Women in Transportation History: Elizabeth Whitney Williams, Lighthouse Keeper

Elizabeth Whitney Williams was one of the longest-serving lighthouse keepers in American history. In 1904, the Detroit Free Press underscored both the challenges and significance of Williams’ lifesaving role on behalf of maritime transportation. This article stated, “For more than three decades she has been in charge of one of Uncle Sam’s lighthouses on the Great Lakes, doing daily and nightly work which only the hardiest of men have been accustomed to do . . . On every foggy night or day in all those years she has gone down the path to the fog signal station every three hours and has wound the heavy clockwork mechanism which sets a bell to booming over gray waters at thirty-second intervals.”  

Williams was born on Mackinac Island in Michigan on June 24, 1844. The origins of her lighthouse career can be traced to 1869. This was when her first husband Clement Van Riper, whom she married in 1860, was appointed keeper at the lighthouse in the Michigan community of St. James and on the northern end of Beaver Island on Lake Michigan. Since Clement Van Riper’s generally poor health hindered his abilities to carry out all of his duties at Beaver Island Harbor Light, his wife Elizabeth ended up assisting him whenever and wherever possible. Her day-to-day help in this regard included cleaning and polishing the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens.

Williams fully embraced the daily existence with her husband at Beaver Island Harbor Light. She later noted, “Life seemed very bright in our lighthouse beside the sea.” Williams also wrote, “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.” 

Tragedy hit close to home for Williams in 1872, however, after her husband rowed out to sea during an intense storm to help rescue the crew on a sinking ship. Clement Van Riper never returned nor was his body ever recovered. Williams kept the lamps burning at Beaver Island Harbor Light throughout that uncertain and sad time, and just a few weeks after her husband presumably drowned in Lake Michigan, she was officially appointed to replace him as keeper. Williams — who would write about how she “longed to do something for humanity’s sake” — brought to her new position both a strong sense of mission and clear-eyed perspective.

Ultimately, Williams had to deal with not only the loss of her first husband but also the deaths of two brothers and three nephews who likewise perished at sea. These tragic losses further fortified her resolve to fulfill her responsibilities as lighthouse keeper as effectively as possible. She wrote, “Others around me were losing their loved ones on the stormy deep and it seemed to me there was all the more need that the lamps in our lighthouse towers should be kept burning brightly.”

In 1875, she married a photographer named Daniel Williams. Elizabeth Whitney Williams subsequently asked to be transferred from Beaver Island Harbor Light to a lighthouse on the mainland. This request was finally granted in 1884, when she was reassigned to serve as keeper at the newly built Little Traverse Light near the city of Harbor Springs on the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. (This lighthouse is specifically located on the north side of Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay.)

In the course of her long tenure at Little Traverse Light, Williams continued to earn widespread acclaim and attention for her work as a keeper. By 1897, she was one of only four female keepers stationed at lighthouses in the Great Lakes region.

“Every evening as I climb my tower-steps I know that there are hundreds of other lightkeepers doing the same thing,” William wrote during her time at Little Traverse Light. “I have many sleepless nights when storms are raging . . . We lightkeepers feel a great sympathy with our sailors, for we know their eyes are watching to catch the welcome glimmer of the lights as they sail on the stormy deep.” Williams also asserted, “Our lives are given to our work, and we feel the great responsibility resting upon us. We are faithful to the duties assigned us, and we keep our lamps trimmed and burning, a guide to mariners on the way to safe harbors of refuge.”

Williams remained Little Traverse Light’s keeper until retiring in 1913. She and her husband then moved to the city of Charlevoix, likewise located in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. William passed away there on January 23, 1938, at the age of 93. Daniel Williams had died only 12 hours earlier.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Elizabeth Whitney Williams, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Whitney_Williams

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