Mary Korpi became a docent at Horton Point Lighthouse Museum in Southold, where she discovered its only female keeper was unaccounted for in the history of the lighthouse.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Mary Korpi had no idea when she answered an ad for docents at the Horton Point Lighthouse Museum in Southold that it would result in her writing a novel about the landmark’s only female lighthouse keeper — and getting her added to the U.S. Coast Guard’s official list of women who maintained the lights.

After retiring in 2017 and moving from Syosset to the North Fork, the former Nassau BOCES vocational rehabilitation counselor signed up and learned that a woman, Stella Prince, had been one of the keepers at the lighthouse.

Fascinated, Korpi began researching. Her six years of digging resulted in “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper,” a historical novel she self-published last year that closely hews to the available facts about Prince. In December she got Prince added to the official list of female lighthouse keepers.

“I think Mary Korpi’s efforts are really admirable,” said Deanna Witte-Walker, executive director of the Southold Historical Museum, which maintains the lighthouse owned by the Southold Park District. “I think it’s inspiring to see someone who feels strongly that Stella Prince needed justice and to be recognized.”

Before her retirement, Korpi and her husband, Emery, had owned a summer home in Laurel. But they decided it would not suffice for a year-round residence and bought a new place in the hamlet. Once settled in, said Korpi, 69, “I was on a mission to get involved and make new friends.”

Two months after leaving BOCES, she was volunteering at Horton Point. She started reading more about lighthouses, notably Don Bayles’ self-published book, “Horton Point Lighthouse and Nautical Museum.”

“That was the first time I read there was a woman who served there,” said Korpi. “I said ‘Oh, there was a woman here. What’s that all about?’ 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.”

Korpi discovered that Prince wasn’t included on the Coast Guard’s official list of female lighthouse keepers. “I couldn’t figure out why,” she said. “She served longer than some women on it [the list] and held the same job title: acting assistant keeper.”

Seeking answers, Korpi teamed with Southold Free Library researcher Dan McCarthy, who “jumped in with a vengeance and bombarded me with news clippings about the Prince family.” From those accounts, she pieced together a timeline of Prince’s life with her family and her eventual marriage to George Terry when she was 37 — and he was 51. “She was a most unusual woman for her day,” Korpi said.

Born in the mid-19th century, Prince lived at the lighthouse for 33 of her 60 years and — mostly as a volunteer — helped keep the aid to navigation functioning. Korpi said her research showed that about 300 women served as keepers at lighthouses over the centuries, usually with or succeeding a male relative. But the Coast Guard list included only 138 who served between 1828 and 1947 — with no mention of Stella Prince.

To rectify that, Korpi exchanged emails over several months with Mark Mollan, the Coast Guard’s civilian deputy historian in Washington, D.C. He explained that the agency required documentary evidence of Prince‘s employment. In a June 9 email last year, he thanked Korpi “for bringing the contribution of Stella Prince to the Lighthouse Service to light. If you would be willing to send us .  .  . the source materials you used to substantiate her service, I’d be happy to add Ms. Prince to the list.”

Since the Coast Guard did not oversee lighthouses until 1939, it did not have access to earlier employment records. Mollan suggested contacting the National Archives for Prince’s employment history. With the assistance of reference librarian Jerry Matovcik at the Mattituck-Laurel Library, Korpi contacted an archivist at the archives in Manhattan, where federal employment records are housed on microfiche.

After months of email exchanges, a document was found showing Prince was employed starting in 1901, and newspaper accounts stated that from June 1903 through November 1904, she officially served, by order of President Theodore Roosevelt, as the acting assistant keeper, a federal job, and the temporary head keeper while the regular keeper was incapacitated.

After Korpi forwarded the information to Mollan, he added Prince to the list on Dec. 22.

“Thank you for your patience!” he said in an email to Korpi. “I’ve updated the Female LH keepers list to include Stella Prince at Horton Pt.” In February, Prince took her proper place on the Coast Guard’s historical chart.

In a recent email to Newsday, Mollan said that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, because of the rigors of working in all types of weather, it was common for male lighthouse keepers to become ill or incapacitated, leaving their wives and/or daughters to take over the duty of keeping the light.

