Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Women in Boats - some Lighthouse Heroines

Old lighthouses can be spectacular and awe-inspiring, located as they so often are in remote and dangerous locations, and one can only have great admiration for the men who had to design and construct them in the first place, as well as those who came after and operated them: the keepers, their assistants and families who had to keep the light burning every night for untold years on end.
Before writing about lesser-known lighthouse heroines, one simply cannot avoid the first one to grab the headlines: Grace Darling who was, according to a florid poem much beloved of teachers in the British Empire days, "... an English maid, pure as the air around her, of danger ne'er afraid ..." and whose actions "... tell the wide world over, what English pluck can do ..."
The story of Grace and her rescue of passengers from the Forfarshire is too well-known to repeat at length here, although the bare truth is that she was just commandeered at short notice to assist in the rescue due to the absence of her father's assistant. She simply did what all able-bodied family members of lighthouse keepers were expected to do, and that was row the boat in an emergency. At first, Grace was not even mentioned in news reports but then somewhere along the way a hack journalist spotted a good yarn and he went into hysterical hyperbole about this virginal flower of English womanhood who boldly braved the fury and tempest of the turbulent seas to rescue near doomed souls with skill and dexterity that had no match, etc. blah etc. After she was awarded a couple of medals for bravery, the Darling family nearly went nuts with the ensuing publicity and being hounded by voyeurs and the paparazzi of the day, not to mention a proliferation of romantic portraits that looked nothing like plain Grace, as well as poems, songs, and product endorsements.
As with all good celebrity stories, there is nothing like dying young to ensure tabloid immortality, which Grace did at the age of 27, and the legend kept growing until it imploded under the weight of its own Victorian sentimentality. Even today, however, there are still tourists sucked in by the romantic and tragic story and drawn to Grace Darling's grave in the churchyard in Bamburgh, Northumberland.
Image: 19th Century engraving of children at Grace's tomb.

The Americans can boast a large number of rescuing lighthouse heroines, some better known than others.
Joan Druett's excellent book "She Captains" devotes an entire chapter to these women and there are several more works that can be searched via such as "Women Who Kept the Lights - an Illustrated History" by  M L and J C Clifford.
One was Maebelle Mason, daughter of the lighthouse keeper on the Detroit River, who launched a small skiff and rowed a mile to rescue a drowning man. She was able to pull him aboard the skiff and row back to Mama Juda Island with the overturned boat in tow. Maebelle was awarded the Silver Life Saving Medal plus a gold medal from the Ship Masters Association for her heroics. More detail click here (scroll down to Mason).

A woman with a more impressive rescue haul than Grace Darling, was Kate Moore of Fayerweather Light, Connecticut, who was reputed to have saved 21 lives in her long years at the lighthouse. Kate didn't die young or beautiful enough to have become a legend like Grace Darling, but the nature of her hard life is reflected in her portrait, and her own summary of the lonely life of a child of a lighthouse keeper of the time.

"You see, I had done all this for so many years, and I knew no other life, so I was sort of fitted for it. I never had much of a childhood, as other children have it. That is, I never knew playmates. Mine were the chickens, ducks and lambs and my two Newfoundland dogs."
Image: Kate Moore (Bridgeport Public Library Historical Collections)

Not all lighthouse heroines were destined for a lonely, virginal existence. Abbie Burgess Grant who had sole responsibility for her father's light at the age of 17 during a terrible storm at Matinicus Rock, married another lighthouse keeper. In later years, she wrote:
"It has almost seemed to me that the light was part of myself. ... Many nights I have watched the lights my part of the night, and then could not sleep the rest of the night, thinking nervously what might happen should the lights fail.
I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn out body. If I ever have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or beacon."
Abbie had her wish, or near enough, as a US Coastguard Buoy tender was named after her.

Another woman recognised by having a tender named after her and with an even more formidable rescue rate of 50 is that of Kate Walker, keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse for over 30 years and second only to "Lady Liberty" herself, as the most famous woman in New York Harbour.

Although not strictly a lighthouse heroine, Canadian Abigail Becker was a regular rescuer from the shores of Lake Erie and is an exemplary example of the tough, pioneering 19th Century woman. Not only did she save 11 individuals in total (including one who had fallen down a well), she also managed to raise 17 children on her own. Her life story is available to read online at Internet Archive.

Image:Abigail Becker in old age

Perhaps the most famous American heroine of all was Idawalley Zorada (Ida) Lewis, who had a brief stint at marriage, but decided the solitary life of a lighthouse keeper was preferable. She was feted by presidents, popularised in the press and in song and dance, and awarded medals for rescuing upwards of 18 or more lives in the 39 years she was keeper at Lime Rock, Rhode Island, for which she was called "America's Grace Darling" and "Bravest woman in America".
Not only does she also have a buoy tender named after her, but she received the ultimate recognition in having the light she had looked after being renamed the Ida Lewis Light and her name also lives on in the Ida Lewis Yacht Club of Newport, RI.

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