In most cases, being a lightkeeper was a man’s job. Yet, at least 19 women, including Elizabeth Whitney Williams, kept Michigan lighthouse beacons burning bright.
As a child, Elizabeth was friends with the lighthouse keeper’s children at Beaver Island Harbor Point Light on Lake Michigan. When the lighthouse keeper left, she and her husband Clement took over the lighthouse. Her husband was the official keeper, but Elizabeth learned the job too. She enjoyed living at the lighthouse. In her journal she wrote, â€œLife seemed very bright in our lighthouse beside the sea.â€
Three years after Clement became the lightkeeper, he drowned trying to save the crew of a ship in trouble. Rather than leave the lighthouse, Elizabeth became the official lightkeeper. During her lifetime, her husband, two brothers, and three nephews had died at sea. Elizabeth understood how important her job was and was proud to be a keeper. She wrote, â€œOthers around me were losing their loved ones on the stormy deep and it seemed to me there was all the more need that the lamps in our lighthouse towers should be kept burning brightly.â€
Elizabeth lived alone at the lighthouse, performing all the duties assigned to her. Each day the lens had to be cleaned and polished. The lamp was cleaned and filled with whale oil, the brass polished, and the wick trimmed. She also had to take care of the buildings and the property.
In 1875, Elizabeth remarried. She later transferred to the Little Traverse Light. Life was different at the new light. Instead of being on an island, it was on the mainland where there were more people. Vacationers from nearby resorts liked to visit the lighthouse and learn about Elizabeth’s job and life as a keeper.
When Elizabeth died in 1913 at the age of 71, she had worked in lighthouses for a remarkable 41 years. In becoming one of American’s longest-serving lightkeepers, Elizabeth had proven that running a lighthouse was not just a man’s job.
To learn more about Michigan’s lighthouse heritage, look for “Lighting the Way,” the Spring 2007 issue of Michigan History for Kids. Call (800) 366-3703 or visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com for more information.
The Keeper of the Light at AmericanEpic.org is a pretty cool adaptation of the children’s book about the life of Elizabeth Whitney Williams. It’s full of details about life in those days such as a bit about her father boating to work and passing bears swimming for fish. Kind of makes the morning traffic seem less significant.
Beaver Island Harbor Light over at BeaverIsland.net has a lot more about the lighthouse at Whiskey Point where Elizabeth served and also some great old photos.
Terry Pepper’s Seeing the Light has (as usual) great information on the Little Traverse Lighthouse that includes an excellent picture of Elizabeth Whitney Williams.
Mary Hramiec Hoffman’s “Elizabeth Whitney Williams and the Little Traverse Light” is a children’s book about Lake Michigan’s first female lightkeeper set in the Harbor Springs and Petoskey area.