Skip to Main Content

Ladies of Light: Chesapeake lighthouses and the women who kept them

Turkey Point; photo David Mielcarek

At a time when water was the most efficient mode of transportation, the lighthouse stood alone, often in isolation in remote, far-off locations. Eighty-two once marked the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, 45 of them in Maryland. Their sole purpose was to guide boats, goods and people to safety.

Today, 24 lighthouses and one replica remain standing in the state. Some are in better shape than others, and many owe their longevity to historians and volunteers, who work tirelessly to preserve these cultural and historic beacons.

Salter and son; archives

Carrying the torch
For hundreds of years, lighthouses were operated by keepers, hearty men and women who kept the light burning. Their livelihood depended on hard work, rigid routine, long hours and dedication to duty, which often included long periods of isolation.

What is surprising, however, is the number of years women minded the lighthouses in Maryland, particularly at Point Lookout and Turkey Point.

Maryland’s first female light keeper, Ann Davis, was the daughter of James Davis who died about two months after he was hired at Point Lookout. Ann took over the job in 1830 and held the position for 17 years until her own death. Other women who served there include Martha A. Edwards and her daughter Permelia, who kept the light for 14 years after her mother’s death. These three women tended Point Lookout for all but six of its first 40 years of operation.

Furthermore, women keepers at Turkey Point were responsible for 86 of its 114 years in service. The last to serve there, Fanny May Salter, was the last civilian woman lighthouse keeper in the nation.

The first was Elizabeth Lusby, who took up the torch for 18 years after her husband died in 1844. Rebecca L. Crouch likewise replaced her deceased husband as keeper from 1873 to 1895. At age 16, her daughter Georgiana moved to the property and continued her mother’s work. She lived at the station for an amazing, and likely record, 54 years.

Life in the light
A few years later, then-keeper Clarence Salter passed in 1925. His widow, Fanny May, was first told she would not be hired to continue his service. Determined, she appealed to U.S. Senator O. E. Weller, who asked then-President Calvin Coolidge to personally intervene. He consented. She served for 22 years.

Mrs. Salter would fill and light one of two lamps at dusk, climb the 31 stairs of the tower and the iron ship’s ladder that led to the lantern, place the lamp within the lens, check in on it an hour later and once again before going to bed. From her bedroom in the keeper’s quarters, she could see the light and would awake immediately if it went out.

Salter cleaning the light; archives

A daunting 137 wooden steps led down the bluffs to the Elk River, where next to the stairs there was a chute with a windlass, a device the keeper used to haul supplies up to the station. Then there was the laborious task of winding the heavy fog bell mechanism every three hours.

The fog bell saluted passing ships and was rung manually when needed in order to guarantee safe passage for ships heading into the Elk River under low visibility. Mrs. Salter once pulled the rope ringing the heavy fog bell every 15 seconds for nearly an hour until a steamer made safe passage into the Chesapeake and Delaware canal.

She summed it all up upon her retirement: “Oh, it was an easy-like chore, but my feet got tired, and climbing the tower has given me fallen arches.”

Women’s work
According to historian Virginia Neal Thomas, women light keepers received equal pay to men. “They filled these predominantly male positions because lighthouse work had much in common with stereotypical woman’s work,” she said. “They were most often related to the previous keeper, and they fit within cultural ideals of gender roles.”

In addition to the list to the left and not being allowed to leave without permission, the keeper was also charged with cleaning, painting and repair of all buildings, taking care of the grounds, maintaining mechanical equipment, hosting tours, hauling supplies to the station, taking soundings of river and inlet channels and moving channel markers as needed, maintaining the light station boat launch and keeping the boathouse clean and organized.

COMMON TASKS Assist ships and sailors in distress • Clean and polish the Fresnel lens every morning • Clean lantern room windows daily • Fill lamp with kerosene every evening • Keep an accurate inventory of all light station equipment and fuel • Light the lamp at sunset; watch it during the night; extinguish at sunrise • Maintain log book and record all daily activities • Shine all the brass • Sweep floors and stairs daily • Take weather readings every day and record in log book • Trim the wicks of the lamp

A change in the tide
Eleven wicks and reflectors illuminated the light at Elk Neck until 1855, when a fourth order Fresnel lens with a single lamp was installed. This more advanced design was thinner and smaller than what was previously used. It could capture more light and therefore be seen from a greater distance.

Electricity further simplified things. In 1943, a 100-watt bulb in combination with the lens meant all the keeper had to do was flip a switch. Within a few years, automation forced the closure of most stations, ending lighthouse keeping all together. Until her death in 1966, Mrs. Salter lived within view of its light.


Lighthouses in Maryland State Parks
For information about additional lighthouses, check out visitmaryland.org.

Blackstone at St. Clements
Appropriated by Congress in 1848 and first lit in 1851, Blackstone withstood the Civil War despite standing as a constant target. This replica lighthouse—open to visitors by appointment only—was built in 2008 after a fire destroyed the original structure in 1958.

 

Point Lookout
This is an original structure that served the shipping community beginning in 1830. After several remodels and additions, its present day duplex setup allows two keeper families to live on-site. This is the oldest surviving integral lighthouse in the U.S. and is open to the public at select times.

 

Sandy Point Shoal
Standing out of the water at 37 feet, this Empire-style tower replaced an earlier structure. The first two stories were living quarters; the third was the watch room. It was built in 1883, electrified in 1963 and is now solar-powered. It’s been privately owned since 2006.

 

Turkey Point at Elk Neck
This lighthouse marked the shipping channel’s change in course from the Chesapeake Bay east to the Elk River, then to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, which carried ships to the Delaware Bay. Built in 1833 on a 100-foot high bluff, it is visible for 13 miles.

 

Article by Linda Wiley—webmaster and conservation history committee member.
Appears in Vol. 20, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2017.


ae1a-ewspw-web1