For 41 years, Elizabeth Whitney Williams trimmed wicks and tended beacons that lit the well-traveled waters of Lake Michigan in the late 1800s—both on Beaver Island and in Harbor Springs. Despite the dangers and loneliness of the work, hers was a wonderful life, she would later write, because it was spent so near the water.
This Traverse Classic was featured in Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine in June 2002.
Looking at the defining days of Elizabeth Whitney Williams’ life, it is impossible not to stand in awe of her spirit. The period was the early 1870s, and Williams had just lost her young husband of three years. He had been the lighthouse keeper at Beaver Island’s Whiskey Point lighthouse and one night had rowed a small boat into a raging storm to save a shipwrecked crew. But the storm swept Williams’s husband overboard and his body was never recovered. Despite her grief and the hardships that she must have known were to come, it appears Williams never doubted her path. She continued to operate the light, propelled by a remarkable sense of duty.
“There were others on the dark and treacherous waters who needed to catch the rays of the shining light from my lighthouse tower,” Williams wrote in her 1905 biography, A Child of the Sea and My Life Among Mormons. “Nothing could rouse me but that, though, then all my life and energy was given to the work which now seemed was given to me to do.”
Thick books of government regulations ruled the life of lighthouse keepers at the time. They were on duty 24 hours a day, allowed to leave only for Sunday church. The “instructions to lighthouse keepers” dictated the way they were to clean and polish lenses, fill lamp oils, and log such events as the passing of ships, the weather and the consumption of lamp oil.
By all accounts, Williams excelled at the work she was given to do. Newspaper articles from the late 1800s recorded her awards, including one for best-kept light on the Great Lakes. Perhaps most telling was the fact she simply kept her job. In 1851, nearly half, or about 30 of the lighthouse keepers on the lakes were women. By 1897, when the job had become a political appointment—and thus a way to repay campaign favors—only four women (Williams among them) held the post.
But on Beaver Island, Williams is best remembered today not for her bravery or efficiency on the job but for her vivid descriptions of life in company of the island’s self-proclaimed “King” James Strang.
A young Elizabeth had been living on Beaver Island for about a year when Strang was expelled from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Illinois and moved to the island with his followers to form a dissident monarchy. Williams’s family reportedly socialized with Strang in his early island years. “Many was the time I was dandled on the king’s lap,” she once told a reporter. But like other gentiles on the island, her family fled when pressured to convert; her brother, Lewis, was shot in the leg, she writes, during a battle with Strang’s followers.
For historical record, readers should probably look first to other Strang biographers, says William Cashman, director of the Beaver Island Historical Society. Williams wrote her account at age 63, relying on her own eyewitness accounts from ages 4 through 8. But readers continue to be captivated by the charm of her writing, which also captured as well as anyone the psychological sentiments of islanders at the time, Cashman says. For that reason, the historical society has kept the 100-year-old biography in print and sells dozens of copies each year.
In one particularly moving section, Williams describes the reaction of a woman whose husband—under Strang’s edict—took another wife, without telling his first wife. “I could not move,” she quotes the first wife as saying. “I could not speak. My tongue would not move in my mouth. I tried to say, ‘husband, husband,’ but no sound came. Oh, the agony I suffered.” The woman fled to the woods and tried to kill herself by jumping into the lake. She was saved by a dog that brought her bread crusts and bones to keep her alive.
“Strang called this all divine revelation,” Williams quotes the woman as saying. “He was more cruel than the grave to me.”
Williams also describes the close relationships between her family and the Native Americans who lived nearby. As a young girl, she idolized the beautiful daughter of an Ottawa chief who was forced to marry a rich man from a Canadian tribe, despite her love for someone else.
And lighthouses were always part of Williams’s life—much of her childhood was spent playing at the new Beaver Island lighthouse with the children of the keeper at the time. Fitting then, that lighthouses would be her home for 41 years—12 on Beaver Island and another 29 in Harbor Springs. As she reflected on her life, she concluded: “My life was a happy one. Because so much of it was spent near the water.”
What follows are her words in these excerpts from A Child of the Sea.
Among my earliest recollections is my love of watching the water. I remember standing with my arms outstretched as if to welcome and catch the white-topped waves as they came rolling in upon the white, pebbly shore at my feet. I was not quite three years old. My mother had left me asleep in the low, old-fashioned cradle and leaving the door ajar had stepped over to a neighbor’s house just a few rods away; returning almost immediately, she found I was not in the cradle as she had left me a short time before. She began to search for me at once and fearing I had gone to the shore, she ran down to the beach where the rolling waves were coming in with a booming sound and the wind blowing a gale. She found me standing in the water laughing and reaching out my little arms as the great waves broke and dashed at my feet.
