t as simple as some people believed. “It’s a 24-hour-a-day task and it runs 365 days a year,” she explained. “Normally, I’m up at seven and work ‘til midnight, but foggy weather sometimes has me going as much as four days without sleep.” The fog signal, she said, was a “mite old fashioned” — a bell operated by means of a striking mechanism that had to be wound every three hours.

During the day, Fannie often would sound the bell by hand when vessels approached.

On one cold, foggy night, the automatic mechanism failed and she was forced to ring the 1,200-pound bell by hand for nearly an hour by pulling a rope every 15 seconds, as a steamer passed safely by Turkey Point. “I was never more exhausted in my whole life,” said Fannie. As she rang the bell that night, she missed a phone call from her son-in-law, who wanted to give her the news that her daughter had just given birth to a granddaughter.

By the 1930s, Fannie Salter was one of the only two female lightkeepers in the nation. The other was Maggie Norvell at the New Canal Light in Louisiana. Despite a legacy of many exemplary women keepers, the lighthouse authorities had come to feel that operating the heavy machinery at many stations was a “man’s work,” and no more women were appointed to lightkeeping jobs. There were later a small number of female keepers under the Coast Guard.

For most of her years at the station, Fannie had to check the oil-burning lamp multiple times each night. She could see the light from her bedroom and claimed that she woke up immediately if the light went out. Her job was made much easier in 1943 with the arrival of electricity. Still, 45 years of lighthouse life had taken its toll. “My feet got tired, and climbing the tower has given me fallen arches,” she said, adding that she wanted to “just rest and catch up on long-delayed visits with relatives.”

America’s last civilian woman keeper (until the 2003 appointment of Sally Snowman as keeper of Boston Light) retired in 1947.

She moved to a house about six miles

away, within sight of Turkey Point Light.

Fannie Salter died in 1966, at the age of 83. The keeper’s house was razed years ago,

but the 35-foot brick lighthouse tower is maintained today by Turkey Point Light Station, Inc. It’s accessible to the public via a hiking trail. Check the organization’s website at www.tpls.org for more information.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2006 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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