Harriet Colfax & the women of the Lighthouse Service

Harriet Colfax, “Uncle Sam’s Oldest and Most Reliable Lighthouse Keeper.” U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Harriet Colfax, “Uncle Sam’s Oldest and Most Reliable Lighthouse Keeper.” U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Scott Price.

This month’s commemoration of women’s history highlights the achievements of women in the Coast Guard and celebrates their qualities of character, courage and commitment. The Coast Guard is unique among others in that women joined the professional ranks in the Lighthouse Service decades before the Civil War. They were typically hired when their husbands or fathers, who were the keepers, fell ill or passed away. But there were a few who obtained an appointment in their own right—usually by the old tried-and-true method of pulling political strings. That’s how Harriet Colfax, a woman referred to by the Chicago Tribune as “Uncle Sam’s Oldest and Most Reliable Lighthouse Keeper,” got her job as the keeper of the Michigan City Light—a position she held for 43 years.

According to various sources Colfax owed her appointment to her cousin, Congressman Schuyler Colfax. Harriet Colfax had been working in Michigan City as a school teacher and as a compositor at her brother’s Whig newspaper, The Transcript, but after he sold his newspaper she decided she was ready for a change. With her cousin’s guidance she applied for the light-keeper’s position at the Michigan City Lighthouse and was appointed as the keeper on March 9, 1861. The lighthouse structure that she moved into had been built in 1858 and contained a fifth-order Fresnel lens that was visible for more than 15 miles in the attached tower.

Michigan City Lighthouse in 1914. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Michigan City Lighthouse in 1914. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Michigan City’s harbor was protected by two “piers” that stretched into the lake. In 1871 an additional light was added at the end of the east pier, 1,500 feet from shore. Crews constructed an elevated walkway so Colfax could light that lamp, in addition to the main beacon, every evening. Her logbooks described her harrowing attempts to venture out over the water, carrying a bucket of heated lard oil (to keep it in liquid form—used until 1882 when kerosene became the primary fuel) during storms. She passed over the walkway during howling storms where waves crashed over the pier and crosswalk and many times the walkway was swept away. When the beacon light was moved to the west pier, she had to venture forth by boat to get to that lamp. But that beacon was swept away during a stormy night in 1886. Eventually she got an assistant to help her but his employment was infrequent so for the most part she was on her own.

Her logbook entries give some indication as to just how dangerous her job was–even with help. A terrific storm came ashore at Michigan City on the night of Oct. 13, 1872, and Colfax noted in her log: “Gale perfectly fearful by nightfall. Waves dashed over the top of the beacon. Reached the beacon at imminent risk tonight as the waves ran over the elevated walk. Watched both lights with closest attention all night.” The next year, on May 28, 1873, Colfax wrote: “A terrible hurricane to-night at about the time of lighting up. Narrowly escaped being swept into the lake.” On Oct. 28, 1873, another storm came ashore: “Terrific westerly gale. The waves dashing high over both piers, & over my head when on my way down to the light beacon.” Her strength of character is evident in her writings, and she seems to have kept a good sense of humor as well. On Halloween night in 1873 she wrote: “Main light and beacon both bewitched tonight, requiring my constant attention.”

Harriet Colfax was the keeper of Michigan City Lighthouse for 43 years. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Harriet Colfax was the keeper of Michigan City Lighthouse for 43 years. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A reporter for the Chicago Tribune interviewed her in 1904. She expressed to him why she did it, every night, year after year, even when past 80 years of age: “I have a helper to carry up the lamps, but always trim and light them myself. In forty-three years none but me has done it. I love the lamps, the old lighthouse, and the work. They are the habit, the home, everything dear I have known for so long. I could not bear to see anyone else light my lamp. I would rather die here than live elsewhere.” And she finished her interview by noting “My lights never went out till I quenched them myself.” Night after night, through 43 years of dedicated service, that was the case. Regardless of the weather or even if she fell ill, her lights were always shining to guide mariners safely to the harbor.

That kind of devotion to duty, despite her age, the weather and the time of night, demonstrates her character. For decades she carried out her responsibilities faithfully, knowing full well that lives lay in the balance. That’s why she walked the elevated walkway night after night to the far light on the pier, even during fierce storms that threw wind and whipped water across her path. Her courage in carrying out her duties is unquestionable, even today.

How about compassion? Elizabeth Williams, Keeper of the Beaver Island Harbor Point Light, wrote about the importance of what all of the lighthouse keepers did every night. In her book, A Child of the Sea, she wrote “At first I felt almost afraid to assume so great a responsibility, knowing it all required watchful care and strength, and many sleepless nights. I now felt a deeper interest in our sailors’ lives than ever before, and I longed to do something for humanity’s sake. . .” There’s the answer: the keepers who kept the nation’s lighthouses lit did so, night after night, “for humanity’s sake.”

The waters surrounding Michigan City in 1914. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The waters surrounding Michigan City in 1914. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Colfax retired in 1904 and by that time she’d been there so long that mariners referred to the lighthouse as “Little Miss Colfax’s light.” She passed away the following year but her legacy remains. She was in good company – more than 400 women served as keepers or assistants keepers with the U.S. Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard. Many of these women had careers that spanned decades. Thanks to the important research of Mary and Candace Clifford, whose book Women Who Kept the Lights, and Virginia Neal Thompson, among others, we’ve learned quite a bit about them. Each of these dedicated women embodies this month’s themes of character, courage and compassion—qualities that served them well as they tended the nation’s lighthouses, helped to keep seafarers on course and safely guided them from port to port.

If you’d care to learn more, the Historian’s Office has more information posted. They’ve also uploaded Coast Guard veteran Virginia Neal Thompson’s thesis as she examined critically the women keepers who served prior to the Civil War and raised questions regarding why they were hired, how they were viewed by their contemporaries and “lighting the way” to further research. Additionally, Colfax’s lighthouse is now the Old Lighthouse Museum, run by the Michigan City Historical Association. For more information—or if you’d like to visit, check out their website. Jan, a volunteer at the museum, stated: “we are very proud of Harriet Colfax; we try our best to keep her memory alive and her beloved lighthouse in such a condition that would make Harriet very proud of us.” We’re sure she would be as well!

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