Travel by Water
One still, cold morning in November our boat was prepared and we started to Manistique, 10 miles distant. Charley [Elizabeth’s brother] and I were again placed in among warm blankets.
I can hear my father [a boat builder] even now singing his old hymns, “Rock of Ages” and the “Evergreen Shore.” Many times I imagine I can hear the sweet music of his voice. Mother, too, sang her French glee songs. French was our mother’s language. Father could not speak it, but understood nearly everything.
French and Indian were the languages spoken by almost everybody in those days around the western island and shores. The men that came from eastern homes soon learned to speak the language of both French and Indian as it was necessary to carry on their trade.
Sturgeon were so plentiful in the river they could be pulled out with a gaff hook. The river was so full of suckers that the mill had to shut down many times while the men scooped the fish out with a large scoop net. At night, the bears, wolves and foxes would come to that pile of fish, making night hideous with their barks and growls. None of us dared go outdoors after night came… Bears were swimming across the river and we children used to watch them from our windows. The wolves would come to our large smokehouse at night and take the smoked sturgeon, growling and snarling around our windows.
Heading to Beaver Island
Hearing there were many people settling on Beaver Island, several families that we knew from York State, Ohio and Canada had made up [Father’s] mind to go there. White sails were set and we glided from the river out onto Lake Michigan just as the sun was sinking in the west. We knew we were once more out on the water on God’s great rolling cradle of the sea.
The whole surrounding country at that time was a wilderness. White settlers were few in number. There were many different tribes of Indians wandering about from place to place on their hunting and fishing tours. They were all peaceably inclined; many remained long enough to plant small gardens near the shores, but never clearing the land at any distance back from the shore. The woods were filled with abundance of game to satisfy all their wants and needs.
Life on the island was never dull. Our summer friends were pleasant, friendly people, making the life happier by their coming. Good books were sent us for winter reading, and many little tokens of remembrance were often sent us. We gladly hailed the first boat in the spring because it always brought some friends from the outside world.
Our mails came by ice in winter from Mackinac Island, a distance of fifty miles. When our mail carrier came with the pouches full we were like a hungry lot of people, as often we were without mail for a month or six weeks. Work was laid aside until the letters and papers were read, then for several days news was discussed among us.
The Indian School Days
In July of 1862, my husband was appointed as a Government school teacher to the Indians at Garden Island. The school was a large one as there was a band of Indians. That two years was a busy life for us both. The Government furnished seeds of all kinds for their gardens, flower seeds as well to beautify their homes. We were expected to teach them how to plant and cultivate their islands and farms. They learned rapidly to make their gardens, to plant corn and vegetables, but these little flower seeds, they could not manage them. Chief Peain was a very social, intelligent man. He watched the process of making the flowerbeds and the putting in of the small seeds. Then he said, “Too much work for Indian.” He then took many of the boys and girls with some of the older ones to help clearing off three or four acres of land, put a brush fence around it, then they took the flower seeds of the different kinds, sowing them like grain and raked them in. Well, such a flower garden was never seen!
As soon as the school was over, then the race began for the flower garden. And it was a pleasure to us to see them so happy. It was called “The Chief’s Garden.” I often look back to that two years of my life and feel that my time was not wasted.
The Beaver Island Light
In August of 1869, Mr. Peter McKinley resigned his position as light keeper, my husband being appointed in his place. Then began a new life.
My husband having now very poor health, I took charge of the care of the lamps; and the beautiful lens in the tower was my special care. On stormy nights I watched the light that no accident might happen. We burned the lard oil, which needed great care, especially in the cold weather, when the oil would congeal and fail to flow fast enough to the wicks. In long nights the lamps had to be trimmed twice each night, and sometimes oftener. At such times the light needed careful watching. From the first the work had a fascination for me. I loved the weather, having always been near it, and I loved to stand in the tower and watch the great rolling waves chasing and tumbling in upon the shore. It was hard to tell when it was loveliest, whether in its quiet moods or in a raging foam.
