One of the more challenging aspects of lighthouse life for keepers and their families in the late 19th century was how to give children a traditional upbringing. It wasn’t easy to be “lighthouse kids” living so far away from schools and normal social life, and those whose fathers served as keepers at the Statue of Liberty Lighthouse on New York’s Bedloe’s Island were no exception.
As noted in the January/February 2019 edition of Lighthouse Digest, most of the early keepers assigned to serve at the Statue of Liberty either resigned or were removed during the first year of their appointments. But head keeper Albert E. Littlefield and his two assistants, Charles N. Miller and Martin F. Cody, stayed for many years and raised families on the island during their tenure.
Liberty’s Lessons: The Littlefield children were the oldest of the group and lived there the longest. Albert Littlefield was the only head keeper during the 16 years the Statue of Liberty was listed as an official aid to navigation from 1886 to 1902. His wife Lucy and their two small children, four-year-old Ida and three-month-old Carl, came out to live with him in the keeper housing in August of 1887.
John and Elsie Littlefield were then born in 1889 and 1891 respectively, so all four children spent the majority of their adolescent years on Bedloe’s Island. It is interesting to note that John’s middle name was Millis, having been named after the 3rd lighthouse district engineer, Lieut. John Millis, who was responsible for the design and implementation of the Statue of Liberty’s electrical illumination.
From all accounts, the young Littlefields thoroughly enjoyed growing up under Liberty’s gaze, as is evidenced by later newspaper articles, family stories, and cherished artifacts. The eldest daughter, Ida, was quite a blossoming artist and spent many hours sketching her surroundings on the Island. When she was around 16-years-old in 1898, Ida filled a sketchbook with 40 pencil drawings of animals, ships, flowers, still-lifes, and buildings. She seemed particularly interested in all types of ships and freighters that sailed into the harbor, as those outnumbered her other subjects by a fair amount.
Of particular note are her sketches of the USS Oregon and USS Brooklyn. They were very famous vessels that saw important action in the Spanish-American War that year. Her drawings show a good eye for detail and give a nice visual perspective from the view of a teenager living on the Island during the late 1800s.
Carl and John Littlefield were less than two years apart in age and the only boys in the family, so they spent a lot of time together. They hung out with the soldiers and were often seen climbing high on the scaffolding whenever repairs were being made to the Statue. They must have really enjoyed having a real fort with real cannons, guns, and soldiers around to occupy their spare hours. They didn’t have to pretend about these things like other boys their age.
In fact, Carl remarked many times as an adult about how different his life was on the Island growing up compared with other children in Manhattan. This was most apparent during his schooling when he was able to be excused every day for tardiness. As he explained in an interview for the News-Banner in Bluffton, Indiana in 1976, “I was the envy of all the kids because the first [tourist] boat didn’t run until later on in the morning and I could never get to school before 10. By that time, all the other kids had been in class for two hours.”
Carl attended public school in Battery Park from first grade onward, and by the time he was nine or ten, he knew the ferry boat captain and crew so well that he spent the daily trip in the pilot house and was frequently allowed to pilot the ferry boat back to Manhattan.
Another source of excitement Carl often remarked about was the unique chance he had to be raised in one of the first electrified houses in the United States. Beyond lighting the Statue, wires were run from the electrical plant to the keepers’ accommodations as well as the buildings of Fort Wood. Since electricity was in its infancy during the late 1880s, having a private residence be electrified was a very rare occurrence and undoubtedly gave him a lot of bragging rights with his peers at school.
Additionally, Albert E. Littlefield was able to tutor his boys in electrical and mechanical engineering skills from his many years of running the Statue’s electrical plant. Both boys later had careers that reflected an interest and some knowledge in these fields. John started out as a motorman for an electric trolley company. Carl, who was said to have a “natural flair for working with machinery,” later became an inventor-industrialist who had over 25 patents for mechanical machines, including the first really practical bread slicing and wrapping machine in the 1940s. He received a lot of credit and publicity for his inventions.
