Last updated: December 29, 2022
“Heroine of Light”
Born along the St. Lawrence River, determined Harriet Colfax found herself far upstream along the treacherous coast of Southern Lake Michigan after moving to a young Michigan City in 1853. For 43 careful years she watched the rough frontier city blossom to a Duneland metropolis; she fearlessly maintained the harbor beacon as lighthouse keeper while enduring the ensuing hardships with her lifelong companion Ann Hartwell.
Quote by her:
“It is fearful to hear the groaning storm for hours before it breaks upon us–its groans, its mysterious booming sounds, its howls and its wild, demonical shriek. It is then that I am in the light-house and keep my lamps trimmed, for then the poor wretches that are tossed about on the angry waves and are at their wits’ end most do need the faithful discharge of my duties.”
Quote about her:
“There were times when she was ill. There were nights when the groaning, wind driven seas lashed over the long pier that led to the harbor beacon. But she never failed.”
Harriet Colfax was born on December 3rd, 1824 in Ogdensburgh, New York; a village along the St. Lawrence River that was incorporated in 1817. As a young woman, Harriet taught piano and voice lessons. She became friends with Ann Hartwell in Ogdensburgh; Ann was a young teacher who would remain her lifelong companion. Over 600 miles to the west, the idea of Indiana’s first harbor town was realized when Michigan City was incorporated in 1836. Two years later, it’s first light was shown at the harbor; a 39 foot brick tower and separate quarters for a lighthouse keeper were authorized by the United States Congress.
In 1853, Harriet decided to move to the young city on Lake Michigan with her brother, who started a local newspaper business where Harriet helped typeset. Ann followed shortly after in 1854. In 1856, Harriet’s brother suddenly died of tuberculosis at age 26. Despite this early tragedy, Harriet enjoyed the freedom of the frontier and remained living in the growing harbor city. Around this same time, Ms. Colfax and Ms. Hartwell moved in together. By 1858, Ann was a teacher for the public school system and Harriet taught music lessons. The same year, the Michigan City lighthouse was rebuilt larger in 1858 to protect its bustling harbor.
“This time, instead of constructing a separate tower and dwelling, a short, square, wooden tower was built atop the northern end of a new, seven-room, one-and-a-half-story dwelling. The foundation of the structure was built of Joliet stone, while Milwaukee cream city brick was used for the upper portion. The tower’s lantern room had nine sides, two of which were blind, and housed a new, fifth-order, L. Sautter & Cie. Fresnel lens that produced a fixed white light at a focal plane of fifty-two feet.”
Today, it is one of the oldest lighthouse standing on the shores of Lake Michigan and houses the Old Lighthouse Museum.
In 1861, Harriet was appointed to the federal position of lighthouse keeper at Michigan City. Newspaper reporters that told her story for decades assumed she achieved this with the influence of her legislator cousin and future Vice President, Schuyler Colfax Jr.. Harriet and Ann moved into the lighthouse together when she assumed her role. That same year, when men left Michigan City for the Civil War, the citizens presented the American flag and Ms. Hartwell gave an encouraging speech to the Union soldiers before they marched away. Four years later when President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train made an impromptu stop in Michigan City, Ms. Colfax assembled local schoolgirls to sing hymns and present a flowered cross wreath on the casket of President Lincoln.
In 1871, the city extended the harbor’s “east pier,” and built an elevated walk and wooden tower with an additional light that required lighting at the end of the 1,500 ft structure. In the first half of her service, Harriet was provided with lard oil for the lamps that she would have to heat to light her beacons. The lard would occasionally re-harden before she could get to her destination, necessitating a re-melt. She used this method until around 1882, when lard oil was replaced with kerosene.
In 1872, Harriet recorded a dangerous storm on the lake, “Gale perfectly fearful by nightfall. Waves dashed over the top of the beacon. Reached the beacon at imminent risk tonight as the waves ran over the elevated walk. Watched both lights with closest attention all night.” That year she was noted as making a salary of $520 which is around $11,800 in 2022 with inflation. The next spring she encountered another treacherous gale, “A terrible hurricane to-night at about the time of lighting up. Narrowly escaped being swept into the lake.” In 1874, the city transferred the elevated walk and pierhead light to the longer “‘west pier.” The west pier extended five hundred feet further into the lake, and required Harriet to row across Trail Creek in a small boat to reach it.
