Digest>Archives> August 2007

Women of the Lights

Laura Hecox: Santa Cruz’s Keeper and Naturalist

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Laura Hecox and her mother, Margaret Hecox, at ...

Only three people served as civilian keepers during the lifespan of the original lighthouse at Santa Cruz, at the northern part of California’s Monterrey Bay. The first was Adna Hecox, a former carpenter and lead miner from Michigan. Hecox had survived a harrowing wagon train journey to the West Coast with his wife and four children in 1846-47. After holding a number of local government offices, Hecox was named the keeper of the new local lighthouse in late 1869.

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A late 1800s view of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse. ...

From the start, Hecox’s youngest daughter, Laura (born in 1854), helped her father trim the wicks in the lighthouse. By the time Adna Hecox died in 1883, Laura knew all there was to know about the proper running of the light station, and she was swiftly named the new keeper. A few years later, it was reported that she was one of 20 female lightkeepers in the nation. Laura Hecox would leave a formidable legacy as an exemplary keeper and as an accomplished amateur naturalist.

Beginning in childhood, Laura collected shells, rocks and minerals, fossils, and other curiosities from the shore near the lighthouse. Before long, the front room of the six-room keeper’s dwelling became a makeshift natural history museum, with items displayed in cherrywood cases her father had built. Laura corresponded with prominent scientists and even had at least two species of mollusks named in her honor.

Tourists flocked to the station and were treated with guided tours of the lighthouse museum provided by the keeper herself. A writer quoted in Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford’s Women Who Kept the Lights described the "most pleasant little woman, standing guard at the front door, armed with a big feather duster." In his book Lighthouse Point: Reflections on Monterrey Bay History, Frank Perry tells us that Laura had only one request for visitors to the lantern room. "You won’t touch it, will you please?" she’d ask politely but firmly, referring to the fifth-order Fresnel lens. Then, she’d reach inside the lens to demonstrate its magnifying power. "A genuine light of love was said to show in her eyes as she gazed at the lens and oil lamp that she and her father had cared for through the many years,’ wrote Perry.

The light never failed once in Laura Hecox’s 33 years as keeper. One of the most memorable incidents of her career came when a devastating earthquake struck in the early morning of April 18, 1906. Laura’s sister, Alwida Organ, was standing on the lighthouse stairs, but was unhurt. The chimney of the light’s oil lamp was shattered, but Laura quickly had the light operating again.

Laura also cared for her elderly mother, who died in 1908 at 93. After 47 years of life at the lighthouse, Laura retired in 1916 to a cottage at the Advent Christian Campground near town. She died in 1919.

In 1904, while she was still keeper, Laura Hecox donated her prodigious collection of specimens and artifacts to the new Carnegie Library in Santa Cruz. The Hecox Museum, considered the first public museum in Santa Cruz, opened in the library’s basement in the following year. The collection included dried sea stars and crustaceans, Native American and Eskimo artifacts, minerals, gems, coral, birds’ nests and eggs, turtle and tortoise carapaces, and 200 species of shells. Laura spoke at the opening of the museum and said that she felt she wasn’t losing anything by donating her collection; she was simply sharing her enjoyment with the public.

The Hecox collection was moved to the new Santa Cruz High School in 1917, and it eventually became part of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. A new museum building on Washington Street in downtown Santa Cruz is now in the planning stages.

Arthur Anderson followed Laura Hecox as keeper of the Santa Cruz Light, and Coast Guard crews eventually succeeded him. A skeleton tower replaced the lighthouse in 1941, and the old building was torn down for scrap in 1948. A small new brick lighthouse was built near the original site in 1967. Known as the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, it serves as a museum of surfing.

This story appeared in the August 2007 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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