Spotlight shines on women lighthouse keepers

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Photo: University of Michigan


LANSING — The most visible legacy of Michigan’s lighthouse heritage is in the buildings preserved along the coast — among them the Whitefish Point Light Station on Lake Superior, Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Leelanau State Park and Big Sable Point Lighthouse near Ludington.

They’re the physical structures — more than 120 of them — that draw tourists and remind the public of the hazards of sailing and shipping on the Great Lakes.

They also attract the money and efforts of historic preservationists and maritime heritage enthusiasts who see them as key pieces of the state’s cultural heritage.

For example, sale of “Save Our Lights” specialty license plates has raised more than $1 million for restoration and preservation grants. The plates depict the red-and-white striped White Shoal Lighthouse on Lake Michigan, 20 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge.

However, the people who operated the lighthouses, often in bleak and isolated conditions, are less known — especially the 52 women who served as keepers and assistant keepers for more than a century on lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron and the Detroit River.

That absence from public attention isn’t surprising, according to Terry Pepper, executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association in Mackinaw City.

That’s partly because the U.S. Lighthouse Service strictly regulated what keepers could record in their daily journals to official happenings, such as the weather, events of “earth-shattering importance” and visits by federal boats. Entries about family and personal matters were forbidden, he said.

“Until the Coast Guard took over in 1939, the agencies responsible pretty much considered keepers a necessary evil,” Pepper said. “All that mattered was the light. They built the structures using the technology they had, and the keepers were sort of an afterthought.”

Those keepers led “a rugged life filled with long hours and hard work punctuated by periods of real peril,” Patricia Majher writes in her new book, “Ladies of the Lights: Michigan Women in the U.S. Lighthouse Service” (University of Michigan Press, $22.95).

“Not a profession for the fainthearted, it was thought by many to be unsuitable employment for the `fairer sex,’” said Majher, who is editor of Michigan History magazine.

Majher curated an exhibition about female keepers at the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame. In the past several years, the Ladies of the Lights exhibition has traveled to “every small maritime city with a museum or a library,” said center director Sandy Soifer.

According to Majher, some women took over as keepers after their husbands died — such as Catherine Shook at Pointe aux Barques on Lake Huron and Caroline Litogot Antaya at the Mamajuda Lighthouse in Wyandotte — or left for the Army, as did Anastasia Truckey at Marquette Harbor during the Civil War and Jennie Beamer at Big Bay Point during the Spanish-American War.

The job came with deadly dangers. Julia Sheridan drowned on South Manitou Island, and Mary Terry died in a fire at Sand Point Lighthouse in Escanaba.

But the job had its attractions, such as the pay, according to Majher.

“Lighthouse keeping was one of the few positions at which women could earn as much as men,” she said, noting that women in the late 1800s and early 1900s were often restricted to jobs in factories and mills or as housekeepers and cooks.

The last Michigan woman to serve as a keeper was Frances Wuori Johnson, who left Whitehall’s White River Light Station in 1954.

Pepper noted that women were allowed only at lighthouses on shore or on relatively large habitable islands.

Among the other lighthouses where women worked were Beaver Island Harbor, Au Sable Point, Presque Isle Harbor Range, Thunder Bay Island Pentwater Pier, Cheboygan River Range, Gibraltar and Grand Haven.

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