Tragic Tales of Michigan’s Lighthouse Ladies
Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state, and that means hundreds of lighthouse keepers were implemented over the last 200 years. They were mostly male, but there were also approximately 60 ladies who became lighthouse keepers.
Considering those chauvinistic times, 60 was a pretty high number…so why were there that many lady keepers? According to Promote Michigan, “serving as a lighthouse keeper was the only ‘non-clerical’ government job that women were allowed to have in the late 1800s and early 1900s”.
One such lady was Julia Sheridan. Julia and her husband Aaron moved to South Manitou Island just after the Civil War. Aaron became lighthouse keeper in 1866 and Julia became assistant keeper in September 1872. In March 1878, tragedy struck the Sheridans. They were on a boat coming back to the island with their baby son, Robert. Thanks to weather conditions, their boat capsized and all three tumbled into the water. Aaron had been injured in the Civil War and lost all functions in his left arm, leaving him unable to help his wife and baby son to safety. Their other two sons, Levi & George, ages 12 and 10, were in the lighthouse tower and witnessed the plight of their family as they struggled to survive, but ultimately perished under the waters. Weeks after the accident, the two brothers would walk up & down the South Manitou shoreline, hoping the water would wash their family’s bodies ashore. The bodies were not recovered. As an adult, son George battled with mental illness, thanks to witnessing the deaths of his parents and baby brother. Not able to cope any longer, George ended up committing suicide. There is now an historical marker on that island in honor of the three Sheridans who lost their lives.
Another lady lighthouse keeper worth noting is Elizabeth Williams. In 1869, 25-year-old Elizabeth and her husband Clement moved to Beaver Island, where Clement became head lighthouse keeper. Not long afterward, he came down with an illness and Elizabeth took over keeper duties – a job she truly enjoyed, as she loved being near the water. Just three years later, in 1872, Clement attempted to save the crew members of a schooner that sank in the harbor. Tragically, he drowned in his heroic attempt and Elizabeth right then devoted her life to taking care of the lighthouse. Promote Michigan says she was quoted as saying, “I was weak from sorrow, but realized that though the life that was dearest to me had gone, yet there were others out on the dark and treacherous waters who needed to catch the rays of the shining light from my light-house tower”.
Anna Carlson and her husband Robert were keepers of lighthouses on Outer Island and Michigan Island and Anna by herself at Marquette and Whitefish Point. It was at their tenure on Michigan Island that changed her life forever. In the winter of 1893, Robert and his brother took their dogs and went fishing. They never came back. In a 1931 article, Anna wrote, “I knew the men would be very hungry when they came home…..I kept stoking the fires, for I knew the men would be cold when they came in…..They had been gone since before daylight, and they would be home before six, I was sure……Six o’clock came, and darkness…..It began to snow. Seven o’clock and still my man had not come”. Anna had no way of knowing that while the men were fishing, the ice broke up underneath them and they were lost to the depths of Lake Superior.
In 1867, Julia Brawn became keeper of the Saginaw River Lighthouse when her husband Peter became bedridden and unable to carry on his duties. Even though Peter couldn’t work, he was still collecting pay. He died in 1873 and Julia married George Way in 1875. George became head keeper and Julia was demoted to assistant until that position was completely abolished by the District. With that job no longer viable, the district office tried to get the couple to quit so they wouldn’t have to pay them. When George died in 1883, Julia split. Once the two were gone, both jobs were questionably re-instated by the District. Julia passed away in 1889.
Catherine Shook was keeper of the Point Aux Barques lighthouse from 1849-1860 after her husband drowned. Not long after he died, a fire broke out at the lighthouse thanks to a faulty chimney. Catherine was badly burned, furniture was ruined, and she and her eight children were given nothing but a makeshift shanty to live in. But this time there was a reasonably happy ending. The Superintendant & Inspector of Lights saw to it that Catherine and her kids had a new home built and the lighthouse repaired. Catherine quit the job in 1851, and passed away in 1860. She is buried next to her husband in New Baltimore.
There are many other Michigan Lighthouse Ladies...and more stories to tell...