Justice for Stella, Southold’s Lady Lighthouse Keeper

The Horton Point Lighthouse, tucked away on a cliff in Southold overlooking the Long Island Sound, is one of the less-well-known lighthouses on the East End, and the story of its first female lighthouse keeper, Stella Prince, has until this year gone largely untold.

Mary Korpi, a docent at the lighthouse and retired vocational rehabilitation counselor who retired here in 2017, was fascinated to learn about Ms. Prince, who lived with her family at the lighthouse from the time she was three years old in 1871 to when she married at 37, and who served as the official keeper of the lighthouse from 1903 to 1904.

Ms. Korpi began working with local historians to exhaustively research Ms. Prince’s life about four years ago, as she embarked on a historical novel about Ms. Prince’s life.

Her book, “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper,” was released this spring, and is available for sale at Burton’s Books in Greenport, Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, the Jamesport Country Store, North Fork Chocolates, Southold Pharmacy, the Southold Historical Museum Store, the Fire Island Lighthouse and the Horton Point Lighthouse. It is also available at lulu.com and amazon.com.

The Horton Point Lighthouse, commissioned by George Washington in 1790 but not built until 1857, overlooks a treacherous coastline known as “Dead Man’s Cove.” But Ms. Korpi says there’s no record of anyone dying there, though there were 17 shipwrecks there before the lighthouse was built, due to a ledge where there depth of water goes from 60 to 5 feet, along with glacial erratic boulders that are a hazard to navigation.

The 58-foot-tall concrete lighthouse tower is attached to a two-story Federalist-style keeper’s house.

Mary Korpi reads from “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper” at the New Suffolk Waterfront in mid-July.

Ms. Prince lived at the lighthouse with her family — her father, George, a carpenter; mother Caroline; and her sister Lucy, where the family shared the duties of keeping up the lighthouse.

“Everybody in a lighthouse family helped get the light lit every night and keep soot from building up on the lens. They were up all night,” said Ms. Korpi at a recent reading from “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper” at the New Suffolk Waterfront. “Whale oil burned clean, but when they switched to lard oil it was smoky and they had to clean the lens more often. Then they switched to kerosene, which was likely the cause of their early deaths.”

While Ms. Korpi knew Stella was officially commended by President Theodore Roosevelt on her appointment as lighthouse keeper in 1903, she couldn’t find anything written about her in books about lighthouse keepers.

She turned to local historians Amy Folk and Dan McCarthy looking for more information.

Ms. Folk found log books from the lighthouse, in which Ms. Prince primarily entered weather notations and didn’t include any comments.

“I didn’t get any sense of her personality,” from those log books, said Ms. Korpi. Mr. McCarthy, who works for the Southold Free Library’s Whitaker Historical Collection, sent her tidbits he found in old records — Stella was on the honor roll at the Southold School, which was in the building that is now the Southold firehouse, and he found three letters from her mother.

“I got a sense from the letters about about her mother’s loving support and her choices about not dealing with her father’s alcoholism,” said Ms. Korpi. “She outlived her daughters and husband and died at the age of 89. Her life was her family and church.”

Ms. Korpi also found a family genealogical history kept by Helen Wright Prince, who is well known on the North Fork for her work teaching in migrant labor camps here in the 1950s and 1960s, which show that their family was descended from a noted New Bedford whaling captain, John Prince. Prior to their time at the lighthouse, they lived at their family home on Prince Street (now Mechanic Street) in the middle of downtown Southold.

She also found an 1888 journal by Stella’s father, who took meticulous notes of his egg laying operation, but mentioned his wife just three times in a year.

“Stella is mentioned once, when she returned to the lighthouse so he could go fishing,” said Ms. Korpi. “He is truly a man of his day.”

During the course of her research, Ms. Korpi said she began living with Stella’s thoughts in her head, as if she was becoming an actual living, breathing person. She went to the Navy Street, Orient home, still standing, that Stella’s husband Eddie built for her.

“She wanted a two-seater outhouse like her sister Lucy had in Sag Harbor,” said Ms. Korpi. That outhouse still stood on the property when the owners at the time Ms. Korpi visited bought it, though the house is now beginning to sink into its foundation.

While living with Stella in her head for four years — having such a friend during the pandemic helped the writing process — Ms. Korpi reached out to several “beta readers” on the North Fork, who gave her much-needed feedback.

Parnell Wickham of Cutchogue “took this suburban girl and school her on North Fork agricultural life” — for example, chickens wouldn’t be slaughtered but strangled, said Ms. Korpi.

Helene Munson, Ms. Korpi’s developmental editor, didn’t like the idea of Caroline as an Ubermom.

“We all have faults,” said Ms. Munson, encouraging Ms. Korpi to paint a more full picture of Stella’s mother.

Throughout the process, Ms. Korpi highlighted that Stella went about her work with quiet grit and dignity, so much so that a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter who visited the lighthouse once wrote “She is in full charge of all lighthouse duties. I take my orders from Miss Stella.”

Ms. Korpi is now on a mission for “Justice for Stella,” looking to get Stella Prince’s name entered into the Coast Guard records as an official lighthouse keeper.

“Three female lighthouse keepers predate her in the Coast Guard archives,” she said. 

“The Coast Guard is willing to add her. They need original source material — they didn’t take over the Lighthouse Service until 1934.”

Ms. Korpi is hopeful that she can find Ms. Prince’s payroll information in the National Archives in St. Louis, and the letter of commendation from Theodore Roosevelt in his presidential archives.

“I truly think it was simply an oversight” that Stella Prince isn’t officially listed as a lighthouse keeper, she said. 

Ms. Korpi will be at the Shelter Island Farmers Market at the Shelter Island Historical Society (16 South Ferry Road) with “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper” on Saturday, Aug. 20 from 10 a.m. to Noon. 

She will also be giving author talks on “My Journey with Stella Prince: Justice for Stella” on Monday, Aug. 22 at 5 p.m. at the Southold Library, and on Sunday, Aug. 28 at 3 p.m. at the Greenport Library.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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