In 1881 a reporter visited and gave a detailed account of Harriet and Ann at the lighthouse:
“I knocked on the door and was invited by a cheery voice to ‘come in.’ … I walked leisurely into the hall, and was met by a lady with a bright, intellectual face, and dressed in a spotted muslin freshly goffered and laundered. She invited me into the parlor, where I announced myself as ‘Pan handle,’ of the Courier-Journal, and begged leave to pay my respects to Miss Harriet E. Colfax, the keeper of the lighthouse.
The lady said Miss Colfax would be down in a moment, and, while waiting her coming, I engaged in a pleasant conversation with the lady who had received me. She was agreeable, affable and highly intellectual, bright and sparkling, and as thoroughly au fait in conversational tactics as any lady born and raised amid courts and courtiers.
This was Miss Ann Hartwell, the friend and confidante of Miss Colfax. For over twenty-five years these ladies have dwelt together alone in the same house, under the same roof, have sat at the same ingleside, have eaten at the same table, have drawn comfort and consolation from the same Christian fount, have wept each other’s tears, shared each other’s joys…
In a few minutes Miss Hattie Colfax made her appearance, dressed in the same faultless attire, hair cut short, without bangs, frizzes or montagues. She was dignified and stately as a queen, while her more loquacious maid of honor was the very embodiment of wit and pleasantry. As the two ladies stood before me I felt that I had never seen before two so remarkable specimens of matchless neatness, intellectual dignity and refined cultivation, buried all alone in that Lighthouse on the Point.
They were politely communicative, and Miss Colfax said:
‘I was appointed by Mr. Lincoln soon after his inauguration, to the position of lighthouse keeper at this place… For over twenty-five years my friend Miss Hartwell and I have lived together, and for twenty years have lived in this house. My duties are to keep the lights burning all the year round until navigation is closed by the ice. I light them after sunset, every day and extinguish them after daylight.”
Harriet highlighted some of the hardships the tumultuous lake produced:
“…I have witness many a fearful storm from the dome above us, when the winds blew great guns and dashed the water and the foaming waves over the breakwater, and sometimes for fifty feet up the sand dunes… It is fearful to hear the groaning storm for hours before it breaks upon us–its groans, its mysterious booming sounds, its howls and its wild, demonical shriek. It is then that I am in the light-house and keep my lamps trimmed, for then the poor wretches that are tossed about on the angry waves and are at their wits’ end most do need the faithful discharge of my duties.
…I have seen poor men drowned right before my eyes… powerless to help them.
… I have witnessed many wrecks, and have seen the ships break to pieces on the beach or on the breakwater. But the saddest of all is to see a lone, helpless fellow-being clinging to the rigging and holding out his hands miles away to his friends on shore for relief.’”
In 1883, Ann retired from school after teaching the youth of the growing coastal city for a quarter century. She opened a newsstand book exchange in downtown Michigan City that became the first lending library in the area. In 1886, a frightful storm swept the west pier’s beacon light into the lake:
“It was a stormy night towards the end of 1886 that Miss Colfax made her last trip to the beacon light. With her pail of heated oil in one hand and her lantern in the other she sallied forth into one of the most tumultuous storms that ever raged along the coast of Lake Michigan. The sleet stung her face, the furious wind drove the spray of the seas and the sand of the dunes pelting against her, and the darkness of the tempest fell so suddenly that she could hardly find the wave washed end of the pier. But she gained it, grasped the handrail, and, with head bent, struggled forward to the beacon tower.
The waves dashed over and smote against the piling and woodwork of the pier till the timbers groaned and the frail woman could scarcely keep her footing. She fought her way along, gained the stairway, and in the shelter of the tower top filled the great lamp and lighted it. Then she came down, drenched to the skin, chilled to the bone, and for the first time, scared almost to fainting. The tornado had increased in fury, the slender stairway quaked beneath her, the tower wavered, and the noise of the wind and water was like the rending of a thousand sails. She had hardly gained the mainland when there was a grinding crash. She looked back in terror to see the great beacon, like some big meteor, whirl in an arc through the livid night and fall hissing into the lake.