A Harbor in the Storm
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. Many nights when a gale came on we could hear the flapping of sails and the captain shouting orders as the vessels passed our point into the harbor, seeking shelter from the storm. Sometimes we could count fifty and sixty vessels anchored in our harbor, reaching quite a distance outside the point, as there was not room for so many inside. They lay so close they almost touched at times. At night our harbor looked like a little city with its many lights. It was a pleasant sound to hear all those sailors’ voices singing as they raised the anchors in the early morning. With weather fair and white sails set, the ships went gliding out so gracefully to their far away ports. My brothers were sometimes on those ships. Many captains carried their families on board with them during the warm weather. Then what a pleasure to see the children and hear their sweet voices in song in the twilight hours. Then again when they came on shore for a race on land, or taking their little baskets, went out to pick the wild strawberries. All these things made life the more pleasant and cheerful.
The Turning Point
Life seemed very bright in our lighthouse beside the sea. One dark and stormy night we heard the flapping of sails and saw the lights flashing in the darkness. The ship was in distress. After a hard struggle she reached the harbor and was leaking so badly she sank. My husband in his efforts to assist them lost his life. He was drowned with a companion, the first mate of the schooner Thomas Howland. The bodies were never recovered, and only those who have passed through the same know what a sorrow it is to lose your loved one by drowning and not be able to recover the remains. It is a sorrow that never ends through life.
Drowned in Sorrow
My appointment came in a few weeks after, and since that time I have tried faithfully to perform my duty as a light keeper. At first I felt almost afraid to assume so great a responsibility, knowing it all required watchful care and strength, with many sleepless nights. I now felt a deeper interest in our sailors’ lives than ever before, and I longed to do something for humanity’s sake, as well as earn my own living. …Sorrows came thick and fast upon me. Two brothers and three nephews had found graves beneath the deep waters, but mine was not the only sorrow. 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 brightly burning.
A Lightkeeper’s Life
Our light keepers many times live in isolated places, out on rocks and shoals far away from land and neighbors, shut off from social pleasures. In many places there can be no women and children about to cheer and gladden their lonely lives. There is no sound but the cry of the sea gulls soaring about or the beating of the restless waters, yet their lives are given to their work. As the sailor loves his ship so the light keeper loves his lighthouse.
The passing of the ships near their stations are like so many old friends to them. They learn to love the passing boats and vessels, and it is a pleasure to know our lights cheer and gladden the hearts of the sailors as the waves run high and the wild winds blow on dark, stormy nights. May the hearts of the light keepers, as well as the life savers in the life saving service along the great lakes and coasts, be strengthened and cheered in the grand and noble work.
(1876) I’m now married again, still holding my position as light keeper. Since my marriage, my official title has been Mrs. Daniel Williams. Having a desire to change my residence from the island to the mainland I made the request to be changed to a mainland light station.
Memories of Island Life
There was no place on earth where we all seemed so close together as on the island shores. We had passed through many storms, both mental and physical, but had felt the mighty power of Him who rules all things to give us peace and strength.
Just a few hours passed when we steamed into Little Traverse Harbor, and the “red light” just like the one we had left, was flashing its rays over the waters of Little Traverse Bay for the first time. The water was calm and still. The “red light” shone deep into the quiet waters, and many eyes were watching the bright rays from the lighthouse tower, and the wish of their hearts had been gratified in having a lighthouse on Harbor Point and vessels into the harbor. Some passengers said to me, “Here is your home. Don’t you know the red light is giving you a welcome?”
We were soon at work putting our house in order, and the beautiful lens in the tower seemed to be appealing to me for care and polishing, which I could not resist, and since that time I have given my best efforts to keep my light shining from the lighthouse tower.
Copies of A Child of the Sea and My Life Among Mormons are available through Traverse City’s Horizon Books or on Beaver Island, at the Mormon Print Shop Museum (231-448-2254) or McDonough’s Market (231-448-271).
Northern Traveler Tip: Head to Beaver Island
Admirers of Elizabeth Whitney Williams can visit the light she watched over for the first 12 years of her career. Beaver Island Boat Company offers relaxing 2-hour cruises from Charlevoix to St. James Harbor. There, a tour bus will meet you for your journey around the island. Highlights: both Beaver Island Lights, the Marine Museum and the Old Mormon Print Shop remaining from the days when King Strang ruled the island. You must take the first ferry of the morning (800-446-4095).
Want to go your own way? Ferry rides without a tour are $32.50 one way during peak season and $27.50 non-peak. Bring your bike for another $12, or rent a car to navigate the island’s 53 square miles—don’t miss the gorgeous, remote beaches on Iron Ore Bay. Gordon’s Auto Rentals, located at the marina, can hook you up with a mini-van or a Chevy Tracker. 231-448-2300.
For over 30 years the staff at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we’ve reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our MyNorth.com audience. Get the best of Northern Michigan delivered to your door each month with Traverse Magazine. Subscribe today!