Digest>Archives> March 2002

First Woman Lightkeeper on the Keweenaw Peninsula

By Donald L. Nelson


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The only lighthouse in Bete Grise Bay was built at the entrance to the Mendota channel. This channel opened up Lac La Belle to Lake Superior in 1895 for shipping refined copper from the copper stamping mill located there. Prior to dredging and straightening this crooked channel, mainly small fishing boats utilized it. Bete Grise Bay was the only refuge (behind the Keweenaw Peninsula) for any vessel caught midway on Lake Superior during any storm bearing down from a northern direction. At night coming into the bay was like entering a dark hole. Any vessel would have to inch its way along.

A family by the name of Bergh had lived there for many years. They were engaged in the commercial fishing business for a living. They lived in a small frame house with two gables facing east and west near the entrance. Each gable had a six-pane window as was the fashion. Henrietta Bergh started placing a kerosene lantern in the window of the east gable whenever her husband was late coming in off the lake. It wasn’t long before the other fishermen asked if she would watch for them if they were late.

The lighthouse keepers at Manitou Island and Gull Rock usually went to Copper Harbor for supplies and shore time, but when the weather was bad, they just couldn’t go. The longer but safer route was on the south side of Keweenaw Point. Their sailboats could follow the shoreline right to the channel and the small community. The only drawback was getting caught at night when the wind was not with them. Upon hearing of the light that occasionally was there, they stopped and talked with Mrs. Bergh about what a blessing this was to them.

Henrietta, on her own, decided for humanitarian reasons that she would keep a light burning in her window every night, all night. Her husband made a larger wick lantern with an oil resevoir that would last all night without refueling. For many years she faithfully tended her light as her gift to those out on the water. She was never compensated by the government, even though the word was out from the lightkeepers and ships that came into the bay. Her reward came from those that stopped to thank her or waved as they went by.

Her light was a part of what prompted the Bureau of Lighthouses to build the Mendota Lighthouse in 1895. At that time she no longer lit her lantern, but remained as the first lightkeeper of Bete Grise Bay. She undoubtedly was the first female lightkeeper of the Keweenaw Peninsula and possibly the first on Lake Superior.

This story appeared in the March 2002 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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