Lighthouse Daughters--Ida Lewis

Monday, July 29, 2013

Abbie Burgess Grant was a well-known, romantic figure in her day, but Ida Lewis may have been the most famous of the lighthouse daughters.

Idawalley (Ida) Zorada Lewis’s father was appointed keeper of the beacon on Lime Rock in 1853, but he did not move his family there until 1857, after the government constructed a dwelling on the tiny island. The oldest of four children, Ida was 15 when they moved to the lighthouse.

Four months later, Ida’s father had a paralyzing stroke. Between them, Ida and her mother managed both the lighthouse and a household that included Ida’s paralyzed father and an invalid sister. Because of these responsibilities, Ida did not have time to attend school. She did play an important role in her siblings’ education, however.

The lighthouse was surrounded by water. The only way to make the one-third mile trip to shore was by boat. Ida was already an excellent swimmer, and she now became an excellent rower as she ferried her siblings to and from school. She also picked up supplies when needed.

A newspaper article credited Ida’s father with this quote:

            Again and again I have seen the children from this window as they were returning from school in some heavy blow, when Ida alone was with them, and old sailor that I am, I felt that I would not give a penny for their lives, so furious was the storm.

But Ida always got them home safely.

Ida’s rowing and swimming skills were to make her famous. She is officially credited with saving 18 lives, but she kept no records and the actual count is probably much higher.

The first recorded rescue occurred in 1858, when Ida was sixteen. Four boys went out for a sail, and one of them decided to show off by climbing to the top of the mast and rocking the boat back and forth. The boat capsized, and the four youths struggled to hold on to the overturned boat. Ida rowed over and pulled each of the four into her own boat.

Several of Ida’s rescues occurred when soldiers were returning to Fort Adams after a night of too much drinking. It strained the wiry Ida to pull these uncooperative men into her boat, but she never thought twice before helping them.

At one of those times, Ida was sick with a cold and was warming her feet at the fire when her mother cried out that a boat had overturned. Ida ran to the soldiers’ aid without taking time to put on a coat or shoes. With the help of a younger brother, she pulled two men into her boat in the middle of a snowstorm. She later received a Congressional medal for this rescue.

Because the lighthouse was so close to shore, and with Ida’s growing fame as a rescuer, tourists swarmed over the tiny island, interrupting the family's solitude and leaving litter and destruction everywhere. Ida also had some famous visitors, including President Ulysses S. Grant.

After a four-year engagement to William Wilson, Ida married him in 1870 and quickly regretted it. Although she never got a divorce, she soon returned—alone—to Lime Rock.

Ida and her mother continued to keep the Lime Rock Light for Ida’s father until his death in 1872, when Ida’s mother became the official keeper. Ida received the appointment in 1879 and continued it until her death in 1911.

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For more information on Ida Lewis and Lime Rock Light Station, see pages 42-48 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:

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The illustration shows Ida Lewis on the cover of the July 31, 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Lighthouse Daughters--Abbie Burgess (Grant)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Unlike Catherine Moore, Abbie Burgess did not have to go outside to light the lights. The 28 lamps hung in two stone towers attached to opposite ends of the keeper’s dwelling. But that didn’t mean it was an easy life.

Matinicus Rock Light Station was a lonely, barren outcropping located five miles from Maine’s Matinicus Island and twenty miles from the mainland. Fourteen-year-old Abbie moved there in 1853 when her father received the lighthouse keeper’s job. At the time of the move, the family also consisted of Abbie’s invalid mother, an older brother who was usually gone with the fishing boats, and two younger sisters. (Abbie also had other siblings, all older, who no longer lived at home.)

Abbie’s father wanted to earn additional money as a lobster fisherman, so he trained Abbie to help with the lights while he was away.

A lighthouse tender was supposed to bring supplies twice a year, but it wasn’t dependable. By January 1856, the delivery due September 1855 had still not arrived. Desperate for supplies, Abbie’s father sailed to Matinicus Island for food and medicine, leaving seventeen-year-old Abbie in charge of the light. A month-long gale blew in soon after he left, and it was weeks before he could return.

Worried about the dwelling’s low-lying position, Abbie moved her family into one of the towers. She wrote this in a letter to a friend:

            You know the hens were our only companions. Being convinced, as the gale increased, that unless they were brought into the house they would be lost, I said to mother: “I must try to save them.” She advised me not to attempt it. The thought, however, of parting with them without an effort was not to be endured, so seizing a basket, I ran out a few yards after the rollers had passed and the sea fell off a little, with the water knee deep, to the coop, and rescued all but one. It was the work of a moment, and I was back in the house with the door fastened, but none too quick, for at that instant my little sister, standing at a window, exclaimed, “Oh, look! look there! the worst sea is coming!”

