Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2020

The Lighthouse Keeper Who Wrote For A Wife

By Timothy Harrison


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The Outer Island Lighthouse in Wisconsin’s ...

Standing on a high bluff at the most remote point of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands chain is the 90-foot-tall Outer Island Lighthouse where, on June 24, 1886, Joseph Sexton, at the age of 36, began his lighthouse career as a 2nd assistant lighthouse keeper.

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The original LaPointe Lighthouse on Long Island, ...

He must have done his job well, because on April 10, 1888 he was promoted to 1st assistant keeper. Slightly over one year later, on April 29, 1889, he was again promoted, but this time he was transferred to become the head keeper of the LaPointe Lighthouse on Long Island, also in the Apostle Islands, a position he would hold until he retired on September 11, 1921.

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The original LaPointe Lighthouse as it appeared ...

In 1870, Joseph Sexton married Mary Elizabeth Stahl and by the time the couple arrived at the LaPointe Lighthouse in 1889, they had four children with them: Josephine (b.1871), Emma (b.1873), Mary (b.1875), Edward (b.1884), and a fifth child Dora was born the following year at the lighthouse. However, tragedy struck the family on September 7, 1891 when Joseph Sexton’s wife died unexpectedly.

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Joseph Sexton with his second wife Sophia at the ...

After their mother’s death, the older Sexton children helped in raising the younger children, but when they wanted to leave and live on their own, Joseph Sexton made a bold move. He wrote to his deceased wife’s family on the Stahl family farm in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and asked if there were any women in the family who would be interested in marrying him and help to raise his younger children.

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James R. Sexton (9/18/1902–2/22/1946) followed in ...

That letter resulted in the coming of his deceased wife’s niece Sophia Stahl, who arrived at the lighthouse on July 19, 1894. A few weeks later, after briefly getting better acquainted, the couple left the island and travelled to Bayfield, Wisconsin where they were married early on a Sunday morning and were back on the island by the end of the day. On August 5, 1894, Joseph Sexton wrote in the station’s log book, “Returned with my wife. Married Sunday 8 AM.” She was 14 years younger than he was.

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The second LaPointe Lighthouse on Long Island, ...

Joseph Sexton and his second wife Sophia went on to have six children together: Violet (b.1895), Clement (b.1897), Gertrude (b.1900), James (b.1903), Malvena (b.1906) and Ethel (b.1908).

Sophia and the children boarded on the mainland during the school season and Joseph would join them after the lighthouse closed when the shipping season came to an end as the lake would start to freeze over. The entire family would always be together in the summer and weekends in autumn months, provided the weather was safe for travel.

Closing up the LaPointe Lighthouse for the winter months could often be risky, as was reported on December 12, 1919 in the Bayfield County Press. “Light keeper Joe Sexton and assistants Anderson and Lewis had a most strenuous trip coming over from the station on Long Island. They started out from the island to cross the channel on the ice to Houghton Point. Owning to the fact that they were pulling a heavy sled well laden, the trip was necessarily slow with the result that assistant Anderson froze four of his toes. The men were put up at Houghton Point by residents on Wednesday evening, and came on to Bayfield by train yesterday afternoon.”

The assistant keepers referred to in the story were William Anderson who was the first assistant keeper at LaPointe Lighthouse from 1919 to 1924 and Charles A. Lewis, who was the 2nd assistant keeper from 1919 to 1924 and later promoted to 1st assistant, a position that he held from 1925 to 1928.

Life at LaPointe Lighthouse was typical of island life, and it was a great place to raise a family. One exception was the black flies. On July 21, 1897 Joseph Sexton wrote in the station’s log book, “Chopped the timber down across the point to get the wind to drive the flies away for they are very bad.” He apparently had a green thumb of sorts and planted a garden with potatoes and other vegetables; however he had to build cribs to protect his garden from the shifting shoreline. He also had chickens and a cow for fresh milk. The chicken coop and the barn that he used no longer stand today.

