Ladies of the Lighthouse

Women at Sea Girt Lighthouse and other lighthouses in America and around the world have played important roles.

While most keepers were men, typically married men, their wives often functioned as unpaid assistants, pitching in as needed. And they were the mothers of the keepers’ children. These unsung lighthouse women transformed lighthouses into homes, where keeper families lived, worked and played. Lighthouse families were held in high regard in their communities.

The U.S. Lighthouse Service infrequently appointed women as keepers, when qualified men were not available or declined an assignment, typically at a remote lighthouse or less desirable location, such as an isolated harbor light resting on a caisson or rock pile offshore.

Another way a woman could become a keeper temporarily, which happened at Sea Girt, was when a keeper husband died. The widow would take over to ensure the lighthouse continued operations as a navigational aid.

Mrs. Wolf from Pittsburgh

The first couple to occupy Sea Girt Lighthouse, according to lighthouse lore, liked the neighborhood so much they decided to build their own house - next door!

Major Abraham Wolf, who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and later entered the U.S. Lighthouse Service, was the first keeper of Sea Girt Lighthouse from its activation December 10, 1896 to 1903.

“While he was the keeper of the upcoast lighthouse, he was married to a wealthy Pittsburgh woman,” according to one newspaper account.

Mr. & Mrs. Wolf, it’s believed, built a house right next to Sea Girt Lighthouse on Beacon Boulevard at some point during their lighthouse stay. After the house was completed but before her husband retired, Mrs. Wolf apparently moved into it, while keeper Wolf went back and forth between the new home and the lighthouse to tend to his duties.

The house is now the home of one of the trustees of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee.

Harriet Yates: Mother and Pioneer

HARRIET_YATES_thumbUpon Major Wolf’s retirement in 1903, Abram Yates became the second keeper at Sea Girt. He and wife Harriet arrived with four children (William, 22; Arthur, 15; Harriet, 10; and Elizabeth, 8), who were the first children to live at Sea Girt Lighthouse.

Abram, who became a recognizable figure about town riding his bicycle in his lighthouse uniform often accompanied by his dog, served until May 29, 1910, when he suffered a fatal heart attack. In keeping with the tradition of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Mrs. Yates became acting keeper at Sea Girt, a position she held for two months. Her salary was $1.72 a day.

Despite her grief, she was expected to assume responsibility for the lighthouse until a replacement was found, because the light could not be permitted to go out. Lives depended on the lighthouse beacon guiding mariners safely in their voyages.

Even as she waked her late husband in the parlor, Mrs. Yates was making trips up to the top of the tower to tend to the beacon. Mrs. Yates proved a skilled and conscientious keeper, heralded in the local newspapers.

She enjoyed the work so much she applied for a permanent appointment. She received recommendations from former New Jersey Governor John Franklin Fort, several state senators, the keeper of the Squan Beach Life-Saving Station and the Spring Lake postmaster. But she did not get the appointment. The reason given was that she did not belong to the civil service.

Replacing Mrs. Yates was John Hawkey, newly arrived on land after serving many years on New Jersey lightships, including Five Fathoms Lightship in Delaware Bay and then Northeast End Light Vessel, No. 44, also off the Jersey shore.

While there is no indication in the lighthouse archive as to his marital status, he likely was not married, because the Lighthouse Service tended not to assign married keepers, especially with children, to lightships. No doubt glad to be back on land, Hawkey served seven years, as did the first two keepers at Sea Girt.

Edith Lake: Realtor and Town Leader

William Henry Harrison Lake, a veteran of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, was on his third posting when he was assigned to Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse on Long Island. During that posting, he met and EDITH_TOOTS_LAKE_thumbmarried Edith Fildes, a bright young woman who would become a pioneer in her chosen fields.

Bill Lake, nicknamed Pappy, and Edith lived in one of the two 2½-story keeper dwellings that were on opposite sides of the Shinnecock tower and connected to it by a covered walkway. Their first and only child was born November 12, 1913 in a Brooklyn hospital and named Elvin Herbert. His parents called him Toots.

In 1917, the family relocated to Sea Girt Lighthouse on Mr. Lake’s last lighthouse posting. Toots was just 4-years-old when they moved in, becoming the youngest child to live in Sea Girt Lighthouse. Of all the keeper families to make their home at Sea Girt Lighthouse, the Lakes had the longest tenure – 14 years.