“There are undoubtedly more female lighthouse keepers who have served as keepers in the past, many of whom may not have official paperwork to document these efforts,” he wrote.

“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.

Korpi, who subsequently joined the historical museum’s board, learned that Stella Prince was born in 1867 in Southold. She was a seventh-generation descendant of Capt. John Prince, a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who settled in Southold in the 1700s.

Other bits of Prince’s history came by way of Amy Folk, collections manager at the Southold museum and the Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient as well as the Southold Town historian. George S. Prince, Stella’s father, was in the cavalry during the Civil War and was considered a “bit of a war hero” by some, Folk said. The twice-wounded veteran who fought at Gettysburg was hired as assistant keeper in 1871. He moved his wife and daughters, Stella and Lucy, there with him.

The newspaper clippings found by McCarthy, the Southold library researcher, provided more details: Prince was on the honor roll at school and took trips to Block Island, part of Rhode Island. “She was sort of a local celebrity,” Korpi said, because of her life at the lighthouse and in town.

“She lived in the lighthouse longer than anyone else, 33 years,” Korpi continued. “Only nine head keepers served at Horton Point Lighthouse throughout its history, with George Prince’s tenure of 25 years being the longest. He was appointed assistant keeper in 1871 and then promoted to head keeper in 1877.” The lighthouse, on a bluff overlooking Long Island Sound, had apartments for the families of the keepers and assistant keepers.

But George Prince had a drinking problem that was partially obscured by Stella helping with his duties. The chronic inebriation undid him in March 1896, according to newspaper articles. “A warrant was issued for the arrest of Keeper Prince for having taken part in the ‘serenade’ given to two newlyweds,” Korpi explained. “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 Sept. 11, he was fired for dereliction of duty — because he should have been at the lighthouse — and for drunkenness.”

Stella Prince, then 29, stayed on at the lighthouse, unofficially serving as assistant to the new keeper, Robert Ebbitts, another Civil War veteran, while her mother and father moved back to Southold. “It was very unusual in that time for a woman not to live with her family,” Korpi said.

In June 1903, Ebbitts’ misfortune would lead to Stella Prince’s official role. While Ebbitts was painting the lighthouse tower one day in June 1903, he fell off a ladder and dropped 30 feet, breaking a femur and an ankle.

“They have no man to move into his spot so they give Stella the job,” Folk said. She was the keeper until Ebbitts recovered in November 1904.

“I was excited to see Stella’s very proper schoolgirl handwriting as she logged the weather each day,” Korpi said of Prince’s notations in the keeper’s logbook owned by the museum.

Apparently deciding she would never get hired at the lighthouse on a regular basis, Korpi and Folk surmise, Prince left the lighthouse at age 37, when she married George Terry, a former seaman and famous name on the North Fork; the couple moved to Orient in November 1904.

When the Terrys’ former home on Navy Street in Orient went on the market three years ago, Korpi arranged with the real estate agent to take a look inside. The house was barely changed — the front door didn’t fully open because of a lump in the living room floor caused by settling. Korpi talked to the owner, who told her that according to local lore George Terry had initially built a one-room house with a ladder to get to a bedroom above. When Stella said she could not live in such a house, George built an addition with three bedrooms upstairs.

After her marriage, Stella was a homemaker and active first in the Methodist Church in Southold and later in Orient’s Methodist Church. The couple had no children but became friendly with the less-affluent Richard family across the street. Stella Prince Terry died in February 1928 and was buried in her family’s Willow Hill Cemetery plot in Southold; after George Terry died in 1935, the house and their possessions were bequeathed to the Richard family. Descendants later donated many of Prince Terry’s effects to the Oysterponds Historical Society; the Terry family’s dinnerware was recently donated to the Southold Historical Museum.

There are no surviving letters or diaries belonging to Prince Terry. When a Richard family descendant was cleaning out the house years ago to sell it, she donated a scrapbook of poetry that Prince Terry had collected. The poems’ subjects — intemperance and a lighthouse keeper’s daughter — were especially relevant to Stella Prince Terry’s own life.