On July 24, 1899 Joseph Sexton celebrated his birthday when he wrote in the log book for posterity, “This is my birthday. Just struck the even 50 today. Feel young and good. Hand steady and firm. Put a floor in the barn today.”

However, another log book posting by Joseph Sexton on October 4, 1910 not only told of his daily work routine, but also a tragedy, which apparently he did not want to believe when he wrote, “Worked on the walk. Heard today that Ed Sexton was drowned. Hope not.” Joseph Sexton was referring to his 26-year-old son Edward F. Sexton who had followed in his footsteps and joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service with an appointment in 1909 as a 2nd assistant keeper at Devils Island Lighthouse, another one of the lights in the Apostle Islands.

Apparently, Edward Sexton had fulfilled his duties in an exemplary fashion because he was promoted and transferred on August 5, 1910 to become the very first 1st assistant keeper at the newly completed and opened Split Rock Lighthouse Station in Two Harbors, Minnesota.

Sadly, the news that Joseph Sexton had received at the LaPointe Lighthouse was indeed true; his son Edward, along with Split Rock’s 2nd assistant keeper Roy Gill, had both drowned on October 2, 1910 when they were presumably knocked off the station’s small sail boat by the boom while on a mail run to Beaver Bay, Minnesota.

Another one of Joseph Sexton’s sons, James R. Sexton, also followed in his father’s footsteps and began his light keeping career as a 2nd assistant keeper at Passage Island Lighthouse near Isle Royal in Lake Superior, Michigan where he served from 1923 to 1927. He later went on to serve at the Superior Entry/Wisconsin Point Lighthouse, and the Duluth Harbor North Breakwater and South Breakwater Outer Lights until 1943.

During his 32-year stint at LaPointe Lighthouse, Joseph Sexton hosted a number of large work crews where he witnessed and helped in the construction of a new fog signal building, the erection in 1896-1897 of the 70-foot-tall skeletal LaPointe Lighthouse and also in 1896-1897 the construction of the Chequamegon Point Light, which was also located on Long Island.

Keeper Sexton also built the boardwalks that connected all the structures and the two lighthouses. On October 31, 1896 he recorded in the logbook that he returned from Bayfield with the new lens for the tower. On August 31, 1897 he wrote that he had helped winch two cast iron deck plates, weighing 1,100 pounds each, to the top of the new LaPointe tower.

The new LaPointe Lighthouse and Chequamegon Point Lighthouse were first lighted on October 11, 1897, and keeper Joseph Sexton and his assistant, William J. Reed, were responsible for both light towers.

At the same time as the two new light towers were constructed, Joseph Sexton also assisted in the removal of the tower and lantern from atop the original 1858 LaPointe Lighthouse and its raising up to add a second story to the house to make it into a duplex for expanded living space for the keepers.

Another interesting logbook entry on May 27, 1909 by keeper Sexton recorded that, “Lightning struck the tower at the fog signal and put out the light 9:10 P.M. and tore up the slab walk some for about 300 feet and run around the signal.” It took until October for the lighthouse tender Amaranth to bring a lightning rod and a few weeks later, keeper Sexton wrote again that he “Worked at the white light putting on the lightning rod on the tower. Sunk in 8 feet in the sand.”

After serving as the keeper of the LaPointe Lighthouse for an amazing 32 years, Joseph Sexton retired at the age of 72 on September 11, 1921.

Living their retirement on the mainland must have been quite a change for Joseph and his wife Sophia, but the couple did not get to enjoy too many years together in retirement. Sophia died in 1925. Joseph Sexton then went to live with a family member in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, where he died on September 19, 1934 at the age of 85. He was buried at the Calvary Cemetery in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Interestingly, Joseph’s son, James Sexton, who died on February 22, 1946, at the age of 43, was also buried at a Calvary Cemetery, but one located in Duluth, Minnesota.

Hopefully, the day will come when U.S. Lighthouse Service memorial lighthouse keeper plaques will be placed at their gravesites.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2020 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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