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“Ladies of the Lights:” How Michigan women lived and served as lighthouse keepers

A lighthouse, silhouetted against a pinkish horizon, overlooking Lake Michigan
(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)
A lighthouse, silhouetted against a pinkish horizon, overlooking Lake Michigan

Michigan has more than its fair share of lighthouses. In fact, the Great Lakes state, with its expansive shorelines, boasts the most in the country. When you think of a lighthouse keeper, you may think of a stoic, bearded man a la The Lighthouse with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. While many men led this life, Michigan has a long, beautiful history of female lighthouse keepers.

Their stories have not always made it into the spotlight -- or lighthouse beam -- and one author is here to change that. As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we talked with Patricia Majher, author of Ladies of the Lights: Michigan Women in the U.S. Lighthouse Service, about their work and lives.

Majher grew up in Bay City, which is home to a lighthouse and two of Michigan’s more than 50 female lighthouse keepers. While around half of those keepers were assistants to their husbands, the other half were the primary lighthouse servicers themselves.

They worked in this industry at a time when employment for women was difficult to come by, especially through the federal government, which oversaw lighthouses.

“The first female lighthouse keeper in Michigan, Catherine Shook, started her job in 1849, and she came into that job as many women did, she succeeded her deceased husband, who died while in service,” Majher said. “Generally speaking, the lighthouse service thought that widows could probably take that job on because they had probably been assisting their husbands all along.”

However, the lighthouse service didn’t expect women to stay on the job long. For instance, there was never a uniform designed for women. But this did not stop them from serving well or often better than their male counterparts, according to Majher. And their persona as temporary workers in the field played out in their favor. Majher said no specific pay grade was created for women; their compensation was equitable from the very beginning, although neither male nor female keepers made very much money.

Servicing a lighthouse was not for the faint of heart. It involved maintaining the light overnight, checking on it every four hours and more frequently on dark and stormy nights. They dealt with caustic chemicals, hauling hefty barrels of oil up and down the stairs. They kept the house and the machines clean as well, keeping up with rules and regulations.

While living in a lighthouse may seem lonesome, keepers often had large families with them. The children, known as “beacon brats,” were usually homeschooled. And they enjoyed their lives in the lighthouse, probably more than their working parents did, said Majher.

“They pretty much had free range of an island or a big patch of land on which the lighthouse sat on the mainland and, you know, in nature and in the water,” Majher said. “In some ways it was a very romantic way to live.”

While women and their families were more than capable of running the lighthouses, they didn’t always have easy lives. Some families lost children to diseases, as their distance from land made it difficult to access a doctor. There were also cases of assault. Majher mentioned an incident in the Presque Isle lighthouse, where the Garrity family lived. One of the Garrity daughters was assaulted by a male assistant.

“The father, in his logbook for the day, actually used the word, ‘rape,’ and he was brought to justice and obviously kicked out of the lighthouse service,” Majher said. “But that didn’t deter this young woman, whose name was Anna, and she later became a lighthouse keeper on her own.”

While most female lighthouse keepers were notable in their own right, a few stand out to Majher in particular. Elizabeth VanRiper Williams began serving after her husband passed away. She started when she was 31 years old and served for a total of 41 years. Beloved by the community around her, she was entrusted with the brand new Little Traverse lighthouse as it was being built, something that only happened with experienced keepers. Her autobiography helped shape Majher’s book.

And the last recorded female lighthouse keeper was Frances Wary Wuori Marshall. She served on Lake Michigan’s beaches. Though there wasn’t much shipping traffic, she excelled in another vital role lighthouse keepers historically held: lifesavers.  

“She was an extremely strong swimmer, and she saved many lives when people would come visit the lake and maybe not be aware of the dangerous riptides that we have in Lake Michigan and would find themselves just drawn out,” Majher said. “Many times she would just drop whatever she was doing and race down the beach, jump in, and swim out to save these people. That was sort of her second calling.”

Majher said women’s roles in Michigan lighthouses back then is not very different from how they show up now: balancing work and family life. This, she said, may have colored how they thought of their work.

“There were many faces to that position. They were approached in different ways by the men and the women,” Majher said. “I think the women really felt it was almost a motherly, maternal responsibility, you know, their boys out on the lakes.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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