While Stella Prince was the only female keeper at Horton Point, the official U.S. Coast Guard list of female keepers includes three women who performed the role at Old Field Point Lighthouse, west of Port Jefferson. And there might have been a fourth female keeper who worked there unofficially with her husband. Old Field Point was the only lighthouse in the Northeast to have three female keepers. One of them served for almost 26 years.

The first Old Field Point light began operation in 1824 with Edward Shoemaker as keeper. When he died in December 1826, his wife, Elizabeth, took over, becoming Long Island’s first female keeper. She served until being replaced on June 5, 1827, by Walter Smith and his wife, Elizabeth. When Smith died in April 1830, Elizabeth Smith continued on her own as keeper in the position for more than 25 years. In 1856, their daughter, Mary Foster, replaced Elizabeth Smith, serving 13 years, until June 21, 1869, when she was about 59 — the same year the current Old Field Point Lighthouse was finished. Foster was a widow with a young son, Francis.

Charles Jayne was the keeper from 1874 to 1895. An obituary of his son states that Charles Jayne kept the light with his wife, Amelia. But her name does not appear in any official record of the keepers at the lighthouse, which is still maintained by the Coast Guard.

At least one other lighthouse in the country had more than four female keepers: The Point Fermin Lighthouse in San Pedro, California, had six female keepers — including two sets of sisters.

Mary Korpi will be speaking about lighthouse keeper Stella Prince and signing copies of her historical novel, “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper,” March 26 at 3 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in Riverhead. She will be doing another signing at the East End Farmers Market in Riverhead on April 1, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated who owns Horton Point Lighthouse; it is owned by the Southold Park District and maintained by the Southold Historical Museum.

Mary Korpi had no idea when she answered an ad for docents at the Horton Point Lighthouse Museum in Southold that it would result in her writing a novel about the landmark’s only female lighthouse keeper — and getting her added to the U.S. Coast Guard’s official list of women who maintained the lights.

After retiring in 2017 and moving from Syosset to the North Fork, the former Nassau BOCES vocational rehabilitation counselor signed up and learned that a woman, Stella Prince, had been one of the keepers at the lighthouse.

Fascinated, Korpi began researching. Her six years of digging resulted in “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper,” a historical novel she self-published last year that closely hews to the available facts about Prince. In December she got Prince added to the official list of female lighthouse keepers.

“I think Mary Korpi’s efforts are really admirable,” said Deanna Witte-Walker, executive director of the Southold Historical Museum, which maintains the lighthouse owned by the Southold Park District. “I think it’s inspiring to see someone who feels strongly that Stella Prince needed justice and to be recognized.”

Before her retirement, Korpi and her husband, Emery, had owned a summer home in Laurel. But they decided it would not suffice for a year-round residence and bought a new place in the hamlet. Once settled in, said Korpi, 69, “I was on a mission to get involved and make new friends.”

Two months after leaving BOCES, she was volunteering at Horton Point. She started reading more about lighthouses, notably Don Bayles’ self-published book, “Horton Point Lighthouse and Nautical Museum.”

“That was the first time I read there was a woman who served there,” said Korpi. “I said ‘Oh, there was a woman here. What’s that all about?’ 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.”

Stella Prince Terry, with her husband, George Terry, was 37 when she married the former seaman and cook at the Orient General Store. Credit: Southold Historical Museum

FORGOTTEN KEEPER

Korpi discovered that Prince wasn’t included on the Coast Guard’s official list of female lighthouse keepers. “I couldn’t figure out why,” she said. “She served longer than some women on it [the list] and held the same job title: acting assistant keeper.”

Seeking answers, Korpi teamed with Southold Free Library researcher Dan McCarthy, who “jumped in with a vengeance and bombarded me with news clippings about the Prince family.” From those accounts, she pieced together a timeline of Prince’s life with her family and her eventual marriage to George Terry when she was 37 — and he was 51. “She was a most unusual woman for her day,” Korpi said.

Born in the mid-19th century, Prince lived at the lighthouse for 33 of her 60 years and — mostly as a volunteer — helped keep the aid to navigation functioning. Korpi said her research showed that about 300 women served as keepers at lighthouses over the centuries, usually with or succeeding a male relative. But the Coast Guard list included only 138 who served between 1828 and 1947 — with no mention of Stella Prince.

