Lessons Learned: Lighthouse Keeper Harriet Colfax
By Laura Deering
Ever noticed the word extraordinary contains the word ordinary? Let me share with you “ordinary” Harriet Colfax. At the time of her retirement in 1904, she was renowned as our nation’s “oldest and most reliable lighthouse keeper,” having served 43 years, until age 80. While this was extraordinary, Harriet was ordinary, with recollections of her being petite, frail, and lacking experience for this rugged job.
While our country was busy with the Civil War in 1861, Harriet, age 37, was doing her part to protect ships, sailors, and travelers at one of the country’s most dangerous waterways at Michigan City, Indiana, a port town situated on Lake Michigan. What made this humble figure extraordinary?
Harriet Colfax was born in 1824 in Ogdensburg, New York. As a young lady in the early 1850s she ventured to Michigan City, Indiana, along with her younger brother, Richard Colfax. Richard became the owner of the town’s only newspaper. His paper expressed views of the Whig Party, which later evolved into the anti-slavery Republican Party. Harriet Colfax worked as a typesetter at her brother’s newspaper.
Harriet likely was devastated when he died at the young age of 26. His death also may have impacted her finances, without a main provider in the family. Harriet was single and in her thirties, with low prospects of supporting herself.
Lincoln may have been involved with Harriet becoming the lighthouse keeper at the Michigan City Light. Her cousin was Schuyler Colfax. He served as Speaker of the House and may have suggested to Lincoln her appointment. At the time, she was one of the very few female lighthouse keepers in the country. This position reported to the Coast Guard, which required her to document daily duties. Harriet was enlisted with the Coast Guard and considered a veteran. Her journal provides insight to the perils of violent storms, and bitter winters, balanced by beautiful sunsets. On May 28, 1873, Harriet wrote: “A terrible hurricane to-night at about the time of lighting up. Narrowly escaped being swept into the lake.”
Sometimes the weather was so cold, she would need to stay up through the night in case the oil congealed and the flame went out. Then she would return to the kitchen to warm the oil on the stove, and retrace her steps, bringing the heated oil back to the lamp. She knew there were lives out on the lake in the deep dark searching for her light, so reliable, that ship captains nicknamed it “old faithful.”
Old Lighthouse Museum
This past fall, when visiting the Old Lighthouse Museum where Harriet served, it still stands proudly in Michigan City. I encountered staff members, Jim Retseck and Karen Rueter, who were knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and gracious.
Visiting was a step back in time. Viewing the steep and narrow staircase, which each evening, Harriet balanced herself with no handrails, dressed in petticoats, carrying a lantern in each hand. Once she made it to the attic, she again had to climb up higher to reach the Fresnel lens. Up the straight steel ladder she would proceed in placing the oil to keep the lamp burning. To reflect upon her repeating this night after night for 43 years was humbling; doing this until age 80 was mind-blowing.
The museum also has a vast collection to satisfy any history buff or hobbyist. Arrowheads of stunning craftsmanship abound, mixed in with detailed miniature ship models. Incredibly, they have one of the five life masks of President Lincoln. There are two Fresnel lenses; one is so rare they are required to maintain a $350,000 insurance policy to keep it on display. A Fresnel lens is constructed of compact curved glass, in which just a candle flame is magnified and can project its light for miles. The lens Harriet used shone 15 miles and was so bright the local children had trouble falling asleep. Later a brass side was affixed to block the light beaming into town.
As for many of us, time tends to change things and for Harriet Colfax she was not untouched. She had to keep up with technology, learn new skills and do more than before (sound familiar?). Later the lighthouse had a long pier constructed with different sort of lights, situated on the east and west ends. In addition to the lighthouse lamp, she had to venture out each evening in a rowboat to light the pier lights. To appreciate the danger Harriet risked: The Great Lakes have over 6,000 shipwrecks, of which 1,500 have been claimed by Lake Michigan.
At the end of the tour our hosts reflected when Harriet retired, it took three men to do her job.
Hopefully when feeling “ordinary,” you may draw renewed strength and insight from lighthouse keeper, Harriet Colfax. Feeling old? Harriet carried on until age 80. Feeling underappreciated? Harriet knew others she would never meet were counting on her. Feeling overwhelmed by change? Harriet showed the cynics she could adapt, persevere, and get to the top (literally).
When author Aimee Bissonette visited the lighthouse, she was so touched, she wrote her children’s book, Miss Colfax’s Light. Aimee enlisted the help of Illustrator Eileen Ryan Ewen, and they spent several days at the lighthouse, taking in the scenery and looking over historic photos. This beautiful book includes the story of Miss Colfax, her life as the keeper, and a short glossary of terms at the end, repeated here.
Glossary of Lighthouse Terms
Beacon light: A light placed on land, a pier, or a buoy to warn ships of dangerous areas and guide them into harbors.
Breakwater: A man-made structure of stone or concrete built off-shore. It shelters a shore area or harbor by breaking the force of incoming waves.
Catwalk: A narrow walkway that is often raised high above the ground.
Fog whistle: A signal that uses sound to warn ships away from rocks and other dangerous areas when it is foggy.
Fresnel lens: A circular glass lens that looks like a giant beehive with a lamp inside. It was invented in 1822 by Augustin-Jean Fesnel of France.
Lantern tower: A room surrounded by windows that houses the lighthouse lamp and lens.
Lighthouse Board: A nine-member board created by Congress in 1852, it appointed lighthouse keepers and hired inspectors and engineers.
Log (a journal): A kind of diary used by lighthouse keepers for daily notes. Logs were used to track inspections, ship traffic, visitors, the weather, and other events.
Pier: A structure built out into the water that is used as a docking place for boats or to protect or form a harbor.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2021 issue.