Liberty’s Child: Not to be outdone by her siblings, little Elsie Littlefield, the youngest daughter of Albert and Lucy, achieved fame nationally as reporters interviewed her and dubbed her “Liberty’s Own Child” in 1899 when she was seven-years-old. She was born on the Island under the Statue’s glow, and as the newspapers reported, “Under its rays, by its brilliant light, she found it the first object to claim her attention”. . . “Strange to say this little child of Liberty loves the Statue better than she loves her dolls, and sits and looks at it for hours. She never tires of running up the stairs that lead, inside the statue, up to the arm and so up into the torch.”
Albert frequently let Elsie flip the switch that connected the electricity generated by the dynamo to light the Statue of Liberty whenever he was on duty. More than one article reported “how her dearest delight is to start in motion the great machinery” from which “a great light springs across the waters of the bay…. It is probable that she has basked in the rays of the torch more than any other living person.”
Yet, Elsie was not the only keeper’s child to have a special connection with the Statue and feel that she was a “Daughter of Liberty.” It was 1st assistant Charles N. Miller’s firstborn daughter that survived very dramatic circumstances who also shared in great acclaim, both before and during her birth. In fact, were it not for the quick actions of the soldiers stationed at Fort Wood, there probably would not have been any more Millers at all as of January 18, 1893.
Liberty’s Miracle: It had been a little over four months since Charles and Dorothea “Dora” Tiedgens had eloped and he had brought her out to Bedloe’s Island to live with him. Dora was now in the “family way” and expecting their first child come summer. There had been an unusual freeze that winter which left the stretch of water between Bedloe’s Island and the New Jersey shore completely covered in a thick layer of ice. Charles and Dora decided it would be quite a novelty to walk the two miles over to Communipaw to do some visiting.
The soldiers and the Littlefield children were all out enjoying an afternoon skating party that day. As dusk approached and retreat sounded, most of the soldiers and children returned to shore except Lieutenant Frank Webster and Max Wetherill, the 14-year-old son of the fort’s commander, Capt. Alexander M. Wetherill. Charles and Dora were on their way back and nearing the Island when the ice suddenly broke under Dora and she plunged into the freezing water.
Charles immediately attempted to rescue her, but he also fell through the ice as it continued breaking up around the edges of the hole. The couple’s cries for help were heard by Lieutenant Webster and Max who skated as close as they dared to see what aid they could offer. While Webster stretched himself across the ice and threw his overcoat to the couple to give them something to hold onto, Max raised the general alarm and several other soldiers, still within earshot, came running to the scene along with Captain Wetherill. The currents were quite strong, and Charles and Dora had all they could do to stay with their heads above water in the hole and not be dragged under the ice to their deaths.
The soldiers brought with them plank boards and a cut clothesline, and by stretching the boards across to the hole, they were able to form a chain and get a hold of Dora and pull her on top of it to safety. By the time they got back to get to Charles, his hands were too frozen to grasp anything, so they made a lariat out of the clothesline and cast it out to him. He was able to grasp it with his teeth and be pulled toward the planks and from there, lifted out of the frozen currents.
The Millers were brought back to the fort and great rejoicing was had by all. Several soldiers and Max Wetherill were all presented medals by an act of Congress the following year for their part in the rescue. The medals had an image of an angel throwing a lifeline to a man drowning at sea. With the water temperature reported below freezing, it was deemed miraculous that both of them were rescued and suffered no ill effects, especially Dora, considering her delicate condition.
Liberty’s Birth: But the excitement and the story did not end there. Close to six months later, on the night of July 4, 1893, Dora was ready to deliver her baby. Celebrations honoring American Independence were in full swing in and around New York Harbor within sight of Lady Liberty’s Light. The soldiers and complement at Fort Wood were also enjoying the festivities, many of them spending the evening in the saloon that was on the island.
Dora told what happened next in a newspaper article for the New York World Telegram. “The doctor who was supposed to attend me got drunk [that] night and when the time came he couldn’t do anything. Well, they fired a distress signal from the old civil war cannon at the base of the Statue. Surgeon Major Huff, of the army, was in Manhattan and he heard the guns. They shook the whole harbor. As soon as he could get the boat, he came over.
“My baby had arrived when he walked in. I was too sick to think much about anything, but I’ll never forget the picture he made, all rigged out in his full-dress uniform with a tall bearskin hat and clanking sword. He’d been on his way to a party.
