Biloxi Lighthouse, which stands today in an unlikely spot in the median strip of Highway 90, is the nation’s second-oldest cast iron lighthouse tower (1848). It’s also the only remaining original lighthouse of about a dozen that were built on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast (not including Round Island Lighthouse, in the process of being rebuilt). What’s even more noteworthy is the fact that this light station’s keepers were almost exclusively women over three quarters of a century.
The light’s first keeper, Marcellus Howard of Maryland, stayed for six years. His successor was Mary J. Reynolds, a native of Baltimore who was appointed in April 1854 at a salary of $400 per year. Reynolds was a widow who, in addition to her lighthouse keeping duties, was raising several children who were the orphans of relatives. In June 1861, after the Civil War had begun, Mayor James Fewell ordered the light extinguished and the lens stored for safekeeping.
Mary Reynolds wrote to the state’s governor, John J. Pettus, pointing out that she was supporting a large family on her small salary. She also complained that “disreputable characters” were stealing oil from the lighthouse. “I write you merely as a Light Keeper believing that injustice has been done,” she continued. She asked to be put back in charge of the lighthouse supplies, and she defended her record as keeper. “I have ever faithfully performed the duties of Light Keeper in storm and sunshine attending it,” she wrote. “I ascended the Tower at and after the last destructive storm  when man stood appalled at the danger I encountered.”
We don’t know how the governor replied, but we do know that Mary Reynolds remained the official keeper of the darkened lighthouse through the Civil War and that she became keeper of the Pass Christian Lighthouse after the war.
Perry Younghans became the next keeper after Mary Reynolds but died within a year. Replacing him was his widow, Maria Younghans, then in her mid-twenties. The Louisiana native would remain keeper for an incredible 51 years, a record seldom equaled in lighthouse history.
A disastrous hurricane hit the Gulf of Mexico on October 1, 1893, taking about 2,000 lives in its wake. The New Orleans Daily Picayune reported that “the plucky woman in charge” at Biloxi Lighthouse, Maria Younghans, kept the light going through the storm, “notwithstanding that there were several feet of water in the room where she lived.”
The book Women Who Kept the Lights by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford tells us of another storm in 1916 when the lighthouse’s lantern glass was smashed by a pelican that was blown against it. Maria Younghans and her daughter Miranda quickly made a temporary repair and had the light shining again.
When Maria Younghans died in 1918, her daughter Miranda became keeper. Miranda Younghans retired in 1929. When she died four years later, she was said to have exhibited “dignity and courtesy” to the many visitors to the lighthouse. Today the City of Biloxi owns the lighthouse and operates it as a private aid to navigation.
This story appeared in the
December 2003 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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