Light the River

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Photograph of Ms. Jane Robinson


TALES ABOUND OF THE courageous steamboat captains of yore who pitted their navigational skills against the sandbars, rocks,and other hazards that the Mighty Mississippi put in their way. On moonless nights, before the advent of electric lights or the dredging of a uniform navigational channel, the river's twists and turns were especially treacherous. On such nights, the only safeguards against disaster were kerosene lamps dotting the riverbanks that were kept lit by dedicated federal government employees, whose exertions have, for the most part, gone unsung.

One of these post-light keepers was Jane Muckle Robinson, who started working on the river in 1885, when she was 23.Born in Belfast, Ireland, Robinson came to Dundas,Minnesota, with her family in 1881. Within the next few years she married Robert Robinson and moved to South Park, the area along the Mississippi that is now the city of South St. Paul. She lived therewith her husband in a little house on Bryant Avenue that they eventually shared with their seven children and several boarders. And while Robert worked in the Great Western car shops in South Park, his resourceful wife began a career with the United States Department of Commerce and Labor that would last a lifetime.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the agency responsible for hiring lighthouse keepers was also in charge of keeping the post-light keeper positions filled along the Mississippi River. Since large amounts of money-and people's lives--were at stake if the commercial operations were swallowed by the river, the rules governing the post-light keepers' conduct were very strict. Detailed instructions of how to care for the lamps were included along with the consequences for a dead light. From spring thaw to late fall, the keepers were responsible for their lights 24 hours a day. A full day's pay would be deducted from the keeper's wages if a lamp went dark.

Occasionally, due to circumstances beyond the employee's control, a light would
go out. If that happened, boat pilots were required to blow their whistles in a series of one long and three short blows until the keeper awoke, rowed out to the lamp, and lit the flame again. Storms were no excuse.

Every evening, Robinson would place the items she needed to tend the lamps in a small wooden boat. Then she would climb aboard in her billowing skirts and row upstream to the four lights she was assigned to keep watch over. Stopping at her first lamp,Robinson would trim the wick, fill the kerosene, clean the glass, and finally light the flame.Then she would move on to the next light,traveling a stretch of the river from Dayton's Bluff to the South St.Paul Union Stockyards. When each of her four lights were burning bright she would return home, only to get up in the morning to repeat the trip so she could extinguish the lamp.

Robinson finally retired in 1921, handing the job over to her son, Robert. In an article that appeared in the St. Paul Dispatch touting her work, Robinson estimated that in her 36-year stint as a government employee she had rowed the equivalent of twice around the globe. "The river traffic is much lighter than it was in the early days," she was quoted as saying,"and it seems to me there aren't as many stormsnowadays.We used to have some awful storms. They made it nearly impossible to go out."

But she did go out, year after year, with a steady strength and the quiet determination to do her duty. In the same article announcing her retirement, Robinson was lauded by the men she had protected. "She has been most dependable, river men say, and pilots guiding steamers or barge to St. Paul never have failed to find the beacons lighted to mark the channel's path."

Robinson's story may have drifted irretrievably into obscurity had it not been for Charlie Maguire, the "singing park ranger" of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, who learned about Robinson a year ago and recognized hers as a story well worth telling. "It may be men that steered these great big boats like Mark Twain up and down the Mississippi River" Maguire says, "but it was women that lit the lights and showed them where to go." Maguire wrote a song about Robinson that the entitled "Light the River." He performed it last summer at a ceremony in Grandview Park, which overlooks the river and is just around the bend from where one of Robinson's lights was located. His song is a tribute to the woman who worked so diligently day and night to keep river travelers safe:

Before a snag-log catches our poor boats
Before a sand bar lifts us too high to float
Before the river grabs us by the throat
Light the river Jane.

Rowing on the water
Pulling on the oar
Jane Robinson "Post Light Keeper"
Along the Mississippi River shore
Rowing on the water
To shine a light
On "Big Muddy" for all who study
His tarnished silver highway through the night

"Light the River
Show your light until the break of day, now Jane
Light the River
Then we’ll be on our way"

Rowing on the water
Spring-flood to fall
Four lights showing whether clear or blowing
From Dayton Bluff to South Saint Paul
Rowing on the water
River woman Jane
Bend your back in service
To the brightest, purest, government specified
Clear white flame

Rowing on the water
Pulling on the oar
"Old Man River" is sneaking off
To join the shadows on the shore
Rowing on the water
Light the river Jane
Before the fire-flies shine in the evening time
Before the sun goes down and leaves us blind
Before the stars come out into the sky
This is what the pilots say
"Before a snag-log catches our poor boats"
"Before a sand-bar lifts us too high to float"
"Before the river grabs us by the throat"
"Light the river Jane"

"Light The River" Words, Music, Arrangement, by Charlie Maguire
1998-National Park Service

Last updated: November 22, 2019

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