To rectify that, Korpi exchanged emails over several months with Mark Mollan, the Coast Guard’s civilian deputy historian in Washington, D.C. He explained that the agency required documentary evidence of Prince‘s employment. In a June 9 email last year, he thanked Korpi “for bringing the contribution of Stella Prince to the Lighthouse Service to light. If you would be willing to send us .  .  . the source materials you used to substantiate her service, I’d be happy to add Ms. Prince to the list.”

Since the Coast Guard did not oversee lighthouses until 1939, it did not have access to earlier employment records. Mollan suggested contacting the National Archives for Prince’s employment history. With the assistance of reference librarian Jerry Matovcik at the Mattituck-Laurel Library, Korpi contacted an archivist at the archives in Manhattan, where federal employment records are housed on microfiche.

After months of email exchanges, a document was found showing Prince was employed starting in 1901, and newspaper accounts stated that from June 1903 through November 1904, she officially served, by order of President Theodore Roosevelt, as the acting assistant keeper, a federal job, and the temporary head keeper while the regular keeper was incapacitated.

After Korpi forwarded the information to Mollan, he added Prince to the list on Dec. 22.

“Thank you for your patience!” he said in an email to Korpi. “I’ve updated the Female LH keepers list to include Stella Prince at Horton Pt.” In February, Prince took her proper place on the Coast Guard’s historical chart.

Stella Prince, far left, at Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold in July 1892. Credit: Collection of the Oysterponds Historical Society

FAMILIES OF KEEPERS

In a recent email to Newsday, Mollan said that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, because of the rigors of working in all types of weather, it was common for male lighthouse keepers to become ill or incapacitated, leaving their wives and/or daughters to take over the duty of keeping the light.

“There are undoubtedly more female lighthouse keepers who have served as keepers in the past, many of whom may not have official paperwork to document these efforts,” he wrote.

“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.

Korpi, who subsequently joined the historical museum’s board, learned that Stella Prince was born in 1867 in Southold. She was a seventh-generation descendant of Capt. John Prince, a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who settled in Southold in the 1700s.

Other bits of Prince’s history came by way of Amy Folk, collections manager at the Southold museum and the Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient as well as the Southold Town historian. George S. Prince, Stella’s father, was in the cavalry during the Civil War and was considered a “bit of a war hero” by some, Folk said. The twice-wounded veteran who fought at Gettysburg was hired as assistant keeper in 1871. He moved his wife and daughters, Stella and Lucy, there with him.

The newspaper clippings found by McCarthy, the Southold library researcher, provided more details: Prince was on the honor roll at school and took trips to Block Island, part of Rhode Island. “She was sort of a local celebrity,” Korpi said, because of her life at the lighthouse and in town.

“She lived in the lighthouse longer than anyone else, 33 years,” Korpi continued. “Only nine head keepers served at Horton Point Lighthouse throughout its history, with George Prince’s tenure of 25 years being the longest. He was appointed assistant keeper in 1871 and then promoted to head keeper in 1877.” The lighthouse, on a bluff overlooking Long Island Sound, had apartments for the families of the keepers and assistant keepers.

The warming room at Horton Point Lighthouse, and a keeper...

The warming room at Horton Point Lighthouse, and a keeper logbook with Stella Prince's entries. Credit: Randee Daddona

HER FATHER'S UNDOING

But George Prince had a drinking problem that was partially obscured by Stella helping with his duties. The chronic inebriation undid him in March 1896, according to newspaper articles. “A warrant was issued for the arrest of Keeper Prince for having taken part in the ‘serenade’ given to two newlyweds,” Korpi explained. “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 Sept. 11, he was fired for dereliction of duty — because he should have been at the lighthouse — and for drunkenness.”

Stella Prince, then 29, stayed on at the lighthouse, unofficially serving as assistant to the new keeper, Robert Ebbitts, another Civil War veteran, while her mother and father moved back to Southold. “It was very unusual in that time for a woman not to live with her family,” Korpi said.

