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The women lighthouse keepers of New Orleans

At a time when most women were prohibited from working outside the home, these trailblazers kept New Orleans’ lakeshore safe

Shown here in a museum exhibit, Margaret “Madge” Norvell was the last woman keeper at the New Canal Lighthouse.

Situated on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, the New Canal Lighthouse appears much as it did when it was first built in 1838—down to its original heart-of-pine floors and panoramic lakefront views. Then, it served not only as a workplace, but also as a home for lighthouse keepers and their families.

“The job of lighthouse keeper was assigned to a man with the understanding that he would live there with his family, who would keep the lighthouse running like it was a small business,” said Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation Education Center director Chris Cook.

When a male lighthouse keeper died, members of his immediate family often inherited his job. Even though women weren’t allowed to vote or own property in the mid-1800s, they could become lighthouse keepers.

“Across the country, it wasn’t unusual for the man to die and the wife to take over,” Cook said. “It is unusual that it happened so many times in the New Orleans area.”

Between 1847 and 1930, five women served as keepers of the New Canal Lighthouse. Elizabeth Beattie kept the lighthouse from 1847 to 1848; Jane O’Driscoll from 1850 to 1853; Mary Campbell from 1870 to 1895; her daughter Caroline Campbell Riddle from 1895 to 1924; and Margaret “Madge” Norvell from 1924 to 1932.

“There isn’t anything unusual in a woman keeping a light in her window to guide menfolk home. I just happen to keep a bigger light than most women because I have got to see that so many men get safely home,” Norvell said in a quote furnished by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation Education Center.

Little is known about Norvell’s predecessors, whose handwritten logs noted the daily weather in even, curling script. They lived, worked, and raised children in the relative isolation of a 440-square-foot lighthouse, doing jobs that required round-the-clock vigilance.

“Responsibilities were kind of vast—lots of day-to-day maintenance and some scientific knowledge was required. You had to be your own electrician,” Cook said. “[Lighthouses] were weather stations, so recording the weather in the 1800s was an important job that required knowledge of meteorology.”

In the event of an emergency, the lighthouse keeper became a first responder. Riddle refused to abandon her post during a Category 4 hurricane in 1915. Norvell once rescued a Navy biplane pilot by rowboat. When a Northshore-bound ferry caught fire in 1925, she saved more than 200 passengers.

“This was a very important position to have a woman in,” Cook said. “Women have always worked, but the amount of prominence or the visibility of their work has been underplayed for a long time.”

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