Books: Ladies of the Lights, by Patricia Majher

Patricia Majher details devoted women lighthouse keepers

It wasn’t difficult for Frances Wuori Johnson to stump the panelists on TV’s What’s My Line?. Steve Allen incorrectly guessed that the lady from Michigan had a job making Band-Aids, when, in fact, the aid she provided was found in the glow of a Great Lakes lighthouse.

Johnson is the last of 16 female lighthouse keepers profiled in Ladies of the Lights: Michigan Women in the U.S. Lighthouse Service, by Patricia Majher (University of Michigan Press, $22.95/paperback, $65/cloth).

As home to more lighthouses than any other state, Michigan also once held the distinction of having the most female keepers. But the physically demanding profession was more of a man’s domain. Majher writes: “Though no particular dress was required of service women, fashions from 1870 to 1910 … dictated that they wear floor-length skirts or dresses and high-heeled footwear — an uncomfortable and unsafe manner of dress for someone required to climb steps, tote oil containers, light lamps, and repair machinery.”

In addition to cooking, laundry, and other household chores, keepers had to light the lamps, clean the reflectors, lamps, and lanterns, as well as trim the wicks throughout the night — all while combating the constant threats of fire and inclement weather. To ease the inherent loneliness of the isolated job, some women raised large broods of “beacon brats,” as their children were sometimes called, adding the duties of motherhood to their workload.

The environment was fraught with danger. At least two of the women died in the line of duty, some buried children, and one lost her husband, two brothers, and three nephews to the water.

Many who became lighthouse keepers were widows of keeper husbands, while others performed it as a civic duty. Henrietta Bergh, an “unofficial keeper,” kept a lantern lit in a second-story window for her fisherman husband. Before long, other sailors along the Keweenaw Peninsula came to count on Bergh’s light, too, until the Lighthouse Service built the Mendota light there in 1895. Bergh had kept her lantern burning every night for years without any compensation, except the passing appreciation of those who sailed by. Now, she’s been immortalized in Majher’s book, along with the other brave ladies of the lights.

• Thanks to GPS and updated navigation systems, lighthouses have become obsolete for practical use, remaining merely as historical markers of a bygone era. So, this summer, the U.S. Coast Guard put 10 of its towering beacons on the market — three in Michigan. The Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse (about 40 miles west of Traverse City), the Middle Island Lighthouse near Alpena, and the South Haven South Pier Lighthouse are all in need of new owners. Nonprofits, museums, and communities will get first dibs at obtaining the lighthouses at no cost (as outlined by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000), provided they have the funds for, and interest in, maintaining them. But if no feasible suitors step forward, the lighthouses will be auctioned off to the public.

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