Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.
If you plan to come visit me, be careful you don’t get your feet tangled up in your long skirts as you come up that ladder. It takes both hands to climb up or down the ladder, so you don’t have a free hand to gather up your skirts. I very discretely tucked the hem of my dress into my skirt band when I had to hurry down the ladder to launch my dinghy and help some ship-wrecked sailor.
Women didn’t wear pants in the 1890s. It was considered indecorous, and I wasn’t going to do anything to rouse the Lighthouse Inspector’s disapproval. There was one female keeper, however, who didn’t let that worry her because her invalid father was the official keeper. Kathleen Moore at Black Rock Harbor Light on the north shore of Long Island Sound slept at night, dressed in a suit of boy’s clothes. “Our house was forty rods from the light tower, and to reach it I had to walk across two planks under which on stormy nights was four feet of water.” Water-logged skirts were one hazard that Kathleen didn’t intend to endure.
In addition to tending the light on her house at Michigan City, Indiana, Harriet Colfax put a lamp in the beacon at the end of a 1,500-foot-long pier that had an elevated walkway.
In her log Harriet mentioned on September 18, 1872, “Heavy gale. The waves, dashing over both Piers, very nearly carrying me with them into the lake.” The storms she described buffeted her with gusts of wind, flinging not only waves across the walkway, but also blinding sheets of spray and sleet. She must have gotten soaked.
In 1883 the Light-House Board issued an official keeper uniform—double-breasted coat with yellow buttons, dark blue trousers, and a cap bearing a yellow metal lighthouse badge. But women keepers were exempted from wearing them.
Someone should have designed a uniform for female keepers and female assistants—water-proof boots and a divided skirt with buttonholes in the skirt hem that could be fastened to buttons on the belt when keepers had to traverse an elevated walkway during a storm.
Information found in the New York Sunday World, 1889, and the Bridgeport Standard, March 25, 1878. Harriet Colfax’s log is in the National Archives, Record Group 26, Entry 80 (NC-31).
Submitted July 6, 2017
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