Celebrating Women’s History Month

Turkey Point Lighthouse Keeper Fannie Salter
Turkey Point Lighthouse Keeper Fannie Salter holds an electric light bulb and the incandescent oil lamp that the bulb replaced. Electricity made the keeper’s job a whole lot easier. Salter retired in 1947 as the last civilian female lighthouse keeper. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

In honor of Women’s History Month I thought it would be a appropriate to share the list of female lighthouse keepers I assembled for our book Women Who Kept the Lights.  I did a major overhaul of this appendix for the latest edition, making sure that I only included the 142 women who had served as principal keepers for at least a year.  Many women served as temporary keepers for a few months after a spouse’s death while the Lighthouse Service searched for a replacement.  Early on we decided that the many women who served as assistant keepers, paid and unpaid, to their keeper husbands or fathers were too numerous to track.

Most family members knew how to care for the light, filling in when the keeper was away fetching supplies, fishing, or otherwise occupied. It was at these “family stations” that women generally received appointments. Coastal stations, with multiple keepers caring for first order lenses or fog signals requiring machinists, did not have women serving as head keepers.  Instead they were generally found at stations with a single keeper, tending lights marking harbors, rivers, or smaller bodies of water. Large numbers of female keepers served around the Chesapeake Bay, on the Great Lakes, or along the Gulf of Mexico. Some female keepers tended a fog bell but none were required to maintain a steam fog signal.

Appendix: Women Who Kept the Lights, 1776-1947

Scott Price at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Historian’s Office, Washington, D.C., has also been tracking female keepers.  His web page lists not only principal keepers but also includes assistant keepers and other female employees of the Lighthouse Service. Scott also recently wrote an interesting blog article “Harriet Colfax & the Women of the Lighthouse Service” and devotes a web page to the 175-foot Coastal Keeper-Class Buoy Tenders named for women keepers.

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