Digest>Archives> March 2008

Women of the Lights

The Exemplary Life and Mysterious Death Of Mary Terry

By Jeremy D’Entremont


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Mary Thurston Terry, keeper at Michigan’s Sand Point Lighthouse, was one of the first women lighthouse keepers on the Great Lakes. Terry is remembered primarily for the odd circumstances that surrounded her death, but her exemplary 18-year career as a public servant should not be forgotten.

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Sand Point Lighthouse as it looks today. Courtesy ...

Mary Thurston was born in 1816 in the seafaring town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. In 1845, she married Capt. John Terry, a native of New Brunswick, Canada, who was employed by the Chicago & North-Western Railroad Company. In 1863, Mary and John Terry moved to Escanaba on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Four years later, construction began on the Sand Point Lighthouse at the entrance to Escanaba’s harbor, and John Terry was appointed as its first keeper.

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John Terry didn’t live to see the lighthouse go into operation; he died of tuberculosis early in April 1868, just short of his fiftieth birthday. Escanaba’s citizens championed Mary Terry as his replacement. Some local government officials opposed her appointment, but Mary Terry was named keeper as construction of the station was nearing completion. She lighted the lighthouse’s lamp for the first time at sunset on May 13, 1868. The lighthouse, consisting of a square brick tower attached to a keeper’s dwelling, strangely faces away from the water — possibly an error on the part of the builders.

Not much information seems to have survived about Terry’s years as keeper, but a local newspaper called her “a very methodical woman, very careful in the discharge of her duties and very particular in the care of the property under her charge.” An 1884 editorial called her “a living illustration of women to do honest hard work.” Her fine reputation, along with the fact that she had accumulated some degree of wealth, led to much speculation about the events that led to her death in 1886.

Sometime in the middle of the night on March 6, 1886, the Sand Point Lighthouse caught fire. The building was gutted by the flames, and by the time firefighters arrived, the keeper could not be found. In the morning, Mary Terry’s remains were found in the southeast part of the building —strangely, not in her bedroom.

A judge appointed a coroner’s jury of six men to investigate the cause of Mary Terry’s death. There wasn’t much evidence for them to examine from the charred lighthouse. A handyman named Bordman Leighton testified that he had done some work for the keeper on the day before the fire. He had warned her, he said, about some firewood that was kept too near a furnace. She had replied that she “expected to be burned out by it, some day,” but that she “slept with one eye open.”

The south door of the dwelling, the jury found, had been opened “with the bolt shot forward as though the door had been forced, not unlocked.” Despite this evidence of foul play, there was nothing else to suggest robbery as a motive. Terry’s gold pieces were found where they had fallen in the fire, and parts of her property deeds and other important papers were found. Terry’s modest fortune of less than $4,000 was subsequently distributed among her nieces and nephews.

The jury noted that the furnace was “in bad order” and could have caused the fire, and ruled there were “no circumstances that are not consistent with a theory of accidental death.” Why the door was forced open isn’t clear, but with such sketchy evidence the jury probably couldn’t have reached any other conclusion.

Amazingly, repairs to the badly damaged lighthouse were completed by late May 1868. The next keeper, Lewis A. Rose, had a long 27-year stay. The station briefly had another woman keeper in 1913 when the widow of Keeper Peter Peterson served in the position for about two months after her husband’s death. The light was discontinued after the establishment of a new offshore light in 1938, but the old station continued to serve as Coast Guard housing.

After the Coast Guard left the property in 1985, the Delta County Historical Society obtained a 30-year lease and began restoration. The rooms have been restored to the 1900 era, and the building was opened to the public in 1990. It’s open every day from the beginning of June through Labor Day, with limited hours in September. You can call (906) 786-3763 or visit www.exploringthenorth.com/sandpoint/light.html for more information.

This story appeared in the March 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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