By Emily Clark
The lighthouse on Fayerweather Island stands today at the entrance to Black Rock Harbor in Bridgeport, a simple, octagonal structure evoking romanticized images of lighted beacons and lonely ships from the 19th century. Many may not realize, however, that the duties of any lighthouse keeper during those times were far from idyllic—especially if the keeper in question was a 12-year-old girl.
Dedicating her life to protecting those at sea, Kathleen (or Catherine) “Kate” Moore is what historians today call a trailblazer for women, a pioneer in a world traditionally occupied by men. When the chief obligations of lighthouse maintenance became hers after her father, Stephen, the official keeper, was injured in the early 1820s, she accepted both this important responsibility and the isolation that accompanied it for the next 70 years.
A Lighthouse Keeper’s Duty and Isolation
Tasked with mundane but necessary duties that became the difference between life and death for countless sailors, Moore also braved the fierce storms of Long Island Sound to rescue sailors in peril, sheltered shipwrecked men, located bodies washed ashore during a storm, and kept the light burning each night, even if it meant sleeping alone in her work clothes at the top of the lighthouse. A skilled boater, Moore was recognized for saving 21 lives throughout her decades of service. She took on the role without question, as it was the only one she ever knew. When reflecting on these years of service after her retirement, the 94-year-old Moore told a reporter, “You see, I had done all this for so many years, and I knew no other life, so I was sort of fitted for it.”
In the 1800s, Moore was one of a select few, in both Connecticut and around the country, to hold the unique and dangerous position of maintaining a lighthouse along America’s coast. These appointments, made by the U.S. government, were some of the first non-secretarial jobs available to women at the time. Most of these women were considered assistants or assumed the role upon the death or illness of their husband or father, as Moore did, and were formally recognized for their own service during a time when such employment for women was quite uncommon.
Kate Moore’s Dedicated Service to Her Country
Moore was unique in her own right though, as she did not receive the authorized title of head lighthouse keeper from the U.S. Lighthouse Service (later the U.S. Coast Guard) until her father’s death in 1871. This came some 50 years after she began her duties. Lack of recognition did not hinder her dedication to this all-encompassing job, one that has become synonymous with her life and one that she took seriously, not because she was a woman in a male-dominated position but because she had loyalty to her work, her country, and those whom she worked to safeguard.
Steadfast and protective of her property and lighthouse, Moore also had the responsibility of warding off strangers. If anyone encroached on her island home, she was known to take her shotgun, point it at the trespassers, and yell, “I represent the United States government and you’ve got to go!” Such ardent commitment eventually earned Moore a place in the history of not only Bridgeport’s Black Rock neighborhood but also the United States Coast Guard, securing her legacy at Fayerweather Lighthouse.
Honoring Kate Moore, Vice Admiral Sally Brice-O’Hara of the U.S. Coast Guard called her tenure as lighthouse keeper a “lifetime of service,” adding, “She proved that women performed with distinction—whether the job at hand was harrowing or dutifully and diligently routine.” In 2014, a ceremony took place at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport to dedicate the grave marker of this extraordinary woman, whose acts of bravery over a century ago remain their own beacon of light to all charged with the challenging tasks of service to others.
Emily Clark is a freelance writer and an English and Journalism teacher at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge.