Cold, stormy nights, a life of solitude, hooks for hands and wooden pegs for legs. For many, this description brings to mind lightkeepers, the supposed madmen who tended to lighthouses. They lived out their days alone until they passed and now haunt the lighthouses they once kept. A simple narrative that is reinforced through media and tales we tell around the campfire.
But the men and women who tended to the over 200 lighthouses scattered around the Great Lakes were often not alone, nor were they crazy. Many of them even retired with all of their limbs in tact.
Meet Harriet Colfax:
For 43 years, Harriet Colfax kept the light burning bright in the Michigan City Lighthouse, making her the longest-serving woman keeper on the Great Lakes. Colfax lived in the lighthouse with Ann Hartwell, her confidante and companion of more than 70 years. Though she lived with Hartwell and had many assistants throughout the years, Colfax always lit the lamps herself (Laughlin).
Harriet Colfax pictured left with her confidante and life-long companion Ann Hartwell (right). Colfax was lightkeeper of the Michigan City lighthouse from 1861-1904. The lighthouse came to be known to locals as “Little Miss Colfax’s Light”.
Colfax is a testament to the dedication of a lightkeeper. These individuals worked 24/7 during the 30 plus week shipping season, risking their lives for the safe passage of ships travelling through the lakes. It was a position appointed for life and usually taken over by the keeper’s wife or children when they were too old, too sick or no longer alive.
Above left: Elizabeth Van Riper Williams was keeper at Beaver Harbor Lighthouse and Harbor Springs lighthouse from 1872-1913. Above centre: Nine Mile Point Lighthouse on Simcoe Island with living quarters in the back right and fog bell seen in the back left.Above right: Julia Sheridan was the lighthouse keeper at South Manitou Island Lighthouse from 1872-1878, when her and her husband drowned on their way to the mainland.
Lightkeepers were responsible for ensuring lamps were filled with oil; cutting wicks; replacing broken panes; cleaning lenses and reflectors; signaling with guns, bells or fog horns during foggy weather; and maintaining the grounds. Some keepers were even responsible for manning two lighthouses at a time (with an assistant if they were lucky). They slept during the day, whenever they had a few hours to spare. In return, they were given a rent-free house to live in yearlong and paid approximately $3000 to $5000 per year (in today’s rates).
In the unfortunate circumstances of shipwrecks, lightkeepers would go out on the lake to save the crewmembers, bringing them to shore and tending to them until help came. At times, neither the crew nor the lightkeeper made it back.
There is no overestimating the importance of this role in marine safety, and while many lighthouses continue to guide vessels through the hectic waters of the Great Lakes, the role of lightkeeper is a thing of the past. But maybe, if you visit a lighthouse on a cold, stormy night, you might just hear the clunk of a wooden peg leg.
Collections Intern, Summer 2021