Some people are shocked to find out that Indiana has a coastline, let alone six lighthouses. You might be even more surprised to discover that for over forty years, the keeper of the Old Michigan City Lighthouse was a woman — and that in 1904, she was “the oldest lighthouse keeper in America.”
Harriet Colfax was born in 1824 in Ogdensburg, New York, a town on the St. Lawrence River looking over into Ontario. As a young woman, she taught voice and piano in her hometown. In the early 1850’s, Harriet moved west to Michigan City, Indiana, with her younger brother, Richard Wilson Colfax, who became editor of the Michigan City Transcript, a Whig journal. (Richard died just after his twentieth-sixth birthday in February 1856 and is buried in the town’s Greenwood Cemetery.) Some sources say Harriet worked at her brother’s newspaper as a typesetter, then taught school. She never married, and after her brother’s death had few means of support. So by 1861, when she was thirty-seven, she decided to do something totally different.
And the job would bring a house with it.
Until the 1890s, being a lighthouse keeper was still a political position, relying on appointments and sometimes even corruption. On the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast, these jobs were scarce and hard to come by. Fortunately, Harriet had a relative who could pull some major political strings.
Her cousin Schuyler Colfax, born and raised in New York City, had also moved out to the promising new Hoosier State, where by age 19 he was editing the South Bend Free Press. (In 1845, as the paper’s new owner, he changed its name to the St. Joseph Valley Register.) In the 1840s, Schuyler Colfax wrote about Indiana politics for the influential editor Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and as State Senator wrote for the Indiana State Journal. In 1855, he got elected to Congress, where he spoke out against the extension of slavery into the West. Nicknamed “The Smiler” — partly for his affability, partly for his intrigue — he was also one of the few people you ever see grinning in 19th-century photographs!
(Harriet’s cousin, South Bend newspaperman Schuyler Colfax, represented Indiana in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, served as Speaker of the House, then went on to become Ulysses S. Grant’s first Vice-President. The Hoosier V.P. also helped found the Daughters of Rebekah, the women’s auxiliary of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives.)
In March 1861, two years before he became Speaker of the House, Harriet’s cousin got her an appointment as the keeper of the Old Michigan City Lighthouse.
Contemporary accounts constantly referred to Harriet as small in stature and rather frail, so her cousin in Washington, D.C., might have had to exert some pressure — or selectively leave out that information — to get the family favor done. Yet getting a post as lighthouse keeper wasn’t necessarily hard. If we can believe one of his letters, in 1822 the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth, was offered the position of lighthouse keeper at Cape Hatteras on North Carolina’s remote Outer Banks — a job he almost accepted.
(This photo from July 20, 1914, shows the Old Michigan City Lighthouse after it was converted into a duplex for the lightkeeper’s family and his assistant. The tower and lantern dating from 1858 were removed. U.S. Coast Guard photo.)
(Harriet Colfax also tended the East Pier Lighthouse, which required a perilous walk down a long, icy causeway in winter. The light is situated at the end of the breakwater at the mouth of Michigan City harbor, once a minor fishing and lumbering port. Flickr Creative Commons photo, Tom Gill.)
(Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, January 19, 1895.)
In the opening year of the Civil War, with her new appointment in hand, Harriet moved into the three-year-old lighthouse built among cottonwoods and willows by the Lifesaving Service just back from the harbor. (The plan was almost identical to two other light stations — Grand Traverse Light on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, and the station at Port Washington, Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee.) A new Fresnel lens up top was visible for fifteen miles out on Lake Michigan. Harriet Colfax had become the newest guardian of sailors along the occasionally storm-wracked Hoosier Coast. She kept the difficult job for forty-three years.
Colfax’s most challenging task was getting out to the East and West Pier lights. Until it collapsed in a windstorm in 1886, Colfax reached the West Pier beacon by rowboat. Built in 1871 and situated at the end of a 1,500-foot long breakwater, the East Pier Light was replaced in 1904 and is still standing. This light had to be lit every evening, fair weather or foul. When “The Witch of November” blew in and Lake Michigan’s waves froze solid on top of the causeway, Harriet had her work cut out for her, and she had many harrowing brushes with a frigid death. As the 49-year-old wrote in her logbook on May 28, 1873: “A terrible hurricane to-night at about the time of lighting up. Narrowly escaped being swept into the lake.”
One of her main challenges in the days before kerosene was used to light lamps (a hazard in itself) was keeping oil from freezing while she carried it out to the beacons. The West Pier could only be reached by rowboat. In wintertime, whether she was walking or rowing, Colfax had to heat the lard oil at home, then act fast. As she told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1904 (the year of her retirement at age eighty):
The lard oil would get hard before I could get the lamp lighted, but once lit it never went out, you may be sure. My lights never went out till I quenched them myself. . . I love the lamps, the old lighthouse, and the work. They are the habit, the home, everything dear I have known for so long. I could not bear to see anyone else light my lamp. I would rather die here than live elsewhere.
(Her cousin, Vice-President “Smiler” Colfax, lacked Harriet’s stamina. He died in 1885, of a heart attack brought on by exposure to extreme cold after walking three-quarters of a mile in January weather in Minnesota.)
Harriet Colfax’s job, of course, wasn’t all hardship. Life on the lake had plenty of attractions. In her journals, she described spectacular rainbows and eclipses of the moon over the water. Winter’s icy grip brought impressive displays of the Northern Lights. And she sometimes got leaves of absence. In 1876, she visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
Nor did she live by herself. In the 1860’s, a friend of Harriet’s named Ann C. Hartwell moved into the station. Born in Ontario in 1828, Ann had known Harriet back in upstate New York as a child and, like her, moved out to Michigan City in the 1850’s. A story, possibly folklore, about a dead lover being the reason why neither of the two women ever married made it into the Indianapolis Journal on December 21, 1884:
Though they lived together as friends, Colfax and Hartwell worked side-by-side to keep the lanterns lit. The bravery of the famous Ida Lewis, who kept Lime Rock Light in Newport, Rhode Island, stirred up a lot of public fascination — some of it annoying — about females in the Lifesaving Service and helped propel the two Michigan City women to local fame. (They weren’t the only women involved with keeping the Hoosier coast safe, by the way. Harriet C. Towner was Colfax’s successor from 1844 to 1853, and Mary Ryan was stationed at Calumet City, Indiana, from 1873 to 1880.)
When Colfax finally retired from her job in October 1904, she and Ann had to move out of the lighthouse, which was owned by the Lifesaving Service. Separated from her old home, Ann’s mental and physical health immediately broke down. On November 4, a report made it into the Jasper Weekly Courier in southern Indiana that she had gone insane from grief — and of course, love:
Ann died just a few months later, on January 22, 1905, aged 77. John Hazen White, the Episcopal Bishop of Indiana, presided at her funeral at Michigan City’s Trinity Cathedral. Harriet, also struck with grief at the loss of her home and long-time companion, passed away on April 16. The two are buried next to each other at the Greenwood Cemetery.
Their names shine bright on the long list of women lighthouse keepers of the Great Lakes. But lest you think that Harriet’s story is impressive, here’s one even better: Kathleen Moore, keeper of the Black Rock Harbor Light on Long Island Sound in Connecticut, was credited with saving twenty-one lives. She retired in 1878. Claims about her age differ, but Moore was born sometime between 1795 and 1812, took up lighthouse keeping before she was a teenager, and died in 1899. You do the math!
(Chicago Daily Tribune, October 2, 1904)