The story of Mary Terry: one of the first female lighthouse keepers

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ESCANABA — The Sand Point Lighthouse is a historical landmark in Delta County but the first nineteen years of its service is often overlooked. The first official lighthouse keeper of Sand Point was a woman named Mary Terry.

“Her courage was amazing and I think she deserves all the recognition we can give her,” says Elizabeth Keller, Vice-Chair of the Delta County Historical Society and Co-Chair of the Sand Point Lighthouse Committee.

John Terry, Mary’s husband, was originally chosen to run the Sand Point Lighthouse.

“He died before the building was completed and before the light was commissioned. So she was appointed in his place,” explains Karen Lindquist, Chair of the Archives Committee for the Delta County Historical Society.

But there were objections.

“There was a lot of opposition to her appointment from local political leaders but people in the town, the general population of the city, loved her and thought she was a very capable woman,” says Lindquist. “So when the light was first lit, she was the very first keeper.”

In 1868 Mary became one of the first female lighthouse keepers on the Great Lakes and for 19 years she did the hard work on her own. She even worked supplement jobs in the off-season and owned land in town, something very unusual for women of this time.

The only known photo of Mary Terry.
Here she is seen leaning against the entrance to the lighthouse.
Photo courtesy the Delta County Historical Society

“If you think that people in recent years have thought women were little weaklings, imagine what they thought about it in the late 1800s and she managed to take care of the lighthouse but there was a lot of work,” begins Keller, “When we had copies of the logbook, it would have very brief 2-3 word sentences about, not only the ships coming in and out, but what work was done. ‘Whitewashed the north wall of the lighthouse today’ that sort of thing because they had strict rules, the U.S. Light Service did and apparently she was quite competant to do her work. A strong woman.”

Unfortunately, in the spring of 1886, Mary died in a fire at the lighthouse.

“The interior of the lighthouse burned completely and she was found…her remains were found in the room where the oil was stored. Our assumption has always been that she was trying to remove some of that ahead of the fire,” says Lindquist.

According to Lindquist, the day before the fire, a worker had noted that a woodpile near the furnace felt very warm. It was never determined that this had anything to do with the fire.

Some viewed Mary’s death as far more than an unfortunate accident.

“Some people thought there was something really fishy about her death. It might have been criminal intent because she was reputed to have money,” says Keller.

However, according to bank records from the time, Mary did not have much money but she did own land.

“Nobody really knows what caused the fire or what caused her death,” adds Lindquist.

For now, the women are intent on making Mary’s story known.

“Mary Terry made a really strong contribution and I think we need to recognize her. It’s time.” Keller concludes.

The Delta County Historical Society is looking to raise funds to give Mary Terry a proper headstone. Currently, Mary is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave near her husband in Lakeview Cemetery in Escanaba.

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