Digest>Archives> October 2006

Women of the Lights

Bridgeport’s Flora Evans McNeil

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse is surrounded by ice ...

S. Adolphus McNeil, who became keeper of the Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse in Connecticut in 1876, remained a single man up to the first decade at the light station. In 1886, he wed Flora Evans, who had made several long voyages with her sea captain father and was well versed in navigation. Described in a newspaper article as “a woman of attractive personality, a successful business manager, an interesting conversationalist and an aspirant for the vote,” Flora McNeil earned much respect during her years as a lightkeeper and businesswoman.

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Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse, from the ...

An 1887 article in the Bridgeport Standard described the life of the McNeil’s at the lighthouse:

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Tongue Point Lighthouse today.
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

Mrs. McNeil “paddles her own canoe” . . . and besides perfecting herself in music from a competent teacher, devotes a considerable portion of her time to landscape and marine painting. She has in her parlor a fine upright piano and a violin resting in a corner of the room invites her deft fingers to produce its sweetest tones . . . Altogether Capt. McNeil’s home is a cozy and desirable one, too quiet perhaps for most people, but he is satisfied that he is

in better quarters than he would be in the finest palace

on land.

Flora Evans McNeil later reminisced in a 1913 article:

I grew to be quite a sailor and often my husband and I would go out when the water was very rough just for the sport and the experience. We frequently had to sit on opposite sides of the boat to keep it from turning over and when I got back to the house I could wring the water out of my hair I would be so wet. But the experience stood us in good stead when we had to go out in a stormy sea to help other boats in distress.

For a few years, Keeper McNeil was given the additional duty of caring for Tongue Point Light at the entrance to Bridgeport’s inner harbor. In 1901, he moved ashore to devote himself to that light. After he died in December 1904, Flora succeeded her husband as the official keeper of the little cast-iron lighthouse at Tongue Point, at a yearly salary of $300.

A 1913 article described Flora bundled in a rubber coat, hat, and high rubber boots, scurrying along the plank walkway on the 500-foot breakwater to reach the lighthouse through high winds and rain. She downplayed the hazards of the job:

As a rule, there is nothing really interesting about the work. Of course, during a heavy storm it isn’t exactly fun

to take a trip out to the lighthouse, but the light must be going and the worse the weather, the more necessary for it to be going.

The work, however, could be dangerous at times, according to Flora:

I think perhaps the hardest trips are the ones made in winter when it has rained and turned cold for the plank is then a glare of ice and naturally very slippery. I have been out during snowstorms when the plank was so slippery it was scarcely possible to keep your footing and when the storm was so heavy that all you could see in front of you was the falling snow. You could hear the roar of water under your feet and see the snow melt as it touched the waves but you could hardly more than guess where to put your next step.

Flora McNeil also ran a manicure business in downtown Bridgeport, practically leading a double life as a well-dressed businesswoman by day, dedicated lightkeeper at night. An expert boater, Flora claimed the sea never frightened her.

It isn’t exactly a pleasure to take a trip out there when a fog is coming on or when a heavy snow is falling with it so dark you can hardly see your hand before your face. You can hear the moaning water on either side of you and if you were on some desert island you could not feel more alone and forsaken by all humanity. I suppose some people would think it an impossible thing to do — and probably it would be impossible for them — but I am almost as much at home on or in the water as I am on land and I have no real fear of the water even when it is angry.

The 1895 lighthouse at Tongue Point was automated in 1954, and it remains in operation on the grounds of the Bridgeport Harbor Generating Station. It’s best seen from the decks of the Bridgeport-to-Port Jefferson ferry. The Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse was destroyed by fire in 1953.

You can read more about Flora McNeil in the book The Lighthouses of Connecticut by Jeremy D’Entremont, published in 2005 by Commonwealth Editions.

This story appeared in the October 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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