Harriet Colfax – The Enduring Keeper of the Light
Submitted by: Matthew Werner
She was not the first female lightkeeper in the United States, but Harriet E. Colfax was the most enduring. For 43 years, Colfax ran the Michigan City Lighthouse. Her reliability was known by ship captains throughout the Great Lakes—she never failed to light the beacons before sunset and kept them lit throughout the night.
Harriet Colfax moved to Michigan City with her brother, Richard, in 1853. Richard ran a Whig newspaper, the Michigan City Transcript, and Harriet worked there. Richard died three years later and Harriet resumed teaching music, which she had done back in Ogdensburg, New York, where they grew up.
Weeks before the Civil War broke out in 1861, Miss Colfax assumed her duties as Michigan City lighthouse keeper. (Her cousin, Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax—later speaker of the House and vice president—helped her get the job.) She was responsible for three lights that helped mariners and captains navigate their way into Trail Creek. The primary beacon, a Fresnel fifth-order lens, sat atop the lighthouse and cast a beam 15 miles into Lake Michigan. Two smaller lights sat at the ends of east and west piers out in Lake Michigan. The east beacon was accessible by foot at the end of a long pier, but Colfax needed a row boat to access the west pier.
Before kerosene, lard oil fueled the beacons. During cold weather, Colfax heated the lard at home, carried it in a bucket via the pier, or rowboat, and lit the fuel before it congealed. If she ran into trouble, as she did once when a lock on one of the pier-heads had broken, she had to repeat the process with a second trip. Every sunset, she lit the beacons. At midnight, she cleaned the glass and trimmed the wicks to ensure the lights shone bright, and extinguished the flames at sunrise. All along, keeping watch to ensure nothing went wrong.
During Colfax’s time in the lighthouse, the giant sand dune, the Hoosier Slide, loomed on the west bank of Trail Creek. Warehouses, workshops, factories, and railroads lined the water corridor. Most of her years, there was no bridge—one had to take a row boat or small ferry to cross into town. She rubbed elbows with workers, sailors, and sea captains. She kept tabs on vessels coming and going, saw ship wrecks and drowned men, conducted her business fastidiously, and noted life’s passing days—the weather, the activity, the appearance of the Northern Lights.
But Harriet was not alone. A childhood friend, Ann Hartwell, had moved to Michigan City a year after Harriet arrived. When Colfax moved into the lighthouse, Miss Hartwell moved with her. The two lived together the rest of their lives.
Ann C. Hartwell taught school in Michigan City over 25 years and then she ran a newsstand and bookstore downtown that also became Michigan City’s first circulating library. Known by friends as “Ann and Tat,” the pair was well-known in the community and regularly attended church and social events together.
Although it was Colfax’s unwavering attention to her lights that brought her notoriety throughout the Midwest, the relationship between Colfax and Hartwell piqued many peoples’ interest. December 21, 1884, the Indianapolis Journal reported that the two friends had entered a pact when they were both engaged: “if the lover of either should die before the wedding day they would both foreswear marriage and would ever afterward live inseparable.” One of the lovers died, or so the newspaper wanted readers to think. But it is likely the writer concocted that story to ease readers’ Victorian principles as much as anything. In 1904, a Chicago Daily Tribune reporter visited Miss Colfax and Miss Hartwell:
There is something almost childlike in the tenderness with which the two cronies love one another. “We have never quarreled, Harriet and I,” Miss Ann will say. “And we never will, Ann,” Miss Colfax will answer, taking the other’s small, thin hand in hers. “Never! That is, unless you again insist on tending my light. That’s one thing you or anyone else shall never do while I am lighthouse keeper.”
When the same reporter pressed Colfax about the town gossip swirling around her past romantic life, she cleverly changed the subject as if he’d never asked the question. When Ann Hartwell passed away, one obituary read, “Death Severs an Unique Companionship.”
Colfax and Hartwell had a deep relationship. Hartwell’s will and testament (signed 34 years before her death) left all of her possessions to Colfax. And shortly before Colfax passed away, she named her brother, William, and Hartwell’s sister, Harriet Van Pelt, as co-executors of her will. Both women are buried in the Van Pelt family cemetery plot. It seems Ann and Tat lived life on their own terms, were happy, and were embraced by friends and family.
In 1904, the Lighthouse Service moved the Fresnel lens out of the lighthouse and to the end of the East pierhead along with a fog signal. Colfax was the nation’s oldest and longest-serving lightkeeper. Two months before her 80 th birthday, she chose to pass the torch to a new keeper. To dispel rumors that she had been forced out of the lighthouse, Colfax wrote to the local newspaper. In her letter, she wrote, “There has not been a moment since I was informed of the contemplated change in location of light from residence to outer harbor piers, and the added service necessitated by erection of fog signal station, that my decision to tender my resignation was in doubt.”
Three months later, Ann Hartwell passed away on January 22, 1905. Her body was put in a vault until spring and buried in Greenwood Cemetery on April 4. Twelve days later, Harriet Colfax died on April 16, and was buried beside Miss Hartwell, where they both rest to this day.
To learn more about Harriet Colfax and see the Fresnel lens she maintained for 43 years, visit The Michigan City Lighthouse Museum. It is open April 1 – October 31, Tuesday – Sunday, 1:00 – 4:00 pm. www.oldlighthousemuseum.org