Elizabeth Whitney Williams: A Child of the Sea
“On the end of the Point stands the lighthouse with its red light flashing out at night over the waters, looking like a great red ruby set with diamonds as the electric lights are shining around the bay and harbor. What more is needed of nature’s beauty to make the picture complete?”
Elizabeth Whitney Williams (pictured at right) wrote these words in her autobiography, A Child of the Sea, and Life among the Mormons, about the Little Traverse Lighthouse on Harbor Point, Michigan where she was the keeper for 29 years. Her story, much like the Fresnel lens she describes in the above passage, helps to illuminate the trials of a female lighthouse keeper in an age when women rarely worked outside the home.
Born on Mackinac Island around 1844, Elizabeth’s family had moved to Beaver Island by the time she was four years old. Her father, a ship’s carpenter, found work on the island from the notorious Mormon leader, “King” James Jesse Strang. William’s autobiography focuses mainly on this time in her life. Eventually the schisms between the Mormons and the other groups on the island caused the Whitney family to move to Charlevoix in 1852 and later to Traverse City.
After the assassination of King Strang and the release of the island from Mormon control, the Whitney family returned. Shortly after their return, in 1860, Elizabeth met and married Clement Van Riper. Clement was a cooper who had come from Detroit to the island for his health. He was soon appointed a teacher at the local Native American school and Elizabeth passed a happy two years helping him by teaching European gardening methods.
Elizabeth and her husband were neighbors to the McKinley family at this time, who tended the Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse (pictured at left). This arrangement would prove crucial to Elizabeth’s close connection to lighthouses in the years to come. When the keeper of the light, Peter McKinley, resigned his post to due ill health Elizabeth’s husband was appointed to take his place.
Clement, however, was also often in poor health himself and many of the keeper’s duties fell to his wife, specifically the cleaning and polishing of the Fresnel lens. Elizabeth thought of tending the light as both a duty and a pleasure writing, “My three brothers were then sailing, and how glad I felt that their eyes might catch the bright rays of our light shining out over the waste of waters on a dark stormy night.”
Women taking on light-keeping duties unofficially for ill husbands or other family members was more common than the strict gender divides and roles of the day might have suggested. Light keeping was normally thought of as a man’s job, involving heavy physical labor and an enormous investment of time. However, many woman rose to these challenges and earned the respect of their communities through their actions. Only a small number of these women were ever officially appointed as light keepers. Elizabeth would become one of those few after a stormy night in 1872.
On that night Clement rowed out to help rescue the crew of a sinking ship during a storm and never returned. His body was never recovered and the sole duty of keeping the light burning in the tower during the three-day gale fell to Elizabeth. Clement’s death left Elizabeth “weak from sorrow” and other sorrows soon followed including the deaths of two of her brothers and three of her nephews to drowning. A few weeks after her husband’s death she was officially appointed the keeper of the Beaver Island lighthouse.
In 1875 Elizabeth remarried, this time to photographer Daniel Williams, and requested a transfer to a mainland station. Only the last few pages of her memoir reflect upon her time at the station to which she was transferred, the Little Traverse Lighthouse. The lighthouse had only just been finished when Elizabeth arrived there in 1884. Situated at the tip of Harbor Point, the lighthouse would be home to Elizabeth and husband for the next 29 years. (Pictured at right, the lighthouse and fog bell on Harbor Point, Michigan, taken by Elizabeth’s husband, Daniel).
Elizabeth retired from light keeping in 1913 and she and her husband moved to Charlevoix, Michigan. They spent another 25 years together in quiet retirement before they passed away, within 12 hours of each other, in 1938.
Did you know: The Historical Society’s archive houses some of Elizabeth Whitney Williams’ personal items, including several aprons and a pair of gloves which can be viewed in our online collections database.
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