Accidental research can lead to unexpected places. We know you love history and the clothing women wore during the last two hundred years or so. Inspired by a photo of our models at the 40 Mile Point Lighthouse, the curiosity light bulb lit up with the question “how many women served as lighthouse keepers during the 1800s and early 1900s?” Michigan (where we’re located) once had more lighthouses than anywhere else in the nation. Even though most lights are automated today, the history lives on. But, what is often overlooked is the role women played in keeping our coastlines safe for seafarers. More than fifty women served as lighthouse keepers in our fair state.
It was once said of Fred Astaire’s most famous dance partner, Ginger Rogers, that she did everything he did backward and in heels. A similar sentiment can be applied to female lighthouse keepers. They did everything the men did while rearing children, perhaps caring for an ailing husband or other family members, and looking every bit like a Victorian lady.
Here are highlights from just a few of the female lighthouse keepers from our home state who served during the Victorian era.
(left photo in featured graphic) We start in our own backyard with Anna Garrity. She was born on March 29, 1872, into a lighthouse keeper’s family. Her parents were Patrick and Mary Chambers. They were the last lighthouse keepers of the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse and first of the New Presque Isle Lighthouse on the shore of Lake Huron (about 10 miles from our location in Hawks). Her mother served as the first assistant keeper of the new light from 1872 until 1882. Her father served as keeper of the new light as well as the Presque Isle Harbor Range Lighthouses.
Anna became the keeper of the Presque Isle Harbor Range Lighthouses in 1903 and served until shortly before her death at age 65 on May 21, 1937. Twice a day she traversed the often-slippery boards leading to the Front Range Light. Every day she lit the light at dusk and extinguished it at dawn. (Illuminating the way: Women lighthouse keepers of the Great Lakes)
(right photo in featured graphic) Julia Moore met Aaron Sheridan in Chicago when he was recovering from injuries suffered during the Civil War in 1863. They were married in 1865. Although he lost full use of his left arm during the war, his determined character and courageous war record got him the job as the lighthouse keeper for South Manitou Island, located in Lake Michigan. The couple was blessed with six sons over the next twelve years. When a tower and steam-powered fog signal were added in 1871, Julia became an official assistant keeper. During a return trip to the island on March 15, 1878, Aaron, Julia, and their youngest son drown when the boat they were in capsized just off the ice that blocked access to the shore. Only the owner of the boat survived by clinging to the boat until he was rescued. Their son, George, also became a Great Lakes lighthouse keeper when he grew up. (National Park Service)
(Center photo in featured graphic) Sarah Noyes was born in 1840 and became the bride of Captain John Lane when she was 18 in 1858. The couple was appointed Lighthouse Keeper and Assistant Lighthouse Keeper of the Old Mission Peninsula Lighthouse on August 16, 1881. They served together until John’s death in 1906. Following his death, she served as Lighthouse Keeper for two years. John was in poor health for much of their time at the light leaving Sarah to carry most of the load to care for the light located where Lake Michigan meets Grand Traverse Bay. Her duties included keeping the light burning using oil from sunset to sunrise. This required trimming wicks every four hours so the light stayed bright. She also had to keep track of how much oil was received and how much was used every night. She also prepared and submitted reports. Moreover, she was expected to entertain lighthouse visitors and be sure no alcohol was served! (Notable Women of the Old Mission Peninsula: A Sampler)
Interested in finding out more about them? Ladies of the Lights: Michigan Women in the U.S. Lighthouse Service by Patricia Majher is available through booksellers and libraries (at least in Michigan). Recollections can help you emulate your favorite!