Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2024

Lady Lighthouse Keeper

The Extraordinary Life and Times of Georgia Green Stebbins

By Ken Wardius


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Georgia Green Stebbins and her son Albert and dog ...

Few women possessed the title of head lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes. The vast majority of keepers were men. Occasionally a woman, usually the spouse, would hold a position as an assistant lighthouse keeper. Many times, though the federal government did not officially recognize women as assistant keepers, even though they knew and performed numerous if not all the routine lighthouse duties. This was a government cost saving measure and was not intentionally discriminatory at that time. It was just the norm in the 1800s; however. a select number of ladies held the prestigious occupation of head lighthouse keeper. The North Point Milwaukee, Wisconsin Lighthouse was home to one such special person: Georgia Green Stebbins.

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Georgia Stebbins and her son Albert in 1877. ...

Born Georgia Anna Green in July of 1846, the youngest of six children, her unlikely lighthouse journey began more than 700 miles away from the shores of Lake Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin in west central New York State, near Syracuse in the small rural town of Jordan.

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Georgia Stebbins, circa 1895. (Lighthouse Digest ...

At the age of 20, Miss Green married Lemuel Dibble Stebbins in 1866 in her hometown. He was originally from Connecticut but later moved to New York City. He was a watchmaker and jeweler by trade. Lemuel hoped one day to specialize in diamonds. After their marriage, the couple resided in New York City.

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An old postcard of Milwaukee’s North Point ...

Georgia Green Stebbins had only been married a few years, but her young life already had its share of challenges and sadness. Her daughters Emma Kate and Lillian both had passed away as infants which was not uncommon during that era, in 1867 and 1869 respectively. Next, she developed a persistent, hacking cough and tiredness that would not go away. Georgia’s doctors told her she had a sickness called consumption (known as tuberculosis today) and that she would need to leave the unhealthy air of New York City. They suggested she find a place with fresh, clean breezes.

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A page from Georgia Stebbin’s logbook dated June ...

So, a sickly, weak Mrs. Stebbins leaves the smoggy metropolis of New York City in 1873 for Milwaukee where her parents lived. She had to temporarily leave her husband and travel alone to the far away shores of Lake Michigan, most likely via train. Her husband Lemuel would eventually join her in Milwaukee.

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North Point Lighthouse before the tower was ...

When Georgia arrived in Milwaukee, she discovered both of her parents were also ailing, especially her father Daniel Kellogg (known as D.K.) Green who was the lighthouse keeper at the North Point Lighthouse, located on a bluff overlooking the north end of Milwaukee Bay. Georgia had to immediately step in to assist her father at a time when caring for a lighthouse was rarely a woman’s job.

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Georgia Stebbins in 1910. (Photograph curtesy ...

In time the day-to-day chores and upkeep of the lighthouse eventually fell into a predictable routine for Georgia. Daily tasks included preparing and caring for the Fresnel lens after sunrise and before sundown (as well as during the night), maintaining lighthouse supplies, many other cleaning chores, writing daily logbook entries, cooking, and giving tours of the lighthouse to the public as needed, among others. Georgia was also responsible for the family’s pet and guard dog named Tappan, a massive and powerful mastiff, which afforded her good company when she was alone.

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Surfman Ingar Olsen of the Milwaukee Life Saving ...

In addition to those many lighthouse-related duties, newspaper accounts mention Georgia’s love of flowers which decorated the grounds at North Point. They included pansies, verbenas, and gladiolus. The light station surroundings were a reflection of Georgia’s green thumb.

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Georgia Green Stebbins gravestone in Milwaukee’s ...

Georgia Stebbins also kept a scrapbook while at the North Point Lighthouse. It contained newspaper clippings pertaining to North Point, her son Albert’s school papers, a few recipes, and other miscellaneous family information. Her interests were numerous and varied.

