The extraordinary lives of America's 'bravest women'

After years of obscurity, the stories of women lighthouse keepers have come out of the shadows.

Two soldiers clung to their overturned boat, roiled by the frigid waters of Rhode Island’s Newport harbor. It was March 1869, and rough weather had turned a pleasure expedition into a perilous disaster. The vessel’s owner had already drowned, and the two men, who were headed back to nearby Fort Adams after a leave, were likely next.

But help was on the way in the form of 27-year-old Idawalley Zoradia Lewis. Expertly rowing her wooden skiff, she sighted the men through the New England spring squalls and hauled them into the safety of her boat. It was all in a day’s work for “Ida”, who saved the lives of up to 25 people during her 54-year tenure as a lighthouse keeper at Newport’s Lime Rock Lighthouse.

Though Lewis gained international celebrity, a Congressional medal, and a reputation as “America’s bravest woman” for her daring rescues, she was just one of hundreds of women who tended lighthouses along United States coasts between the 18th and 20th centuries. As newspapers argued among themselves as to whether Lewis’s rowing a boat or tending a lighthouse on a rocky station was “unladylike,” women watched around the clock for shipwrecks, and climbed cumulative miles of steps to maintain burning lamps during treacherous storms in an era that restricted women’s roles and devalued their labor.

“Women have been at the center of lighthouses since they existed,” says Shauna MacDonald, an associate professor in communications at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada, who studies women lighthouse keepers.

American women have tended lighthouses since colonial times. Hannah Thomas became the United States’ first woman lighthouse keeper in 1776 after taking over the duties of her husband, John, during his service in the Revolutionary War. Though a few—like Ida Lewis—found fame during their lifetimes, the contributions of most women lighthouse keepers were kept in the dark for centuries until modern scholars were able to illuminate their stories.

In the 1990s, historian Candace Clifford and her mother, author Mary Louise Clifford, identified nearly 200 women lighthouse keepers and female employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, a federal agency that oversaw all lighthouses in the United States. Other women who did the work in conjunction with male partners or family members, or who labored for short periods of time, may number in the hundreds and have yet to be recognized.

Lighthouse life: lonely and treacherous

Lighthouse keeping could be a lonely task, and many outposts were purposely located in remote, even treacherous territory. Lights had to be on at sunset and turned off at sunrise. There were foghorns to blow and assistance to provide to stranded or wrecked mariners. Maintenance was constant. And in the era before electricity, it was even more challenging.

The United States’ first lighthouses relied on fires from coal or wood. Then came candles and oil-fueled lamps. The light was reflected through powerful lenses that had to be kept fastidiously clean. Night after night, the keeper had to ascend the stairs and keep the lamps burning.

Most women became lighthouse keepers by birth or marriage, or took over their husband’s duties once he fell ill or died. Lighthouses combined home and workplace—and there was plenty of work to go around. “The only way to learn how to keep a lighthouse is to shadow someone and learn how to do it,” says MacDonald. Though some “stag lighthouses” in extremely remote outposts were kept by single men, most other lighthouses were a family affair, involving everyone from children to adults and being passed from generation to generation.

Abbie Burgess exemplified the duties—and grit—of girls who grew up around lighthouses. She was 14 years old when her family moved to Matinicus Rock, a barren rock 25 miles off the Maine coast, in 1853. Her father traveled to the mainland for supplies three years later, leaving the women of the family—Burgess, her invalid mother, and three sisters—behind.

Disaster struck when a furious winter storm buffeted the rock, delaying her father’s return and leaving the rest of the Burgess family stranded. Seventeen-year-old Abbie Burgess, who had learned the ropes from her father and carefully studied previous keepers’ logs, had worried about how her mother would fare in an intense storm, and insisted she move her bedroom into the sturdier of the two light towers just in case.

It turned out to be prescient: During her father’s absence, the Burgess’s home was flooded, then washed away into the Atlantic. Abbie Burgess ended up tending the light alone for a month.

“During this time we were without assistance of any male member of our family,” she later wrote. “Though at times greatly exhausted with my labors, not once did the lights fail.”

A few years later, the Burgess family left Matinicus Rock. But Abbie had fallen in love with the lighthouse—and its new assistant keeper. She married him and lived and worked in lighthouses until her death in 1892.

Like Burgess, many women tended lighthouses into their old age. Harriet Colfax, who kept the Michigan City, Indiana, lighthouse on the shores of Lake Michigan for 43 years, took on the post after a career as a teacher. She lived at the lighthouse with her longtime companion, Ann Hartwell,  and didn’t retire until 1904, when she was 80.

When the Chicago Tribune profiled Colfax in that year, the reporter exclaimed: “The dear little, smiling, gentle, courageous lighthouse keeper is so old!” But appearances are deceiving, and Colfax’s job was tough. For most of her career, she tended two lights and braved a narrow, precarious walk out to the second light, often in icy or wind-lashed weather.

Stoking the fading flames of memory

In the rare interviews and documents they left behind, women lighthouse keepers consistently downplayed their accomplishments. So did the federal government, which oversaw all U.S. lighthouses. Historian Virginia Neal Thomas writes that though about five percent of lighthouse keepers between 1820 and 1859 were female and received equal pay to men, women lighthouse keepers “were for all intents invisible” within the bureaucracy. In the later 19th and early 20th centuries, women were routinely pushed out of the job in favor of male candidates, and in 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was folded into the military.

Today, there is just one female lighthouse keeper—Sally Snowman, a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer who watches over Boston Light, a historic lighthouse on Massachusetts Bay. Unlike her forbears, Snowman doesn’t have to keep the lamps lit. That happens thanks to automation, which drove most lighthouse keepers into obsolescence in the 20th century. Automated beacons have now replaced lighthouses altogether, and many historic lighthouses and sites have passed into the hands of museums and preservation organizations, where women, often volunteers, help fuel lighthouse preservation and do much of the work to commemorate women lighthouse keepers.

Despite evolving understandings of the women who kept lighthouse lamps burning, says MacDonald, that work must continue. “We haven’t even scratched the surface,” she says. The unfinished work includes better understanding the lighthouse labor of indentured servants, enslaved people, and women of color whose stories have yet to be unearthed. And it will entail looking for the women who are hidden in plain sight—the wives, daughters, servants, and neighbors who helped keep the lights on and pitched in during emergencies, but whose stories are largely untold and unacknowledged.

“Clearly there were lots of women in and around lighthouses,” MacDonald says. “We have to stop telling these stories about female lighthouse keepers as if they’re exceptional. These women were not anomalies.”

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