Mr. & Mrs. Lake welcomed Toots’ playmates to the lighthouse, which local youngsters viewed as a magical place with its long porch, tall tower, spacious grounds and the vast beach nearby to play.

A photo from the period show Mrs. Lake in a long-sleeved summer dress that covered her from neck to ankles, with her arm protectively holding Toots, who is smartly dressed in a belted jacket with a wide Eton collar, matching shorts, white knee socks and white shoes and on his head a straw hat with its wide brim turned up. In another photo, Toots is dressed in a sailor’s suit.

His parents encouraged his interests. Toots had a rowboat he sailed on Wreck Pond. He liked to fish. He also had pets, including a rabbit, which lived in a hutch on the north lawn. As a young man, he was a Sea Girt lifeguard, and one of six hero guards who saved 15 people in the 1934 Morro Castle disaster.

While she helped out at the lighthouse, Mrs. Lake was an independent woman with her own career. She opened one of the early real estate offices in town and made it a success. She was also involved in politics and was elected to the Sea Girt Borough Council. Years later, her son Toots served on the Council and was a volunteer fireman, who became Chief.

Mrs. Lake died before her husband’s 1931 retirement from the U.S. Lighthouse Service. But her influence is still evident in town. She helped found the Sea Girt Women’s Club, which meets at Sea Girt Lighthouse to this day.

Lucy and Alice Thomas

The Thomas sisters, Alice and Lucy, were 15 and 20, when they arrived at Sea Girt Lighthouse in October of 1931 with their widowed father George. While their father tended the light, the girls dutifully ran the household.

LUCY_IN_SCHOOL_thumbGeorge Thomas had married Minnie De Bow in 1910 in Brooklyn. The couple spent their early married years and the girls their childhoods at Fire Island Lighthouse, where Mr. Thomas was the assistant keeper. He turned down a promotion and transfer to Point Au Roche Lighthouse on Lake Champlain in upstate New York because the living quarters were so limited his wife and children could not live with him at the lighthouse. They would have had to get separate accommodations nearby.

Instead Mr. Thomas accepted a position at Shinnecock Lighthouse, where the family lived together happily in one of the two keeper homes there. In the archives of the Sea Girt Lighthouse is a 3,000-word, typed, manuscript by Alice in which she recounts the daily lives of her lighthouse family in which everyone had duties.

The girls helped their mother around the house and made sure to always keep it spotless in anticipation of the lighthouse inspector from headquarters making an unannounced visit to inspect the lighthouse and grade the keeper. Everyone did their part and George Thomas was awarded numerous Efficiency Stars throughout his career, including his days at Sea Girt.

In a draft of a touching handwritten letter believed to have been written in early August 1930, Mr. Thomas turned down a transfer to Rhode Island’s Bullock Point Light Station, which stood offshore on a granite pier in the Providence River. He wrote: “My wife passed away yesterday. I would like to remain here [Shinnecock] as long as possible.”

By March of 1931, Keeper Thomas began looking for a less demanding assignment, involving many fewer steps to climb than the 178 steps to the top of Shinnecock. Thinking of his daughters, Mr. Thomas wrote headquarters: “I will accept any land station with family quarters.”

He named three lighthouses of interest: Beavertail and Point Judith Lighthouses, on opposite ends of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and Sea Girt Lighthouse. Sea Girt had the advantage of the fewest steps to climb – 42 from the keeper’s office to the lantern room.

He rejected offers of offshore positions at Connecticut’s New London Ledge, in New London Harbor, and Greens Ledge Light, in Long Island Sound, that would have separated him from his daughters. Mr. Thomas advised the Office of Lighthouse Superintendent he sought a “vacancy as keeper where I can take my family.”

When the keeper’s position at Sea Girt was offered October 16, 1931, Mr. Thomas responded immediately: “Please be advised that I am holding myself in readiness to report for duty. Thank you for your kindness in this matter.” By the end of the month, the Thomas family had taken up residence at Sea Girt Lighthouse.

While George tended the lighthouse, Alice and Lucy took responsibility for shopping, preparing meals, doing the wash. In the spring they would plant a garden, just as they had at Shinnecock. Alice attended high school and Lucy found herself a job. At nights, father and his daughters often gathered in the parlor to read, chat or play cribbage or cards.

Mr. Thomas retired in 1940. His daughters, who were grown by then, settled in the area. They would be the last women to have live in Sea Girt Lighthouse.

During and after World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard operated Sea Girt Lighthouse and all other U.S. lighthouses.