Today in Women’s Transportation History – 1927: A Tale of Three Lightkeepers

A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about a Mississippi-based lighthouse — located 1,256 miles (2,021 kilometers) away from the newspaper’s home base in New York City — focused on a unique claim to fame held by that navigational aid. “Women Have Guided Biloxi Light for Over Sixty Years,” read the article’s headline.

“A woman’s hand has guided the Biloxi light to storm-tossed sailors in the Gulf of Mexico for more than 60 years,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Among old sailors, there is a superstition of good fortune radiating from Biloxi because the light has never faltered through the fiercest West Indian hurricane.”

The Biloxi Lighthouse, which is located near the Mississippi Sound of the Gulf of Mexico, had begun operations in 1848. Marcellus J. Howard was appointed the lighthouse’s first keeper, and he served in this capacity until 1854. He was succeeded by Baltimore native Mary Reynolds, who became the first of three women to maintain and operate the Biloxi Lighthouse.

Reynolds, a widow caring for several orphaned children of relatives, was appointed lighthouse keeper with the help of U.S. Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi. A key challenge to her role as keeper took place in 1861 after Mississippi’s secession from the United States to join the Confederacy and the subsequent outbreak of the Civil War. A group of Biloxi citizens identifying themselves as “Home Guards” demanded that the lamp in the lighthouse be extinguished. They also seized the key to the lighthouse from Reynolds.  She complained vigorously to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus about this hostile takeover of the Biloxi Lighthouse, adding that “disreputable characters” had stolen much of the oil used for lighting the lamp.

“I write you merely as a Light Keeper believing that injustice has been done,” she noted in her complaint to Pettus. In requesting that she be put back in charge of the Biloxi Lighthouse, she emphasized her record of service. “I have ever faithfully performed the duties of Light Keeper in storm and sunshine attending it,” she wrote. “I ascended the Tower at and after the last destructive storm [in 1860] when men stood appalled at the danger I encountered.” Despite Reynolds’ strong and heartfelt plea, the lamp at the Biloxi Lighthouse was extinguished. She continued to be officially listed as keeper throughout the war, however.

Reynolds stepped down from the position in 1866. She was replaced by Perry Younghans, who died less than a year after becoming keeper. His widow Maria Younghans, a Louisiana native who was only in her mid-twenties at the time, took over the duties of keeper. She would serve in the role over the next several decades, achieving legendary status nationwide for both her unswerving dedication and longer-than-average tenure.

A major test of Maria Younghans’ resilience and effectiveness occurred during the fall of 1893 when a fierce hurricane swept through the region and threatened the very existence of the lighthouse. The New Orleans Daily Picayune reported, “At Biloxi Mrs. Younghans, the plucky woman who was in charge of the light, kept a light going through the storm notwithstanding the fact that there were several feet of water in the room where she lived.”

Mrs. Younghans served as keeper at the Biloxi Lighthouse for a total of 53 years, finally retiring in 1920. Her daughter Miranda Younghans, who had been serving as assistant keeper, then took charge of the lighthouse. She was keeper at the time of the 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about the Biloxi Lighthouse and remained in the position for a couple of more years after that.

The combined years of service of Mary Reynolds, Maria Younghans, and Miranda Younghans as keepers resulted in a still-unbroken record for the Biloxi Lighthouse. It has had female keepers for more years than any other lighthouse in the United States.

For more information on the Biloxi Lighthouse and the women who have served as its keepers, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biloxi_Light and https://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov/nom/prop/10399.pdf

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