"Little Miss Colfax" Kept the Light on -- for Ann
April 6, 2019 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Harriet Colfax was appointed keeper of the Michigan City Lighthouse in 1861 at the age of 37, a patronage appointment from her cousin Congressman (later Vice President) Schuyler Colfax; she served for 43 years in the physically-demanding and frequently dangerous position, retiring at the age of 80. She is noted by historians for her detailed log entries. Along with the job came a house, where she lived with her companion and fellow spinster Ann Hartwell, a teacher, librarian, and bookseller. The two lived together for more than 50 years, and died within a couple of weeks of each other.

The Mishawaka newspaper noted upon Hartwell's death that "At the same time was ended so far as earthly associations are concerned, a life long companionship between two most worthy and estimable maiden ladies [Colfax and Hartwell] which has had few if any equals outside of the married state. [...] In 1854, Miss Hartwell went to Michigan City to reside in the family of her brother-in-law, Dr. M.G. Sherman. The previous year Miss Colfax had also moved to Michigan City, where her brother, Richard Colfax, had established a newspaper. Here the mutual affection of the two young ladies was resumed, resulting later in the twain forming a life partnership which continued for over a half century."

They are buried side by side in Michigan City's Greenwood Cemetery.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (12 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I think they were lesbians together.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:28 PM on April 6, 2019 [16 favorites]

Two additional bits of information -- the Michigan City Lighthouse is now a museum open from April to October (planning my Indiana Dunes trip with my kids is how I discovered these wonderful ladies!), and the Colfaxes are a branch of the Schuyler family, of Hamilton fame.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:30 PM on April 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

Like, that newspaper account. They all knew, right? It sure seems like they knew.
posted by Scattercat at 6:31 PM on April 6, 2019 [20 favorites]

One of the other accounts notes that reporters were VERY nosy about their romantic lives or lack thereof, and they would laugh and change the subject.

If you read all those obituaries, everybody definitely knew.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:34 PM on April 6, 2019 [19 favorites]

I can't decide if it's heartwarming that everyone just ignored it despite the open secret nature of it, or if it's depressing that this was the best possible outcome at the time and no one just started saying "this is stupid, why does anyone else even care?"
posted by Scattercat at 6:36 PM on April 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

Don’t nobody tell Mike Pence about this.
posted by adamrice at 6:46 PM on April 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Those obituaries are interesting, indicating very clearly what was going on ("warm attachments"; "inseparable life companions") without quite naming it explicitly.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:30 PM on April 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

the museum was wasted on me when i was a youngin', and i seriously doubt they mentioned their relationship in any of the exhibits ~20 years ago. i remember a picture of a hetero couple that lived at the lighthouse for a time. ah well.

the pier with the modern lighthouse is far nicer than it has any right to be, what with the coal power plant right there. fucking NIPSCO, a real turd on our coast. huge cooling tower looking like a nuclear plant. main building clad in the most vile yellow-colored translucent fiberglass cladding humanly conceivable. some real The King in Yellow's Tattered Mantle assed yellow. Speaking of, the Chicago skyline is tiny but visable across lake michigan on clear days, but unlike Carcosa, there's only one sun, and it sets behind the buildings. also unlike Carcosa.

The Dunes are gloriously beautiful. Nice trails with nice marshes and wetlands and enormous black oaks, way bigger than you'd think could grow on sand dunes covered in six inches of top soil. If the top of Mt. Baldy is open, it's nice to gaze out over the lake. but don't look northeast -- that's where an enormous dune called the hoosier slide was mined entirely and made it into concrete for chicago, and replaced by that damb power plant. and don't look southwest -- the coastline that way is befouled with smog from the gary steel mills. and definitely don't look to the southeast, where the state prison is. where they execute deathrow inmates. Johnny Cash may have written a song called Michigan City Howdy Doo about that prison, but it doesn't make up for the damn thing mucking up the serene assed natural vistas.

don't get me started on the casino, the depressing zoo, or the dismal outlet mall.

do make sure to drive up lake shore drive and check out the interesting neighborhoods. the houses of Dr. Scholes (of shoe insert fame) and the inventor of Jiffy Pop are up there. couple of Frank Lloyd Right's son's designs up there. a house build in the siluoette of a gun (from the birds-eye view) supposedly build for a Chicago gangstar. (pm for directions!) oh, and oriental pearl is a tasty restaurant. but aside from all of the above-listed, you've been everywhere worth being in MC.

in short, my hometown is a land of contrasts place of beautiful nature and squalid industry; a place of love stories like Harriet & Ann's and love stories like Belle Gunness and her dozens of husbands (victims).

posted by wires at 7:38 PM on April 6, 2019 [13 favorites]

also that you for this story. i may never have know about my hometown's queer history but for your post!
posted by wires at 7:48 PM on April 6, 2019

Wow, that made-up-from-whole-cloth story in the Indianapolis Journal: "[The two friends had entered a pact that] if the lover of either should die before the wedding day they would both foreswear marriage and would ever afterward live inseparable."

Ah, yes, the well known "if-either-one-of-our-mysteriously-unnamed-fiances-dies-then-the-other-will-break-off-their-own-engagement-and-we'll-live-together-forever-and-ever-instead-pact", that common thing that human people do.
posted by kyrademon at 11:29 AM on April 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

If this devoted couple was guarding the shore, saving sailors, fighting the elements, operating the daily newspaper, teaching the generations, running a book store, establishing the town's first lending library, caring for the quirky townfolk, clothing the needy, living on their own terms ... and also solving crimes, this story would be the perfect cozy mystery. Look out, Misses Marple, Silver, Fisher, et al!

But seriously, I appreciate this loving tidbit of history; it totally captures my imagination. <3
posted by taz at 12:03 PM on April 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

I only live about a half hour from here, and must've just missed it, as I was in Michigan City this weekend checking out a new vinyl records store there called Static Age, which has the best record collection I've seen in a store. I will have to check this out next time I'm there.
posted by Chocomog at 9:06 PM on April 8, 2019

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