By Roberta

WOMEN WHO KEPT THE LIGHTS: An illustrated history of female lighthouse keepers
AUTHOR:   Mary Louise Clifford, J. Candace Clifford
DATE:         1993; second edition now available
LENGTH:    1st edition was 183 pages in paperback
GENRE:       Nonfiction, history


            “These old lamps on Matinicus Rock … I often dream of them.  When I dream of them it always seens to me that I have been away a long while, and I am hurrying toward the rock to light the lamps there before sunset … I feel a great deal more worried in my dreams than when I am awake.

            “I wonder of the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn out body!  If I ever have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or beacon.” 

So reads a letter written by Abbie Burgess Grant shortly before her death in 1892.  She had spent 38 of her 52 years at a lighthouse, having moved to the light station on Matinicus Rock, an island off the coast of Maine at the age of 14, when her father won the appointment as keeper.  When Abbie was 17, a terrific gale stranded her father on the mainland for several weeks.  During his absence, Abbie faithfully maintained the lighthouse, keeping 28 Argand lamps lit every night, while caring for her sick mother and her three younger sisters.  The gale was so severe that the old keeper’s quarters were destroyed; fortunately, Abbie had moved everyone into one of the two light towers.  The experience obviously didn’t ruin her spirit, however; when her husband Isaac Grant became the keeper of the Matinicus Rock light, she took the salaried post of assistant keeper.  Later, they were transferred to White Head Light, near Spruce Head, Maine, and eventually after Grant’s death in or around 1875, she became Keeper herself.  It appears she kept that post until her own death. 

This real-life adventure story is only one of many related in the book “Women Who Kept The Lights”.  I found this book in the giftshop of the Eagle Rock lighthouse museum in Door County, Wisconsin.  It was the first time I’d ever visited a lighthouse, and I instantly fell in love with these beacons of life and hope.  This book was one of the first in my collection of lighthouse books.  It remains one of my favorites, and I will probably invest in the new edition, which has expanded notes and documentation.  The book is very well researched, and offers not only a history of the American lighthouse service from the Revolutionary War through the first decades of the twentieth century, and some incredible details of lighthouse life, but also a primary focus on the 122 women who are known to have served as Lighthouse Keepers.  Many others were assistant keepers, and even more served without official appointment.  I was extremely surprised to learn that this often arduous occupation was quite acceptable for women.  Sometimes they took over from a father or husband who held the post before them, but others won the appointments themselves.

  There are so many fascinating women outlined in this book it’s difficult to pick out my favorites, other than Abbie Burgess whom some of you may remember from my ER story “Ghosts”.  There was Emily Fish, the widow of a consul to China, who brought a Chinese manservant, antique furniture, fine china and silver, and leather bound books to the Point Pinos Light Station off California, and whose niece Juliet Nichols became the lighthouse keeper at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.  Both women were at their posts on a fateful day in 1906, and could only watch while San Francisco and the surrounding country was devastated by earthquake.  Then there’s Harriet Colfax, keeper of the Michigan City Light in Indiana from 1861 to 1904, and Julia Williams, at the Santa Barbara Light in California from 1865 to 1905, who at the time of her retirement was the oldest incumbent in the lighthouse service, according to her obituary.

  None of these women saw herself as extraordinary in any way, and part of what amazes me is that they were so accepted by society in general that the public paid them very little notice, unless there was a shipwreck that called for rescues, or a particularly bad storm from which the efforts of the lighthouse keepers saved many ships from disaster.  This appears to be the only book on the subject of women in the lighthouse service, and none of the women involved wrote a biography.  The writers of “Women Who Kept The Lights” had to find primary sources: letters, diaries, lighthouse logs.  “The exploits of these women have not been recorded in places where the public can become familiar with them.  Much of the published literature about women in the 19th century focuses on prescriptions for proper female behavior, expressing social norms formulated largely by men.  Their writings described the ideal female, emphasizing the passivity of her nature and her domestic attributes, and focused on middle- and upper-class, white, northern, urban women.  The actual experiences of women who were forced by circumstances to earn their own living, or immigrant women, and of black women bore no relation to those established norms.”

  Still, the Cliffords did a remarkable job, combing through volumes of lighthouse logs looking for entries by female keepers, searching lighthouse museums and historical societies for collections of letters, diaries, and newspaper articles, including obituaries, and wading through the historical accounts of individual lighthouses.  Their findings are related in a well-organized, coherent manner, and are backed up with lots of illustrations, from photographs to copies of log entries, from copies of newspaper articles to maps.  Along the way, they paint a vivid picture of the difficulty of the work these women did: hauling buckets of whale or lard oil up to the towers or out along narrow wooden walkways frequently under attack from the waves, keeping that oil heated so it would work properly, clipping wicks and cleaning lenses and reflectors, hitting fog bells with hammers when the automatic mechanisms failed, as they often did – and all of this in proper women’s clothing.  On top of that, lighthouse keepers were expected to keep the houses in perfect order, open to visitors and inspectors at any times.  They usually grew their own food, raised and schooled their children, and frequently housed shipwreck victims until such time as they could be safely evacuated. 

  In plain, easily understood language, the authors of this book are able to provoke beautiful, haunting images of a hard, oft-times lonely, but very important and essential profession. Even where they couldn’t find specific stories to relate, what little data they did find is intriguing enough to make the reader’s imagination sit up and take notice, as in the case of Sarah Fine, at St. Mark’s Light, Florida: there is only the lighthouse log from which to deduce that she took over the lighthouse responsibilities upon the death of her husband – without any explanation, her husband’s entries cease and on the very next day, her entries begin, indicating that despite loss and grief, the lights were always lit.

  For anyone interested in the history of real women in this country, or just interested in lighthouses, this is one of the best books you could read.  It’s like uncovering a secret society, a part of history you never hear about in school and probably never imagined existed.  After all, in the twentieth century, when we were in school, women no longer served as lighthouse keepers.  Once the lighthouses had electricity and other modern conveniences, the work became “too complicated” or “too technical” for women to tackle, or, to quote a 1948 Coast Guard bulletin, these changes “placed the duties of keepers of lighthouses beyond the capacity of most women.”  How ironic can you get?


You can find a copy of "Women Who Kept the Lights" at , your local book store or library

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