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.

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