In June 1903, Ebbitts’ misfortune would lead to Stella Prince’s official role. While Ebbitts was painting the lighthouse tower one day in June 1903, he fell off a ladder and dropped 30 feet, breaking a femur and an ankle.

“They have no man to move into his spot so they give Stella the job,” Folk said. She was the keeper until Ebbitts recovered in November 1904.

“I was excited to see Stella’s very proper schoolgirl handwriting as she logged the weather each day,” Korpi said of Prince’s notations in the keeper’s logbook owned by the museum.

Stella Prince's scrapbook of poetry; her signature in a Bible; and china from the Terry Home. | Photos by Randee Daddona

LEAVING THE LIGHTHOUSE

Apparently deciding she would never get hired at the lighthouse on a regular basis, Korpi and Folk surmise, Prince left the lighthouse at age 37, when she married George Terry, a former seaman and famous name on the North Fork; the couple moved to Orient in November 1904.

When the Terrys’ former home on Navy Street in Orient went on the market three years ago, Korpi arranged with the real estate agent to take a look inside. The house was barely changed — the front door didn’t fully open because of a lump in the living room floor caused by settling. Korpi talked to the owner, who told her that according to local lore George Terry had initially built a one-room house with a ladder to get to a bedroom above. When Stella said she could not live in such a house, George built an addition with three bedrooms upstairs.

After her marriage, Stella was a homemaker and active first in the Methodist Church in Southold and later in Orient’s Methodist Church. The couple had no children but became friendly with the less-affluent Richard family across the street. Stella Prince Terry died in February 1928 and was buried in her family’s Willow Hill Cemetery plot in Southold; after George Terry died in 1935, the house and their possessions were bequeathed to the Richard family. Descendants later donated many of Prince Terry’s effects to the Oysterponds Historical Society; the Terry family’s dinnerware was recently donated to the Southold Historical Museum.

There are no surviving letters or diaries belonging to Prince Terry. When a Richard family descendant was cleaning out the house years ago to sell it, she donated a scrapbook of poetry that Prince Terry had collected. The poems’ subjects — intemperance and a lighthouse keeper’s daughter — were especially relevant to Stella Prince Terry’s own life.

The Old Field Point Lighthouse. Credit: Randee Daddona

Women of Old Field

While Stella Prince was the only female keeper at Horton Point, the official U.S. Coast Guard list of female keepers includes three women who performed the role at Old Field Point Lighthouse, west of Port Jefferson. And there might have been a fourth female keeper who worked there unofficially with her husband. Old Field Point was the only lighthouse in the Northeast to have three female keepers. One of them served for almost 26 years.

The first Old Field Point light began operation in 1824 with Edward Shoemaker as keeper. When he died in December 1826, his wife, Elizabeth, took over, becoming Long Island’s first female keeper. She served until being replaced on June 5, 1827, by Walter Smith and his wife, Elizabeth. When Smith died in April 1830, Elizabeth Smith continued on her own as keeper in the position for more than 25 years. In 1856, their daughter, Mary Foster, replaced Elizabeth Smith, serving 13 years, until June 21, 1869, when she was about 59 — the same year the current Old Field Point Lighthouse was finished. Foster was a widow with a young son, Francis.

Charles Jayne was the keeper from 1874 to 1895. An obituary of his son states that Charles Jayne kept the light with his wife, Amelia. But her name does not appear in any official record of the keepers at the lighthouse, which is still maintained by the Coast Guard.

At least one other lighthouse in the country had more than four female keepers: The Point Fermin Lighthouse in San Pedro, California, had six female keepers — including two sets of sisters.

Mary Korpi's historical novel, "The Lady Lighthouse Keeper," was published in 2022. Credit: Randee Daddona

Meet the author

Mary Korpi will be speaking about lighthouse keeper Stella Prince and signing copies of her historical novel, “The Lady Lighthouse Keeper,” March 26 at 3 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in Riverhead. She will be doing another signing at the East End Farmers Market in Riverhead on April 1, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated who owns Horton Point Lighthouse; it is owned by the Southold Park District and maintained by the Southold Historical Museum.

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