All night she watched the tower above her own house praying that no ships would venture in, or that the main light, which she kept burning more brightly than ever, might guide them past the wreck of the beacon pier. And in the morning when daylight came, and she had snuffed the harbor light, she went down to the pier to see the ruin which the storm had wrought. The beacon tower was gone, half of the long pier had been dismantled, and the shore was strewn with the wreckage of a structure that had withstood the storms of fifteen years.
‘I have seen many storms,’ said Miss Colfax the other day, ‘but never one like that. I was sorry to lose the old beacon, in spite of all the trouble and danger it brought me, for I was getting fond of it, and it was a great help to the sailors who didn't know the old harbor entrance.’”
Newspaper records reveal that Ms. Colfax and Ms. Hartwell made a number of visits to Ann’s niece and nephew-in-law in South Bend 1889-1899. One article in 1894 referred to the loving pair as the niece’s “aunts.” In 1890, a string of articles calling her “The Sailors’ Friend” and “brave-hearted little woman” appeared all over the country. The article recounted one harrowing evening where Harriet braved the weather to light the pierhead beacon:
“On one very cold, stormy night when the waves dashed incessantly over the raised walk and it was only by waiting for the temporary lull that the passage could be made. Miss Colfax warmed the lard oil and started forth on her marvelous errand. Twice she was driven back before she gained the beacon, and when at last she reached the structure she found to her dismay and annoyance that the lock had been tampered with and obstinately refused to open. In her desperation she finally broke a pane of glass, and crawling through the aperture, inserted the lamp in place, but so much time had been lost that the oil congealed and all attempts at ignition proved futile. But the beacon had to be lighted and the woman never for one moment flinched. Lamp in hand, she started back to the lighthouse though an icy shower, slipped, fell, rose and slipped again, but at length reached the end of the pier in safety. The oil was again heated and again she started out for the beacon, this time accomplishing her task but returning with a bruised body and thoroughly soaked condition. Men said who knew of this performance that no amount of money would have tempted them to make the journey the second time as she did…”
In 1893, an article offered a perspective of other dangers Ms. Colfax experienced:
“Only one instance of cowardly insult has Miss Colfax experienced and this, too, occurred on the way to the beacon light one night in November, when two men stood in the center of the deserted walk and barred her progress. To her mild but firm request to pass they paid no attention, and in attempting to forcibly pass them she found herself a prisoner. Still fearless and determined the little woman gave one of the ruffians an unexpected push, darted past him, and set her lamp in its place, instead of returning to the house, as she might have been pardoned for doing under the circumstances. As she retraced her way she found her passage opposed again, and thoroughly frightened she was about to scream for help, when a boat engineer came to her rescue.
A still more thrilling experience she relates of encountering an escaped lunatic on the pier one evening, who insisted upon accompanying her inside the structure. Fortunately, she was unconscious of the man’s condition but refused his request, as it was strictly against the rules of the department. He followed her and attempted to crowd through the narrow doorway, but, summoning all her fortitude, she looked him fearlessly in the face and ordered him decidedly to stay outside. He heeded the authority in her tone for an instant, and in the interval she slipped inside and locked the door. Two keepers soon relieved her of her unwelcome guest without further trouble…”
Towering sandhills and scattered vegetation lined the coast. Just across Trail Creek stood what was once Indiana’s tallest dune, Hoosier Slide- a two-hundred foot heap of golden sand. While it cannot be confirmed that Ann and Harriet ever climbed Hoosier Slide, they doubtlessly knew of the famous dune that attracted curious onlookers to its crest. Harriet was noted in naturalist journals for some of her bird observations on the lake in the winter of 1883-1884.
A traumatic experience occurred in 1895 when Harriet was run down by the drunk driver of a horse-drawn cart. Although she suffered bruises across her body, she was miraculously left without life-threatening injury from the cart’s wheels or horses’ trampling feet. That same year, a string of articles spread around the country that told of her position as lighthouse keeper that stated, “It is fair to say she is a Western woman.” In 1897, an even wider geographic spread of articles highlighted her and other women with unconventional careers entitled “Women All Over the World Taking Up Men’s Work.”
