Stella Prince lived and worked at the Horton Point Lighthouse on the north shore of Long Island, New York, for 34 of her 60-year-life, longer than any other keeper at the light station. Despite that, her name was not on the Coast Guard’s official list of women lighthouse keepers.
Mary Korpi was determined to rectify that.
After retiring as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in 2017, Korpi moved to Laurel, a North Fork hamlet near the lighthouse, Korpi saw an ad, seeking docents, at the nautical museum. When Korpi signed up as a docent at the nautical museum after replying to an ad, she soon learned about Stella Prince, who had been a lady keeper at the lighthouse. Korpi was fascinated and began researching. Six years of digging resulted in a historical novel, The Lady Lighthouse Keeper, self-published last year, and then she was able to have Stella Prince added to the Coast Guard’s official list of female lighthouse keepers in December of 2023.
“I think Mary Korpi’s efforts are really admirable,” said Deanna Witte-Walker, executive director of the Southold Historical Museum, which owns the lighthouse. “I think it’s inspiring to see someone who feels strongly that Stella Prince needed justice and to be recognized.”
Once she settled in at her new home in Laurel, she “was on a mission to get involved and make new friends,” Korpi, 69, said. Two months after retiring, she started volunteering at Horton Point Lighthouse. Korpi began reading more about lighthouses, notably Don Bayles’ book about Horton Point. “That was the first time I read that there was a woman who served there. I wanted to know her story. I started reading everything I could find about lighthouses and women keepers, but couldn’t find anything written about Stella Prince.”
She couldn’t find more on why Prince wasn’t on the Coast Guard’s official list of women lighthouse keepers; she served longer than some women on it and held the same job title: assistant keeper.
Seeking answers, Korpi teamed with Southold Free Library researcher Dan McCarthy, who, she said, “jumped in with a vengeance and bombarded me with news clippings about the Prince family. From these months of clippings, I pieced together a timeline of Stella’s life with her family and her eventual marriage to George Terry at 37. He was 51.”
Stella Prince lived at the lighthouse for an amazing 34 years and helped keep the light station functioning.
Korpi exchanged emails with Mark Mollan, the Coast Guard’s deputy historian in Washington, who explained that the agency required documentary evidence of Stella’s employment.
Since the Coast Guard did not oversee lighthouses until 1939, she would have to contact the National Archives to obtain Prince’s employment history.
Finally, proof of Prince’s employment was obtained. A document showed that she was employed in 1901, and newspaper accounts stated that from June 1903 through November 1904, Prince officially served as the acting assistant keeper, a federal job title, and as the temporary head keeper while the regular keeper was incapacitated. After Korpi forwarded the information to the Coast Guard’s historian, Stella Prince was finally added to the list of keepers.
“Stella Maria Prince Terry has finally taken the appropriate place in history – with her female peers who served in this most atypical role,” Walker said.
Research found that Stella Prince was born in 1868 in Southold, New York. She was a seventh-generation descendent of Captain John Prince, a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who settled in Southold in the late 1700s.
Amy Folk, collections manager at the Southold Museum and the Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient, New York, as well as the Southold town historian, said, “Stella is the daughter of George S. Prince who was in the cavalry during the Civil War, and was considered a war hero by the locals.” The twice-wounded veteran, who fought at Gettysburg, was hired as assistant keeper of the Horton Point Lighthouse in 1871 and he moved Stella there along with her mother and baby sister Lucy.
The newspaper clippings found by McCarthy provided details such as Prince being on the honor roll at school and taking trips to Block Island. “She was sort of a local celebrity,” Korpi said. “She lived in the lighthouse longer than anyone else.”
Nine head keepers served at Horton Point Lighthouse. George Prince served there the longest, a total of 19 years. He served as assistant keeper from 1871 until he was appointed head keeper in 1877.
But George Prince had a drinking problem. The chronic inebriation finally undid him in March of 1896. According to various
accounts and other records, “A warrant was issued for the arrest of keeper George Prince for having taken part in the ‘serenade’ given to two newlyweds. When the newlyweds were found absent from their home, the men tied a cow in the couple’s kitchen, placed pigs in the dining room, and filled the parlor with fowls.” On September 11th of that same year, he was fired for dereliction of duty because he should have been at the lighthouse and also for “drunkenness and neglect of duty.”
Stella Prince stayed on at the lighthouse unofficially to serve as assistant to the new keeper, Robert Ebbitts, another Civil War veteran, while her mother and father, the now former keeper, moved back to Southold. “It was very unusual in that time for a woman not to live with her family,” Korpi said.
In June of 1903, while painting the tower, keeper Robert Ebbitts fell thirty feet, breaking a femur and an ankle. Since there was no male to immediately move into his keeper position, the government gave Stella the job and she served as the keeper until Ebbitts recovered.
The museum owns a keepers’ logbook that Prince filled out while serving in her capacity. The book clearly shows Stella’s very proper schoolgirl handwriting as she logged the weather each day.
Stella Prince left the lighthouse at age 37 when she married George Terry, a former seaman who was then a cook at the Orient General Store, and moved to Orient, New York, in November of 1904.
Years later, when the former George and Stella Terry house on Navy Street in Orient, New York, went on the market, Korpi arranged with the real estate agent to take a look inside. The house had been barely changed, except for the front door that didn’t fully open because of a lump in the living room floor caused by the structure settling. Korpi talked to the owner, who told her that George Terry had built what was initially a one-room house on the first floor with a ladder to get to a bedroom above it. When Stella said she could not live in the house as is, Terry built an addition with three bedrooms upstairs.
Upon her marriage, Stella was a homemaker who was active in the Methodist Church in Southold, New York, and later the Methodist Church in Orient, New York. The couple had no children but they became very friendly with the Richard family across the street. When George Terry died in 1935, four years after Stella’s passing, the house and all the possessions were bequeathed to the Richard family. Many of Stella’s possessions were later donated by their descendants to the Oysterponds Historical Society. Additionally, the Terry’s family dinnerware set was also recently donated to the Southold Historical Museum.
There are no letters or diaries written by Stella that survive. However, when a Richard family descendent was cleaning out the house to sell it, she discovered a scrapbook of poetry that Stella had collected, which she donated. The subject of the poems is especially relevant to a woman who was a lighthouse keeper and the daughter of an alcoholic keeper: intemperance and a lighthouse keeper’s daughter.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2023 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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