First Light, First Lady

Marblehead Lighthouse Keeper

Feature photo: Marblehead Lighthouse State Park on Lake Erie’s Marblehead Peninsula, Ohio

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Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Bette Lou Higgins and Shelley Pearsall

Lake Erie’s most famous lighthouse, Marblehead Lighthouse on the Marblehead Peninsula, is also the place where the first woman lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes was stationed. Rachel Wolcott became the Marblehead Lighthouse Keeper on October 25, 1832. Her husband Benajah had died of cholera on August 11th of that year and so she took over his job. She had been assisting him since they were married.

Rachel was the daughter of John and Ann Miller of Chappelle Creek near Vermilion, Ohio. She was a school teacher in nearby Sandusky before she married Benajah Wolcott in the spring of 1822. He became Marblehead’s first lighthouse keeper on June 24 of that year.

It’s something of a mystery how this widow with two children ages five and six years managed to take care of her home, the gardens, and the livestock in addition to tending the lighthouse. It’s likely that she had help from her stepdaughter Phoebe Wolcott Pettibone and her family along with her stepdaughter Selina Wolcott Ramsdell’s family. In any event, she had official charge of the lighthouse for two years before she married a man from Vermilion named Jeremiah Van Benschoten. Immediately after marriage, on February 14, 1834, Van Benschoten took over Rachel’s job and it appears he also began to sell off some of her inherited property.

The couple tended the lighthouse together for about eight years when Jeremiah left her and returned to Huron County. It’s unknown whether they officially divorced or not. Rachel disappears from lighthouse records at this point. Records show a Roderick Williston appointed as the Marblehead Lighthouse keeper in 1841.

Rachel is listed in an 1850 census as living with her son Henry after which the Great Lakes’ first female lighthouse keeper seems to have disappeared.

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Marblehead Lighthouse keeper’s cottage

References:

Messner, Karen. “In Search of Rachel, A Visit to the Huron County Court House.” Black Swamp Trader Gazette.

Neidecker, Betty. The Marblehead Lighthouse:  Lake Erie’s Eternal Flame. Self-published. Jan. 1, 1995.

Starnes, Connie. “Benajah Wolcott, First Keeper of the Marblehead Light, Part 1.” Black Swamp Trader Gazette. September, 2000.

Starnes, Connie. “Benajah Wolcott, First Keeper of the Marblehead Light, Part 2.” Black Swamp Trader Gazette. October, 2000.

Wertz, Jennifer. “Lights Of Lake Erie.” Black Swamp Trader Gazette. September, 2000.

About Eden Valley Enterprises:

This story about Marblehead Lighthouse is an excerpt from the Eden Valley Enterprise’s (EVE’s) book GREAT Lakes Ladies. GREAT Lakes Ladies is just one of EVE’s books based on our storytelling programs which cover topics such as REMARKABLE OHIOANS and ORDINARY PEOPLE IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES: STORIES FROM WWII. Eden Valley Enterprises is dedicated to providing unique educational experiences. Our philosophy is that learning and doing are fun and our basic tool is theatre.  While we specialize in living history programs, storytelling, and musical trips back in time, we are equally adept at other kinds of programs. From CANAL SONGS AND STORIES, a fun and informative program that features music and stories from the Ohio-Erie Canal, to DOCTOR PUTNAM’S MIRACLE MIXTURE, a vivid, high-spirited living history program, Eden Valley gives your audiences drama that brims with energy, humor, and fantasy and features a magical cast of characters. Eden Valley has a wide assortment of existing programs available for presentation and if these programs don’t meet your needs, we’d be happy to put together one especially for you! If you would like to arrange a performance for your group or would like more information about any of Eden Valley services, programs and publications, email us at blhiggins@edenvalleyenterprises.org or visit our website at www.edenvalleyenterprises.org

© 1997, 2010

Eden Valley Enterprises, 1250 East River St., Elyria, Ohio 44035

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