In honor of Women’s Day, we celebrate Anna Garrity, one of the first female lighthouse keepers on the Great Lakes. Anna was born at the New Presque Isle Lighthouse on March 29, 1872, and was the daughter of Irish immigrants, Patrick Garrity Senior and Mary Chambers.
Patrick operated the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse from 1861 to 1871, until it was decommissioned, and the Garrity family moved a few miles up the road to the New Presque Isle Lighthouse. Mary was then appointed to the position of Lighthouse Keeper Assistant to her husband, which was rare during that time. Of course, wives would help their husbands, but very seldom did they hold a paying position. It was uncommon for women to be employees of the U.S. Department of Treasury. Even when Anna was appointed head of the range lights, the attitude towards women as keepers was still rather negative.
Anna was the youngest Garrity child with six older siblings. John, Annie (sadly, passed away at the age of 6), Mary, Thomas, Kathryn, and Patrick Jr. The children, who lived after childhood, grew up learning daily lighthouse keeping duties, and four out of the six continued to pursue careers in lighthouse keeping just as their parents did.
All three of Anna’s brothers worked as lighthouse keepers and even served for the New Presque Isle Lighthouse after their father passed away. Lighthouse keeping was definitely in the Garrity family’s blood, and Anna decided to carry on the family tradition.
Anna secured the job as lighthouse keeper at the Presque Isle Harbor Range Lights in 1903. At the age of 31, Anna became the first and only female lighthouse keeper for Presque Isle. She also holds the longest-running lighthouse keeper position for the range lights, serving at 23 years. During this time, it was very rare for a woman to officially be hired as the main keeper. Luckily, the government recognized Anna’s skills and natural talents, which she inherited from her family.
Lighthouse keeper duties consisted of caring for the harbor lights and the station. Other chores included painting, woodwork, fixing stairs, latticework, washing windows, reading oil measurements, cleaning oil trays and barrels, lawn care, woodcutting, etc. Anna was known as a hardworking and determined woman who could “get the job done,” no matter if the job was seen as “man’s work.” Every year in the springtime, Anna would clean carpets, remove storm windows, and put in screens. She conquered hours of weekly clerical work that needed to be completed for the government. It was roughly a ten-mile walk to the nearest post office and back. Anna didn’t have an assistant and did the majority of the work by herself. Sometimes her teenage niece, Loretta (Sister Mary’s daughter), would stay with her during the summer and help with smaller tasks.
It was said that in order to reach the lantern rooms, Anna needed to cross some rickety boards that were oftentimes quite slippery. She needed to check on both range lights twice a night to make sure they were still running. It was important that the lights did not go out, since they helped safely guide ships into the harbor.
The Metz Fire
Anna and her family survived one of the largest fires in Michigan history. The intense flames from the famous Metz fire of 1908 separated the Garrity family. Anna and her mother were stationed at the range lights, and Anna’s brothers and sister were stationed at the New Presque Isle Lighthouse. Luckily, neither of the lighthouses were affected, but sadly 2.5 million acres of forest and land had been destroyed.
Excerpts from Anna’s logbook state that she had hired a crew of firefighters to help her protect the range lights. She ordered the men to cut down trees near the property to keep the fire at bay and create more visibility for ships to see the lights. Anna and her crew worked day and night for weeks. Even after the fire was out, the team continued to remove ashes and soot from the range towers. Throughout the years, Anna and her family faced several more wildfires.
A New Era
In the spring of 1926, the Eleventh District Superintendent of Lighthouses declared that the range lights needed to be automated. On August 31, 1926, Anna officially retired and moved to Alpena to live with her siblings. Anna dedicated her entire life to the Presque Isle Lighthouses and serving 23 years as the lighthouse keeper on her own. In fact, Coast
Guard records show that the Garritys are the second longest-running lighthouse keeper family in U.S. history. Eleven years after her retirement, Anna passed away on May 21, 1937. She was 65 years old.
In honor of Anna’s service as lighthouse keeper, a 400 lb. high carbon steel statue of her resides at Range Light Beach, overlooking the harbor in Presque Isle. Her statue is a symbol, reminding us of all the women who have dedicated their lives to the Great Lakes Coast Line. The statue was created by sculptor, Dawn Barr of Cheboygan.
Information from “A Place Called Presque Isle” by Janet Young and Lighthouse Digest.
Featured photo of Anna T. Garrity, courtesy of Presque Isle Township Museum Society.