MARQUETTE - In 1862, 58 years before women gained the right to vote in the United States, Anastasia "Eliza" Truckey was entrusted with doing a vitally important job which until then was held exclusively by men - keeper of the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse.
Her story is detailed in a new book "Ladies of the Lights: Michigan Women in the U.S. Lighthouse Service" written by Patricia Majher, the editor of Michigan History magazine.
Eliza Truckey's husband, Nelson Truckey, was originally hired as keeper in 1861. But in 1862 the Civil War erupted and Nelson Truckey left to fight with the 27th Michigan Infantry. His unit saw heavy action in some of the worst battles of the war and he did not return to Michigan until 1865. While he was gone Eliza Truckey kept the light on for him, literally.
The Marquette Harbor Lighthouse today. (Journal file photo by Andy Nelson-Zaleski)
"She had no assistant to help her," Majher said. "She had to keep the light lit - and raise four young children - on her own for three years. It couldn't have been easy - single working parents of today can relate to that. At least the lighthouse was located close to a community; some women served in far more remote settings."
Majher said at night, Eliza Truckey's primary responsibility was to ensure the oil lamp inside the lighthouse lens was lit and stayed that way despite the weather because oil could congeal in cold weather and stop flowing. During the day, she would have likely cleaned any oil smoke off the lens and windows of the lantern, fill out a daily log of activity, keep an accounting of all supplies used and clean and maintain the light station, Majher said.
The current lighthouse station is not the same station the Truckeys worked in. Although there are no known photographs or sketches of the original station, local historian and author Fred Stonehouse said the government's Request for Proposals for the station call for a story-and-a-half stone building with a semi-detached, 40-foot-high stone tower.
Stonehouse said the job could be physically demanding at times.
"The oil for the light would have come in 5-gallon kegs so she would have had to man-handle those 5-gallon jugs up those tower stairs. It would have been tough," he said. "She's one of those ladies in Marquette history that we just don't recognize the way we should."
Majher said there were female lighthouse keepers in Michigan who served longer than Eliza Truckey, but none had more responsibility.
"She helped to ensure the safe passage of ships carrying iron ore from Marquette to northern factories forging firearms, iron cladding for warships, and railroad ties," she said.
The idea for the book came from an exhibit Majher developed on the same subject when she was curator at the Michigan Women's Historical Center and Hall of Fame. She said the exhibit was so well received she thought there might be interest in a more detailed look at female keepers' lives.
"For eight months, I delved deeper into researching these women - in library and museum collections, in local newspapers, in other books about maritime history," she said. "The toughest part was securing photographs, especially of the earliest keepers. Luckily, I found a few descendants who were willing to open up their family albums to me."
Even after doing extensive research Majher was only able to fully flesh out the stories of 16 of the 52 female keepers in Michigan. She said she hopes the book will draw out more stories from the descendants of the other women.
"I'd love to do a second edition someday," she said.
Christopher Diem can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.