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.

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