Since the pierhead light was added in 1871, Harriet gained an assistant keeper to help tend the lighthouse. Over the decades, the role was filled by five different people, two women and three men. The census in 1900 recorded that Harriet was “head” of the household while Ann was noted as her “partner;” it also noted that a 28 year-old Polish servant was living with them. Two years later an article revealed that “Ann and Tat,” as they were affectionately called, had exchanged engagement rings nearly half a century prior and had been wearing them ever since. The article states, “Both women are exceedingly reserved as to how they came to join their lives, but those who are near to them tell of the romantic tie that seems to have bound them together for all time.” While some articles circulated speculative ideas to give reasoning for their union, the pair themselves never hinted at having failed engagements. The women were also noted for putting their earnings into a common fund.
In 1904, after 43 years as lighthouse attendant, Harriet was forced into retirement with the decision to modernize and electrify the old lighthouse. That fall, an extensive article was written that highlighted Harriet’s determination, changing times, and her reluctance to speak on her romantic life:
“There were times when she was ill. There were nights when the groaning, wind driven seas lashed over the long pier that led to the harbor beacon. But she never failed. Drenched with icy spray, almost blown from the slippery footing, groping her way from the lighthouse to the beacon, across the wind swept sand dunes, floundering, tired with the burden of her big lamp, chilled with the blasts of belated spring or early winter, she never failed to keep the beacon bright and constant, never permitted the terrors of the storm or the fears of her womanly heart to deter her for a moment.
…And then, if you will listen, she will tell you long forgotten tales of shipwrecks on the Indiana coast. Of storms that almost blew her into the lake; of castaways and rescues; of bold sailors who brought her presents in the days of her youth, and of how some famous captain praised the brightness of her light and the fidelity with which it always ‘showed.’ But of the romance of her own calm life, if there was one, she will say nothing. The town gossips say that ever so many years ago, when little Harriet Colfax was the prettiest schoolma'am in Michigan City, there was a–
But Miss Colfax doesn't like this kind of gossip about herself, and if you ask her she will change the subject.
‘What a dreadful noise the carpenters are making,’ she will suggest. ‘I suppose it is necessary, though. The place was good enough and I'm not fond of changes.’”
The article also provided further insight into Ann and Tat’s companionship:
“In the house of Miss Colfax, her confidante and companion of seventy years, lives Miss Ann Hartwell, a tiny, slim, blue eyed woman with curly gray hair, infinitely gentle, and like her aged comrade in many ways. Passing the four score milestone together, these two quaint, lovable spinsters have been bosom friends since the days of their childhood in Ogdensburg, N.Y. Miss Hartwell was a pioneer school teacher of northern Indiana, she taught three generations of its people, and when old age and failing health brought an end to her work she went to the lighthouse to pass away her final years with ‘Harriet.’ Here they lived for many years, clinging to the old fashioned habits and methods of half a century ago.
Winter and summer on Sunday mornings these two slow going, weary but dainty ladies can be seen wending away to church, arm in arm, dressed like the fashion plates of the ante-bellum days, smiling upon middle aged men and women who were their pupils forty years or more ago, cheering one another with gossip of the romances of the far time when they were themselves belles of the same town in which they are now ending their peaceful lives. 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.’
And then the queer, guileless pair will laugh right heartily, smiling in each other's faces as though it were a merry topic.”
The lighthouse that stood since 1858 was remodeled and enlarged to house three keepers, now responsible for three lights and a fog signal. The head keeper had four rooms on the east side of the building and the two assistant keepers were given three rooms on the west side; with an entrance for both. The lantern room was no longer necessary, and it was removed from the structure. Harriet spoke of the passion she had for her work just before her retirement:
“The lard oil would get hard before I could get the lamp lighted, but once lit it never went out, you may be sure. My lights never went out till I quenched them myself. . . I love the lamps, the old lighthouse, and the work. They are the habit, the home, everything dear I have known for so long. I could not bear to see anyone else light my lamp. I would rather die here than live elsewhere.”
She proceeded to light the lamp for the reporter just days before it would be her last: “‘It is time,’ she said, lighting up the lamp and smiling a happy smile. In an instant the tiny, glass covered cage was flooded with a fierce light.”
