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.
"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.
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".