About the Holiday
Lighthouses have been in use since the earliest days of sea-going vessels. Built to warn sailors of dangerous and damaging rocks and reefs, these sentinels are a picturesque and fascinating part of history. From man—and woman—tended lights to today’s automated systems, lighthouses are a beacon of inspiration and imagination.
Miss Colfax’s Light
Written by Aimée Bissonette | Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen
In 1861 when Harriet Colfax’s brother fell ill and decided to leave Indiana, Harriet had two options: she could leave with him—after all she had come to Indiana with him and worked with him at their newspaper—or she could stay on as the lighthouse keeper of the Michigan City Lighthouse, making $350 a year. Most women might have chosen to leave, but Harriet did not want to give up her independence or leave her best friend, Ann. She took the job as lighthouse keeper even though many in town thought she was too weak or too inexperienced to do the work.
Harriet knew the ships on the sometimes wild waters of Lake Michigan—one of the northern United States’ Great Lakes—relied on the lighthouse to keep them from danger. Twice every night she had to carry “whale oil in a bucket up narrow stairs to the top of the lantern tower” to refill the light and then polish the Fresnel lens. During the day, she “cleaned and painted…varnished the woodwork and shined the brass…and wrote notes in her log.”
It didn’t matter if Harriet was tired or sick or if winter storms rocked the shore, Harriet’s work went on. In 1871 a beacon light was installed at the end of the Michigan City east pier. Now in addition to the main lighthouse, Harriet had to keep this signal lit too. To do so required a long walk down a wooden catwalk that jutted far out into the lake. At times the freezing water roiled and splashed over the catwalk, making the walk tricky and dangerous. By this time lard had replaced whale oil as fuel. While it was cheaper and easier to get, it also had to be heated to pour. Sometimes on frigid winter nights “the lard oil hardened in the cold and Harriet had to fight back through the wind to reheat the oil” on her stove.
In 1874 the beacon light was moved to the west pier—farther away. Instead of being within walking distance, Harriet now had to “row a small boat across a creek, hike the far shore, and cross a longer catwalk to light the beacon light.” One night in 1886 storms raged as Harriet made her way down the west pier. “Driving sleet covered her coat with ice. Sand from the dunes along the lake pelted Harriet’s face, stinging her cheeks. Her boots slipped and slid on the catwalk.” Only moments after she finished filling the beacon light and stepped off the catwalk, “a deafening screech filled the air” as the beacon tower “ripped from its moorings and crashed into the lake.”
Harriet’s dedication to the Michigan City Lighthouse continued every day and every night for 43 years. People in town came to call the landmark “Miss Colfax’s Light,” and ship captains named it “Old Faithful.” Over the years her vantage point on the tip of the shore allowed Harriet to experience more than stormy seas. She also saw “brilliant sunsets, lunar eclipses, and silent, dancing northern lights. She saw tall-masted schooners with white sails give way to steamships of iron and steel.”
In 1904, when Harriet was 80 years old, the Michigan City Lighthouse underwent a renovation. It acquired a fog signal, and the oil-burning mechanism was replaced with a steam engine and boilers with huge coal-fired furnaces that required several keepers. Although Harriet was sad to leave her life as a lighthouse keeper behind, she understood. With the same bravery that had brought her to the lighthouse, she opened the door and stepped out to what came next.
The life of Harriet Colfax needs no embellishment to reveal the kind of determination and dedication it took to keep the Michigan City Lighthouse shining. Aimée Bissonette tells this brave woman’s story straightforwardly, focusing on particular moments when her duties were increased or her resolve challenged. Harriet’s personal motto that kept her going: “I can do this” is repeated throughout the book, echoing the revolving beacon that shines continuously on the shore of Lake Michigan. Actual entries from Harriet’s log punctuate the text, lending authenticity and Harriet’s voice to the story.Children will be fascinated by this snapshot of American (and world) history.
Eileen Ryan Ewen’s action-filled paintings of Harriet and her work beautifully demonstrate to readers Harriet’s incredible will and perseverance under the most difficult circumstances. The narrow stairs of the lighthouse pose daunting in the middle of the night; the seas of Lake Michigan surge and lap at Harriet and the winds buffet her as she navigates the catwalk; and an exhausted Harriet stands at the stove melting lard to light the lens. Children interested in ships and the sea will find much here to excite their imaginations.
An author’s note about Harriet Colfax follows the text along with a glossary of terms used in the book.
Ages 6 – 9
Sleeping Bear Press, 2016 | ISBN 978-1585369553
Meet Aimée Bissonette and learn more about her books and work on her website!
To view Eileen Ryan Ewen‘s portfolio, sketchbook, and other books, visit her website!
National Lighthouse Day Activity
Lighthouse Coloring Page
Lighthouses are a striking part of any seashore landscape. Here is a printable Lighthouse Coloring Page for you to decorate!