D.K. Green maintained the title of head lighthouse keeper at North Point for several more years, even though his daughter Georgia did most of the actual everyday work. In 1881, Georgia’s mother Catherine died, and federal lighthouse officials named Georgia the head keeper at the North Point Lighthouse. She had been the unofficial keeper for nearly eight years. Almost 40 years before women in the United States were given the right to vote (1920), Georgia became a woman lighthouse keeper at a time when that profession was almost always a man’s job. As an employee of the federal government, Georgia was at least partially responsible for the safety of literally hundreds of mariners on Lake Michigan, yet she never had the right to vote in her lifetime. She would continue in the role as head lighthouse keeper at North Point until 1907 when she retired. Counting her 26 official years as keeper, plus another eight years assisting her father, Georgia served over three decades, easily making her the longest tenured keeper at North Point. During that time, she climbed the lighthouse stairs tens of thousands of times.

While many lighthouse days were filled with uneventful and repetitive responsibilities, several exceptional events of note also punctuated Georgia’s time as lighthouse keeper at North Point. For example:

The original 1855 lighthouse at North Point was precariously close to an eroding bluff. Georgia was intimately involved in the smooth transition to a new metal lighthouse and attached keepers home at North Point built further inland in 1888.

Shipwrecks occasionally occurred off North Point. On at least one occasion, Mrs. Stebbins physically assisted sailors to escape the wreck of their sailboat.

On April 20, 1893, work crews were excavating a new Lake Michigan water intake tunnel for the city of Milwaukee. A terrible storm produced huge waves that flooded and trapped 16 men in a chamber below the lake. Mrs. Stebbins saw the disaster unfolding from the lighthouse and ran to a nearby telephone in the neighborhood to alert the Milwaukee Life Saving Service located near the Milwaukee harbor. 15 men perished and one lucky soul survived. Surfman Ingar Olsen of the Life Saving Station received a commendation for his heroic efforts. Our research could find no accolades for Georgia Stebbins.

Son Albert Kellogg Stebbins was born at the North Point Lighthouse in June 1875. After losing two infant daughters previously, Albert was the light of Georgia’s life. He would grow up to be a successful, prominent attorney in Milwaukee. She also welcomed two grandsons, Roland and Albert II, who like their father were born at the lighthouse.

An unassuming person, most of Georgia’s logbook writings were short and to the point. For example, the night of January 28, 1888, her entry simply states: “Total eclipse of the moon. Clear beautiful night.” As Georgia’s time at North Point drew to a close, her logbook writings on June 19, 1907, were equally concise: “Order received for discontinuance of the light June 30.” Her final entry was modest as well: “Light discontinued this 30th day of June 1907. Correct Statement. Georgia A. Stebbins, Keeper.” Prior to her retirement Mrs. Stebbins summed up her feelings for the North Point Lighthouse in a newspaper account: “I have become very much attached to the lighthouse, having lived here so long, and I think there is no more beautiful spot on the lake shore.”

What an adventure Georgia’s life turned out to be. From small town Jordan, New York to sprawling New York City, then to the shores of Lake Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She could never have imagined how her decision to journey to a lighthouse in Milwaukee, that helped hundreds of mariners, would become her guiding light, improve her poor health, and change her life forever. This sickly, humble young lady matured into a strong, devoted, and courageous lighthouse keeper, serving with purpose for more than 30 years. When her life abruptly changed direction, Georgia dedicated herself and thrived in a career she had never planned on and became an unlikely heroine.

Georgia Stebbins lived out the remainder of her life on Milwaukee’s east side. Not a lot is known of her life after her lighthouse tenure. She passed away in July of 1921, a few days prior to her 75th birthday. She is buried in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery, the final resting place of some of early Milwaukee’s most influential people.

Georgia Green Stebbins thought of herself as ordinary; her story is anything but. Sounding modest, Georgia once told a newspaper reporter, “It seems to me a lighthouse is a commonplace affair, and it seems to me the work of taking care of the light is very ordinary indeed.” This extraordinary, hard-working, determined, strong willed, and intelligent woman adapted to lighthouse life that was not easy. And she did it during an era when this was not a typical profession for women. What a remarkable person.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2024 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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