LESSONS LEARNED - LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER HARRIET COLFAX


The bronze post pictured is where Harriet Colfax lamp shone for 43 years. The lighthouse still stands proudly in Michigan City, Ind.
By : 
LAURA DEERING
TRI-COUNTY RECORD

Ever noticed the word extraordinary contains the word ordinary?  Let me share with you “ordinary” Harriet Colfax.  At the time of her retirement in 1904, she was renowned as our nation’s “oldest and most reliable lighthouse keeper”, having served 43 years, until age 80! 

Though her service was extraordinary Harriet appeared anything but, with recollections of her being petite, frail, and lacking experience for this rugged job.  

While our country was busy with the Civil War in 1861, 37-year old Harriet was doing her part in protecting ships, sailors and travelers at one of the country’s most dangerous waterways at Michigan City, Indiana, a port town situated on Lake Michigan.

What made this humble figure extraordinary?  And what ties did Harriet Colfax have to landlocked Rushford, Minnesota?

Rushford connection

Harriet Colfax was born in 1824 in Ogdensburg, NY.  As a young lady in the early 1850’s she ventured to Michigan City, Indiana, along with her younger brother, Richard Colfax.  Richard became the owner of the town’s only newspaper.  He also was an Abolitionist, bravely publishing his beliefs that slavery was wrong.  Harriet Colfax worked as a type-setter at her brother’s newspaper. 

Around this same timeframe, another Harriet arrived from Ohio with her parents.  This was Harriet Rees, who later married Richard Colfax in 1854.  In other words, Harriet (Rees) Colfax was Harriet Colfax’s sister-in-law.  Meaning there were two Harriet Colfax’s living in Michigan City, Indiana.

Obviously, both Harriets shared a common love for Richard Colfax, and likely were devastated when he died at the young age of 26.  Colfax’s death surely impacted their finances, as the women lacked a main provider in the family.  The Harriets likely shared more than mutual grief; they were single, in their 30’s, with low prospects of supporting themselves.  Though they chose different paths steeped in danger, their values remained parallel, given their dedication to others. 

The widow, Harriet (Rees) Colfax, volunteered as a nurse in the Civil War and became a ground-breaker, as female nurses in the early days of the war were not allowed.  She served several years, sometimes in danger of “shrieking shell” at violent battles, such as Shiloh and Vicksburg.  After the war, she returned to Michigan City and married George Stevens. 

George was one of Rushford’s founders, plotting the community in 1854; however, he lived in Michigan City prior to Rushford.  Within a month of their marriage, Rushford became their home.  They were a remarkable pair; both founded the Rushford library, youth clubs and the Emmanuel Episcopal Church.  In her later years, Harriet (Rees Colfax) Stevens taught black children to read and write in the Deep South, even when it was against the law. 

Lighthouse Keeper Harriet Colfax

Harriet Colfax remained in Michigan City and found her means of support by becoming the lighthouse keeper.  At the time, she was one of the very few female lighthouse keepers in the country.  This position reported to the Coast Guard, which required her to document daily duties.  Harriet’s journal provides insight to the perils of violent storms and bitter winters, balanced by beautiful sunsets.  On May 28, 1873, Harriet wrote: “A terrible hurricane to-night at about the time of lighting up. Narrowly escaped being swept into the lake.”

Sometimes the weather was so cold, Harriet would need to stay up through the night in case the lamp oil congealed and the flame went out.  Then she would return to the kitchen to warm the oil on the stove, then retrace her steps to bring the heated oil back to the lamp.  Harriet knew there were lives out on the lake in the deep dark searching for her light, which was so reliable that ship captains nicknamed it “old faithful.”

Old lighthouse museum

This past October I visited the Old Lighthouse Museum where Harriet served. The lighthouse still stands proudly in Michigan City.  On my visit I met staff members Jim Retseck and Karen Rueter, who were both very knowledgeable, enthusiastic and gracious. 

After sharing stories about our “Rushford Harriet”, they were amazed to learn about this sister-in-law, along with their similar paths of fearless and lifelong duty to others. 

Together we marveled at the similarity of the two Harriets,  who shared both courage and enduring values.

One bonus of sharing information about “Rushford’s Harriet” for me included seeing areas of the lighthouse not generally open to the public, which was like stepping back in time. 

First I viewed the steep and narrow staircase, which Harriet ascended each evening, dressed in petticoats and carrying a lantern in each hand.  There were no handrails to use for balance as she made it to the attic, where she again had to climb up even higher to reach the Fresnel lens.  Up the straight steel ladder she would proceed, to place oil in the lamp and keep it burning. 

The realization that Harriet repeated this harrowing climb night after night for 43 years was humbling, and to realize Harriet served in this way until age 80 was mind-blowing. 

The museum also has a vast collection to satisfy any history buff or hobbyist.  Arrowheads of stunning craftsmanship abound, mixed in with detailed miniature ship models.  Incredibly, they have one of the five death masks of President Lincoln. 

There are two Fresnel lens; one so rare they are required to maintain a $350,000 insurance policy just to keep it on display.   A Fresnel lens is constructed of compact curved glass, in which just a candle flame is magnified and can project its light for miles. The lens Harriet used shone 15 miles and was so bright the local children had trouble falling asleep.  Later, a brass side was affixed to block the light beaming into town.

Time tends to change things  for many of us, and it was the same for Harriet Colfax; she had to keep up with technology, learn new skills and do more than before (sound familiar?).  Later, the lighthouse had a long pier constructed with different sort of lights, situated on the east and west ends.  Now, in addition to the lighthouse lamp, Harriet had to venture out each evening in a rowboat to light the pier lights.  To give some perspective on the danger Harriet risked, there are over 5,000 shipwrecks recorded on Lake Michigan. 

At the end of the tour our hosts reflected that, when Harriet retired, it took three men to do her job. 

Hopefully when feeling “ordinary” you may draw renewed strength and insight from lighthouse keeper, Harriet Colfax.  Feeling old – Harriet carried on until age 80.  Feeling under-appreciated – Harriet knew others she would never meet were counting on her.  Feeling overwhelmed by change – Harriet showed the cynics she could adapt, persevere and get to the top (literally).