In 1861, Harriet Colfax was appointed by the U.S. Congress to serve as keeper of the Michigan City Lighthouse in Indiana. At the time, that structure — located on the shore of Lake Michigan — had been serving as a guide for vessels in the region for about three years. (The lighthouse replaced one was built at that site in 1837.)
Colfax was born in 1824 in Ogdensburg, New York, where she worked as a voice-and-piano teacher. She moved to Michigan City in the early 1850s with her brother Richard, who became a newspaper editor. After he died in 1856, she found herself with limited means of financial support.
Colfax’s need for additional income led to her being named keeper of the local lighthouse. The appointment is widely believed to have been arranged by her cousin Schuyler Colfax, a U.S. congressman from Indiana who would go on to become speaker of the House of Representatives and Ulysses S. Grant’s first vice president.
Colfax joined the professional ranks of those women during the 19th century who were likewise hired to serve as U.S. lighthouse keepers. Colfax’s status was all the more unique in that era, however, because many of the other women were appointed to replace male relatives (e.g., husbands, fathers) who could no longer carry out the duties of keeper due to illness or death. Colfax remained the keeper of the Michigan City Lighthouse for 43 years and lived there with her friend Ann C. Hartwell, who helped make sure that the lanterns were lit for vessels sailing in the vicinity.
Colfax finally retired in 1904, and an article appearing in the Chicago Tribune the same year called attention to her long and distinguished service at the Michigan City Lighthouse. “The oldest, staunchest, and most reliable lighthouse keeper in the United States is a woman,” reported the article. The article also noted how “her unfailing light had carried courage and brought safety to many a ship and small boat tossed on the rough waters of Lake Michigan.” Colfax died the following year at the age of 80.
For more information on Harriet Colfax, please check out http://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2014/03/harriet-colfax-the-women-of-the-lighthouse-service/.