“He took care of me, and then he said, ‘Of course, you’re going to call the little girl Miss Liberty.’ I didn’t care much what they called her. Right then I didn’t even want to see her. But Charley said no; he thought we’d name the child Dorothea. That’s my name.
“‘What?’ he shouted. ‘The first girl born on Liberty Island on July 4th and you aren’t going to name her Liberty?’ He took the thing right out of our hands. And we called the girl Liberty Miller. Of course, she wasn’t really born on July 4 – it happened just a little after midnight. But what of that?”
Dorothea Liberty “Libbie” Miller was interviewed many times in succeeding years about her birth and sharing her name with Lady Liberty. She spoke of Charles taking her up to the very top of the torch when she was barely a week old, and her sisters later commented that he brought her along many times when he had to change the carbons just so she could touch the “tippy top” of the torch.
Charles and Dora Miller went on to have five more children over the next eight years, with four surviving infancy and three being born while Charles was serving as a keeper at the Statue of Liberty Lighthouse. At one point, there were 10 children of the three keeper families under the age of 11 living on the Island together.
Liberty’s Influence: Second Assistant keeper Martin F. Cody contributed three of that number. In 1889, Martin married Elizabeth “Lizzie” McNally and brought her out to the island to live in the new keepers’ accommodations the following year when he started his 12-year stint.
In the twenty years that followed, Martin and Lizzie had 10 children, but tragically, only half of them survived infancy. It is unknown how many of the children were actually born on Bedloe’s Island, but during the first ten years of Martin’s service, three out of seven of them assumedly died there while Martin was keeping Liberty’s Light according to census reports.
Just like Albert Littlefield, Martin Cody had a similar influence on his sons’ future careers because of working with electricity at the Statue and sharing his knowledge with them from the time they were young. As his sons grew, Martin told them that there was a future in electricity and that they should study it.
Martin Jr., born in 1895, got into the profession early while studying at Cooper Union, a now famous private college in Manhattan, that offered degrees in engineering on full-ride scholarships. Since the school was very selective in who was given this great benefit, Martin Jr. must have been very attentive to what his father taught him based on real experience in working with this new technology.
Not much is known about the children’s early lives, but at the age of 22, Martin F. Cody, Jr. was an inspector for the “electric light and power company, New York” according to his draft registration card in 1917. He later became Chief Electrical Engineer for the City of New York Board of Education, overseeing all the schools’ electrical needs in the city.
Martin F. Cody, Sr.’s other two sons, George and Charles, born in 1899 and 1909 respectively, also had careers at various times in the electrical field. George was an electrical contractor in 1920 while Charles was an electrician’s helper in 1930. They both worked at Metropolitan Life Insurance Company at some point, which was where Charles N. Miller also worked after leaving the Statue of Liberty and the Lighthouse Service in 1898. Charles Miller retired in 1929 from Metropolitan Life after 25 years there, so it was highly likely that he was willing to help the young Codys secure their jobs there because of his earlier association with Martin Sr. for almost a decade.
Martin F. Cody, Sr., also continued working in a career utilizing the skills he had learned from his lighthouse job. He worked as an engineer in the City of New York in various capacities for 23 years after he was released from duty at the Statue in 1902. His predictions of the future importance of electricity were entirely accurate, and his sons had good job opportunities as a result.
Liberty’s Legacy: It is very obvious from talking with family members and reading accounts and stories of all these keepers’ children that their lives were greatly affected in both personal and professional ways from being raised at the Statue of Liberty Lighthouse on Bedloe’s Island. As Liberty Miller later said, “They tell me that more than 500,000 [people] visit the statue every year. I don’t believe that anyone of them can feel about Lady Liberty the way I do.”
Albert E. Littlefield, Charles N. Miller, and Martin F. Cody deserve to be honored and remembered whenever future generations speak of the history of the Statue of Liberty and its continued importance to our great nation. Their dedicated efforts for a combined 37 years of service made it possible for Lady Liberty not only to protect the harbor waterways as a beacon light, but to shine on as the symbol that continues to enlighten the whole world today.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2019 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.