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Margaret, or Madge, as her friends called her, was the most storied Lightkeeper to keep the New Canal Lighthouse. She served there from 1924 to 1932. Her story is filled with amazing acts of bravery. In honor of Margaret Norvell's heroism, in 2013, the Coast Guard commissioned a Sentinel-class cutter to be named for her. The USCGC Margaret Norvell (WPC-1105) is 154 feet long and hosts a crew of 22. The cutter is based out of Miami Florida. Scroll down to hear the tales.
Backstory and Context
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Madge was born on February 11, 1860 in Washington D.C. to Alexander and Mary Powell Dimitry. When the Civil War started Alexander quit his diplomatic post in D.C. and moved his family back to his hometown of New Orleans.
Madge grew up in New Orleans and eventually married a cotton broker from St Louis named Louis Norvell. Shortly after they were married, Louis made a string of bad investments and lost his fortune. In search of a new career, he joined the lighthouse service. His first post was the Head of Passes Lighthouse at the mouth of the Mississippi. As one can imagine, the lighthouse at the mouth of the Mississippi was a dangerous post and Louis drown in 1891 during a rescue attempt.
Madge took over the posting when her husband passed away. Though women were not hired directly into the Lighthouse Service, it was common for the wife of a lighthouse keeper to step into the role when her husband became incapacitated or passed away. Much like farming, light keeping was a family job. All members of the family participated in the daily work of light keeping. Also, it paid terribly. When Madge took her second lighthouse posting she was offered $600 per year. Because of the low pay, the husband would often secure the lighthouse position but would also get another job in order to bring more money into the household leaving the wife in charge of light keeping. This usually made her the best candidate to step into the role.
Madge excelled in the position. She was the keeper at Head of Passes from 1891 till 1896 when she took the keeper post at the Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse. She proved her metal again at the Port Pontchartrain or, as the locals call it, Milneberg Lighthouse. Madge was the keeper at Milneberg from 1896 till 1924. During Margaret’s tenure she braved two major hurricanes, the larger in 1903 which left many homeless and in need a shelter. Madge sheltered and fed over 200 people left wanting from the storm. Even in good weather, Madge offered her home to the people of New Orleans. She regularly hosted outings for Sisters of Charity, the poor and the blind at the Lighthouse.
In 1924, Margaret Norvell accepted the Light Keeper position at the New Canal Lighthouse (sometimes referred to as the West End Lighthouse.) It was here she had one of her most famous saves. In 1926, Madge watched a storm rage over Lake Pontchartrain when she saw a navy biplane get struck by lightning and crash into the lake. She jumped into her rowboat and rowed two hours out to the plane. She pulled out the pilot and saved his life.
Hermard, Ned. "The Lady of the Lighthouse." neworleansbar.org. 2015. Accessed May 21, 2020.
Turk, Marilyn. "New Cutter Named for Heroic Lady of the Light." http://www.lighthousedigest.com/. Aug 2013. Accessed May 21, 2020.
Braesch, LT Connie. "Coast Guard Heroes: Margaret Norvell." https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2010/11/coast-guard-heroes-margaret-norvell/. Nov 2010. Accessed May 21, 2020.
Editors at Lighthousefriends.org. "Head of Passes Bell Tower." Photo. lighthousefriends.org. May 2020.
Editors at Lighthousefriends.org. "Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse." Photo. lighthousefriends.org. May 2020.
Editors at Lighthousefriends.org. "Paddle Steamer." Photo. lighthousefriends.org. May 2020.
Tannian, Kate. “Margaret Norvell Display.” March 20, 2020. New Canal Lighthouse Museum.