Ms. Colfax retired on October 14, 1904 at eighty years old- and just six days before the light she had faithfully kept for over four decades was extinguished for the final time. She wrote in her logbook October 8, “Sold household effects preparatory to vacating the dear old lighthouse.” Four days later she made her last entry, “Fair, warm wind, smokey atmosphere. Received another call from Mr. Armstrong, my successor.” Keeper Armstrong recorded in his logbook October 13, “The retiring keeper left the station this 4 p.m. and all her personal effects.”
By October 31st, the pair were moved into their new home and Ann’s mental health had substantially declined. Ann died about 3 months after moving on January 27th, 1905 at age 77. The Michigan City Dispatch wrote of her:
“Deceased was a devoted member of the Episcopal church with which she labored faithfully and incessantly from childhood. She was a woman of superior intelligence and activity, and was constantly identified in the church and social events of the city for the leadership in which she was ever in demand. Honorable, consistent and actuated always by the highest motives she won and held the admiration of her friends. Hers was a useful, well-spent life and all who came in touch with her could not but feel the influences of her excellent character, her bright, genial disposition. The world is better for her having lived.
In her early life, in Ogdensburg, she formed warm attachments for a girl friend, Miss Harriet E. Colfax, which attachments grew to a sisterly love. Miss Colfax came to Michigan City in 1853 and when Miss Hartwell came in 1854, the friendship which began in Ogdensburg was continued and the two women became inseparable life companions.”
On March 25th, Harriet completed her last will and testament with instructions to leave money and possessions for her family and her church. One paper reported she “left a goodly part of $50,000 to the Michigan City diocese of the Episocopol church endowment fund.” Harriet died shortly after Ann on April 17th, 1905 at age 81. Articles that carried her death notice called her the “Heroine of Light.” Harriet’s last observation would foreshadow the accelerated industrialization that predated a shifting attitude in conservation of natural resources. Harriet would have witnessed the deforestation of the region due to extensive harvesting and processing. She would have begun to see the decline of the once great Hoosier Slide, which would be reduced from 200 feet tall to nothing in the two decades following her death.
But Harriet and Ann also influenced and inspired the future generation that would help rise to support and protect the Indiana Dunes. Ann and Tat are buried side-by-side in Greenwood Cemetery, Michigan City. The Old Lighthouse Museum has had a replica lantern room-reinstalled, and the site is a wonderful place to connect to Harriet and Ann’s lives.
BibliographyMay 5, 1905; The Buffalo Inquirer, Buffalo New York
“The Heroine of the Light” ; Page 5
August 11, 1881; The Courier Journal, Louisville, KY
“Michigan City” ; Page 6
October 2, 1904; Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL
“A Fragile Woman of 80 Years is Uncle Sam’s Oldest and Most Reliable Lighthouse Keeper” ; Page 64
January 14 1895; The Indianapolis Journal, Indianapolis IN
“Harriet Colfax, Lighthouse Keeper.” ; Page 4
October 15 1890; The New Era, Humestown, Iowa
“The Sailor’s Friend” ; Page 7
October 11, 1904; South Bend Tribune, South Bend, IN
“Leaves Old Lighthouse” ; Page 2
January 25 1895; South Bend Tribune, South Bend, IN
“Colfax, Lighthouse Keeper” ; Page 6
May 3, 1865; Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL
“A Cross of Solid Flowers” ; Page 2
May 16, 1872; The Clinton Public, Clinton, IL
“Personal and Literary” ; Page 6
September 8 1893 The Londonberry Sifter, Londonderry, Vermont
“Girl Keepers of the Light” ; Page 2
Newspapers.com search 1897
“The New Woman In Earnest” ; Logansport Pharos-Tribune; Logansport Indiana; Page 22
December 18 1902 ; Crestline Advocate, Crestline, Ohio
“Bond of Two Women.” ; Page 2
October 31, 1904; Palladium Item, Richmond, Indiana
“Lived in Lighthouse Fifty Years” ; Page 5
The content for this article was written by Joseph Gruzalski, a researcher with Indiana Dunes National Park. Funds were made possible by a National Park Foundation grant.