International Women’s Day: Elizabeth Whitney Williams

Remembering One Woman from Northern Michigan Who Played A Role In Advancing Women

International Women’s Day, during Women’s History Month, is time to recognize the significant strides women have made in society.

Harbor Springs’ former-resident, Elizabeth Whitney Williams, is one such woman willing of praise.

Elizabeth spent nearly 30 years at Harbor Point as a lighthouse keeper, a job few women were appointed to.

She was born on Mackinac Island, in the 1840s, before her father, a ship’s carpenter, moved the family to Beaver Island. Due to a schism caused by the self-appointed “King” James Jesse Strand of the Mormons, and other groups, the family left the island for Charlevoix.

The Whitney family returned to Beaver Island again after the assassination of Strand. Shortly after, in 1860, Elizabeth fell in love with Clement Van Riper. It was on that island the newlyweds met their neighbor, Peter McKinley, a lighthouse keeper.

McKinley retired due to ill health and the Van Ripers took over control of the Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse. Unfortunately, Clement was also in ill health leaving Elizabeth with most of the work.

“I don’t think she ever envisioned herself keeping the lights,” says Program Coordinator and Curator of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society, Beth Wemigwase. “But at that time, her father was a carpenter and a ship builder. She had three different brothers who, at that time, were making their livings on the water as well either as fishermen or shipbuilders. So lighthouses were incredibly important to those traits.”

The role of the lighthouse keeper requires manual labor, so often it was considered a “man’s job.” It wasn’t uncommon for some wives to take up the duties for their husbands if they were ill, or died.

A stormy night, in 1872, Clement rowed out to the lake to rescue the crew of sinking ship. He never returned, and his body was never recovered. Later, Elizabeth would also lose several brothers and nephews to drowning.

“She felt that maybe, someday, her brothers would see the light and be comforted by it,” says Wemigwase. “So it did have a personal impact on her. ”

Isolated in her sorrow, Elizabeth managed to maintain her role as interim lighthouse keeper.

“When lighthouses were first getting started, they were lit by whale oil and then later by kerosene,” says Wemigwase. “But those lamps had to be filled. There’s a lamp inside the lens, so there were duties related to keeping the lenses cleaned and polished. There were duties related to filling the lights with oil, trimming the wicks. Often it was several times a night in the middle of the night, and during the worst weather, of course, because that’s when you need a lighthouse. Most lighthouses had a fog signal building that had a striker mechanism that would sound a gong or a bell in foggy weather when you couldn’t necessarily see the light. So, for example, at Harbor Point, she had to maintain that as well.”

There was also the physical act of carrying gallons of flammable oil up and down the forty feet of stairs, multiple times a day, while wearing petticoats and small heels.
Little Traverse Lighthouse
It’s all detailed in her autobiography, A Child of the Sea. 
“She doesn’t particularly talk much about herself. I mean, she talks about her experiences growing up as a child. She talks a little bit about feeling that deep responsibility as a lighthouse keeper and how it was a joy to turn the light knowing that she was saving lives as she did it. But she never really mentions that she was extraordinary,” says Wemigwase.

She was officially appointed to the role a few weeks after her husband’s death.

“After her husband’s death, it was only a couple of weeks before sort of recognizing her diligence and and her skill that the United States Lighthouse Service appointed her the head keeper there on Beaver Island,” says Wemigwase. “At that time there were other female lighthouse keepers, but most of them were similar to how she had gotten her start, working with their husbands or working with their fathers and their families. Not many were actually officially appointed despite the work that they might have done behind the scenes.”

Elizabeth remained at the Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse for 14 years.

“Women didn’t often have jobs of that importance and jobs which had so much responsibility that were not inside the home,” says Wemigwase. “She really was a groundbreaker in that way. We know that she was incredibly competent and important because as soon as the lighthouse out at Harbor Point, here in Harbor Springs, was finished in 1884, she was the first keeper that moved in there.”

She remarried in 1875 to photographer Daniel Williams. The Williams’ moved to Harbor Point in 1884 after Elizabeth requested a transfer to the new station, Little Traverse Lighthouse. They lived their for 29 years.

Elizabeth retired from lighthouse keeping in 1913.

She and her husband moved to Charlevoix where they lived together for 25 years. They both died, within hours of each other, in 1938.

“We hope everyone leaves [the museum] with that idea of this strong, confident, responsible woman who was here for so many years,” says Wemigwase. “Not only does she tell us a story about perseverance and competency and just passion for her career locally, but you can connect that to broader stories across the state for women’s suffrage and advancement and moving the women’s fight for representation, forward. I know that there is a movement to get her into the Women’s Hall of Fame here in Michigan. She has been nominated. And I’m hopeful that that they will also see her value and accept her into that into that revered hall.”

The Harbor Springs Area Historical Society will be hosting a virtual discussion with author, Dianna Stampfler, April 14, to discuss the story of “Michigan’s Lighthouse Matriarch”