Women at the Lights

When Scott and I began serving as volunteer docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse (Rock Island State Park, Lake Michigan, WI), I was delighted to learn that two of the Keeper’s wives officially served as Assistant Keepers.  One of those women has a role in my next Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy.

In the history of the lighthouse service, many women served as light tenders, both officially and unofficially.

One of the most famous was Abbie Burgess of Maine. I recently enjoyed Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Heroine.  The book is a fictional biography written by Dorothy Holder Jones and Ruth Sexton, first published in 1969.

One of several versions of Abbie’s story.

In 1856, Abbie’s father was stationed at Mantinicus Rock, a 32-acre granite island eighteen miles from the coast and twenty-five miles from the nearest port.  The Lighthouse Board described the remote island like this:  There is neither tree nor shrub, and hardly a blade of grass on the rock. The surface is rough and irregular and resembles a confused pile of loose stone. Portions of the rock are frequently swept over by waves which move the huge boulders into new positions.

Matinicus Island & Light, 1870s.

In January, 1856, the family was running desperately low on food because bad weather kept the autumn supply boat away.  Fearing his family might starve, Mr. Burgess decided to risk sailing to port.  Since his wife was an invalid, he left Abbie in charge of the light, her mother, and her younger sisters.

The day he left, a storm blew in—and stayed, lashing the isolated outcrop for three days.  Waves crashed completely over the island.

Abbie waded through surging waves to get her family and chickens to safety.

Abbie later wrote, The new dwelling was flooded and the windows had to be secured to prevent the violence of the spray from breaking them in. As the tide came, the sea rose higher and higher, till the only endurable places were the light-towers. If they stood we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain. But for some reason, I know not why, I had no misgivings, and went on with my work as usual. For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be effected on the Rock. During this time we were without the assistance of any male member of our family. Though at times greatly exhausted with my labors, not once did the lights fail. Under God I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father’s.

Later Abbie, now married, was officially appointed Assistant Keeper.  She helped tend Matinicus Light and gave birth to four children before the family transferred to another Light.

Abbie Burgess. (U.S. Coast Guard image)

Abbie Burgess was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman.  The challenges she faced during that storm were extraordinary.

What I love best about this story, though, is the reflection it casts on all the unknown, unnamed women who found their own strength during service at a lighthouse—whether official keeper or not.  I imagine that most of the male keepers’ wives and daughters shared the responsibility of securing their stations, protecting their families in isolated locations, tending their lights, and keeping their waters safe for passing travelers.

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5 Responses to “Women at the Lights”

  1. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    So many untold stories, aren’t there? I am glad you are telling some of them.

  2. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    What a brave young woman! Did her father make it back safely? So many stories waiting to be told mr re-told..and you do them so very well. Thanks, Kathleen.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I can’t imagine how isolated she must have felt as waves literally washed over the island/rock and through their home. And her father must have been frantic. He did finally make it back safely. Thanks, Arletta!

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