Through it all, Abbie kept the lights burning.

The job as lighthouse keeper was a political appointment, and Abbie’s father lost his position to a Republican appointee in 1860. Abbie stayed to help the new keeper and fell in love with his son, Isaac Grant. Isaac and Abbie raised four children and remained on Matinicus Rock until 1875, when they transferred to Whitehead Light near Spruce Head, Maine. Both resigned in 1890 due to Abbie’s poor health. She died two years later at the age of 53.

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For more information on Abbie Burgess Grant and Matinicus Rock Light Station, see pages 21-25 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:

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The picture is the cover illustration from the May 2, 1882 issue of Harper’s Young People: An Illustrated Weekly. Abbie Burgess may have been the inspiration for the drawing.

Lighthouse Daughters--Catherine Moore

Monday, July 15, 2013

At least three female U.S. lighthouse keepers started their careers before they reached maturity. Although their fathers were the official lighthouse keepers, they soon became the primary workers.

Mind the Light, Katie, by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candice Clifford, includes the stories of Catherine Moore, Abbie Burgess Grant, and Ida Lewis. Each is a fascinating female who deserves her own post.

Catherine (Kate) Moore was twelve in 1817 when her father became lighthouse keeper at Black Rock Light Station off the north shore of Long Island Sound (in Connecticut). She started assisting him immediately. When he was injured two years later, Kate took over his duties and remained unofficial lighthouse keeper until her father’s death in 1871. It was a long time to serve without official recognition, but perhaps she was happy to give that honor to her father.

Years later, Kate described her evening routine:

During windy nights it was impossible to keep [the lights] burning at all, and I had to stay there all night, but on other nights I slept at home, dressed in a suit of boys’ clothes, my lighted lantern hanging at my headboard and my face turned so that I could see shining on the wall the light from the tower and know if anything happened to it. Our house was [about 700 feet] from the lighthouse, and to reach it I had to walk across two planks under which on stormy nights were four feet of water, and it was not too easy to stay on those slippery, wet boards with the wind whirling and the spray blinding me.

Kate’s light was located on Fayerweather Island. She planted a garden and kept a number of animals, which were her main playmates. As she grew older, she carved and sold duck decoys and had a thriving oyster business. She is credited with saving 21 lives during her years at the lighthouse.

After her father’s death, Kate received the official appointment and continued on until she retired in 1878. She lived another twenty-plus years in a house with a view of Fayerweather Island and Long Island Sound.

Although Kate never married and knew no other life, she appears to have been happy enough. Still, when asked during her retirement years if she missed her island home, she said, “Never. The sea is a treacherous friend.”

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For more information on Catherine Moore and Black Rock Light Station, see pages 7-10 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:

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The picture from the Coast Guard shows Black Rock Light Station as it probably looked when Catherine Moore served there.

Womanning the Lights on Southern Lake Michigan

Monday, July 8, 2013

Yes, that’s what it says. “Womanning” the lights, not manning them.

Mind the Light, Katie, by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candice Clifford, tells the story of thirty-three female lighthouse keepers, including two that kept the lights burning on the southern tip of Lake Michigan, not too far from where I live.

Harriet Colfax “wommaned” the Michigan City Light Station from 1861-1904. Unlike most female keepers, she was neither a lighthouse keeper’s widow nor a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. She seems to have just decided to do it. And with a cousin in high places (he was a U.S. Congressman at the time), she asked for and received the appointment.

Small of stature and frail in appearance, Harriet was not an obvious candidate for the position, which at times required her to lug the oil for the lamps across fragile walkways in gale conditions. Yet she managed to fulfill her duties faithfully for 43 years.

The lights did go out at times, but that was the weather’s fault, not Harriet’s. Her log entries record her struggle keeping up the light on the west pier. During storms, she reached the light by walking along a wooden catwalk elevated above the pier. The catwalk kept her above the huge waves that swept over the pier, but the catwalk had its own dangers, and the wind damaged it numerous times. In October 1886, Harriet fought a long, hard struggle against the gale to light the lamps. As she returned to shore, she turned around and saw the entire tower fall into the sea.

In spite of the hardships of the job, Harriet maintained the Michigan City lights until failing health caused her to retire at the age of 80. There were probably times when she hated her job, but her 43-year career makes me think that it must have mostly given her satisfaction.

Not so for Mary Ryan, who kept the Calumet Harbor Entrance Light for seven years (1873-1880) after her husband died. Her log entries don’t paint a picture of a happy woman. They include the following comments.

  • “This is such a dreary place to be all alone in.” (December 1873)
  •  “Oh for a home in the sunny south.” (April 1874)
  • “I think some changes will have to be made this is not a fit place for anyone to live in.” (April 1880)
  • “Oh what a place.” (August 1880)
  • “This is all gloom and darkness.” (November 1880)

Or maybe it was just the climate she despised, not the lightkeeping duties themselves. After all, she did stick it out for seven years.

Stay tuned to find out how the younger generation reacted to lighthouse living.

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For more information on Harriet Colfax and the Michigan City Light Station, see pages 49-56 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:

For more information on Mary Ryan and the Calumet Harbor Entrance Light Station, see pages 57-58 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following website:

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The Coast Guard picture at the head of this post shows the current Michigan City East Pierhead Light. That light was not constructed until 1904, around the time that Harriet Colfax retired, so she might not have lighted it. Still, the catwalk in the picture—suspended high above the pier—is probably similar to the one on the west pier that gave Harriet Colfax so much trouble.

Reading and Writing on Lighthouse Time

Monday, July 1, 2013

As I mentioned in last week’s post, libraries have played a big role in my life. Because I lived in a small town and the closest city wasn’t very large, the limited selections at my libraries didn’t begin to fill me up. But without those libraries, I would have starved for reading material.
I can’t imagine living on an isolated island without even a library to feed my reading obsession. Yet that is just how lighthouse keepers and their families used to live.
The first lighthouses were built on private land and subsidized by the individual colonies. The U.S. Lighthouse Establishment was created in 1789, and it took over the responsibility for maintaining the lighthouses. (This responsibility was transferred to the Coast Guard in 1939.)
For almost ninety years, those who served were responsible for providing their own books. Then they finally got some relief. The picture shows a replica of a travelling library on display at the White River Light Station Museum on Lake Michigan. According to the sign with the display, “In 1876, the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment created portable libraries to aid in the educational needs of remote lightkeepers, lightship and life saving personnel and their families. These libraries traditionally carried a Bible, European history and travel books, encyclopedias, children’s books, technical information for keepers and contemporary novels of the time period.” The placard also says that there were over 700 libraries in circulation by the early 1900s, so I’m assuming that each location got a full library until it was time to replace it with another one.
What made me think about this now? I’ve been re-reading Mind the Light, Katie: The History of Thirty-Three Female Lighthouse Keepers by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford. Some of these women led interesting lives, and I’m going to share them with you this month. While many of them wrote letters and most were required to keep a journal as part of the job, I’m only aware of one who spent her solitary hours writing a book. So I’ll start with Elizabeth Williams.
In 1869, Elizabeth’s then husband, Clement Van Riper, accepted an appointment as keeper at Harbor Point Light Station on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. (It appears to have also been called Whiskey Point Light and St. James Light.) Clement drowned three years later as he attempted to row out to help a floundering ship. In her book A Child of the Sea; and Life Among the Mormons, Elizabeth described her reaction.

I was weak from sorrow, but realized that though the life that was dearest to me had gone, yet there were others out in the dark and treacherous waters who needed the rays from the shining light of my tower. Nothing could rouse me but that thought, then all my life and energy was given to the work which now seemed was given me to do.

After Clement’s death, Elizabeth was appointed to keep the Harbor Point Light Station. In this, Elizabeth was similar to the majority of female lighthouse keepers, who took over after their husbands died. Unlike most, however, she didn’t stay single. Elizabeth continued to service the Harbor Point Light Station after she married Daniel Williams, who apparently didn’t object to her job.
In 1884, Elizabeth was reassigned to Little Traverse Light Station, where her husband photographed the surrounding area and sold his pictures to tourists. This is also where Elizabeth wrote A Child of the Sea; and Life Among the Mormons, dealing mostly with her childhood but ending with a few pages about her lighthouse experiences. It was published in 1905 and is still in print.
Elizabeth remained at Little Traverse Light Station until she retired in 1913.
Next week’s post will talk about the hard life endured by two other Lake Michigan lighthouse keepers.
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For more information on Elizabeth Williams at Harbor Point and Little Traverse Light Stations, see pages 71-74 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:




Check these websites for more information on the history of lighthouses in the U.S.

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One word of caution. While Mind the Light, Katie appears to be well researched, it contains a number of internal inconsistancies that probably resulted from poor proofreading. For that reason, the material in each of my posts is supported by at least one additional source.