Although the first keeper was a man, Biloxi Lighthouse would later earn the distinction of having been kept by female keepers for more years than any other lighthouse in the United States. Mary Reynolds was the first female keeper, serving from 1854 to 1866. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, a local group of “Home Guards” ordered the light extinguished and seized the keys to the tower. After the death of her relatives, Keeper Reynolds was guardian for several orphaned children, who lived with her at the lighthouse. Concerned that her salary would be interrupted during the war, Mary wrote to John J. Pettus, Governor of Mississippi, reporting on the theft of oil from the lighthouse by “disreputable characters” and noting her diligence in tending the light: “I have ever faithfully performed the duties of light keeper in storm and sunshine attending it. I ascended the Tower at and after the last destructive storm [in 1860] when man stood appalled at the danger I encountered.” Her stipend likely continued during the conflict, as she is listed as the official keeper until 1866.
Following the war, Perry Younghans was appointed keeper of Biloxi Lighthouse, which was now equipped with a fifth-order Fresnel lens. Although the light is today a good distance from the water’s edge, this hasn’t always been the case. In the 1850s, the tower stood on the edge of a sand bank, just twenty-nine feet from the shoreline. A 104-foot-long concrete seawall was constructed in 1854 to protect the bank from erosion, something that would have been unnecessary according to Inspector Danville Leadbetter if the tower would have been placed “100 years from the edge of the bank,” where it “would have been equally efficient and perfectly safe.”
The dilapidated keeper’s dwelling was also renovated in 1866, and both the tower and dwelling were painted. While the dwelling was painted white, Biloxi Lighthouse received a coat of black coal tar to protect it from rust. This color change led to the persistent myth that the tower was painted black to mourn the death of Abraham Lincoln. As mariners had a hard time spotting the black tower during the day against a background of dark pine woods, Biloxi Lighthouse was repainted white in 1868.
Keeper Younghans died in 1867, during his first year of service, and his wife Maria assumed responsibility for the light. Maria was described as a determined woman, who kept the light burning even in adverse conditions for over fifty years. During one storm, a large pelican broke a glass pane in the lantern room. Maria quickly effectuated a temporary repair, allowing the light to send out its welcoming beam to any sailor who might be caught in the storm.
The New Orleans Daily Picayune of October 21, 1893 noted Maria’s actions during a hurricane that struck earlier that month: “At Biloxi Mrs. Younghans, the plucky woman who was in charge of the light, kept a light going all through the storm notwithstanding the fact that there were several feet of water in the room where she lived.” The hurricane heavily damaged the breakwater protecting the lighthouse, but it was repaired the following year using timber and concrete.
In 1877, the Lighthouse Board noted issues with the keeper’s dwelling: “The foundation-sills, frame and wood-work of the dwelling at this station are so far decayed as to render it difficult to make any repairs, without an almost entire renewal of the building. The house is inconveniently arranged, is very old, and should be replaced by a new one.” The Board requested $4,000 for a new dwelling, and in 1880 the old one was torn down and a new one built. In 1892, a second-order oil house was added to the station, and a wire fence was put up around the tower and dwelling. A 900-foot-long wharf with boat davits at its outer end was built near the lighthouse in 1902. The station’s cisterns were removed in 1906, and the dwelling was connected to municipal waterworks.
During the latter portion of Maria’s tenure, her daughter Miranda served as assistant keeper. Maria retired on December 31, 1918 at the age of seventy-seven and after more than fifty-one years of service at the lighthouse. When Maria passed away on August 20, 1925, the Lighthouse Service noted that during her service, she had a “perfectly clear record and the highest approval for her services.” Miranda Younghans was promoted to keeper upon the death of her mother and remained at the light until her retirement on April 23, 1929. The lighthouse was electrified in 1926 during Miranda’s service.
Biloxi Lighthouse survived Hurricane Katrina, which caused so much devastation in Biloxi and the surrounding Gulf Coast in 2005, but the brick lining inside the tower received significant damage. Shortly after the hurricane, an American flag was draped from the top of the lighthouse, making it a symbol of the community’s resolve to withstand and overcome all calamities. Between 2007 and 2012, the beloved lighthouse was featured on Mississippi’s license plates.
The City of Biloxi and the United States Postal Service held a ceremony at the lighthouse on July 23, 2009 to celebrate the first day of issue of a stamp featuring Biloxi Lighthouse. The stamp was one of a set that featured a lighthouse from each of the five Gulf Coast states.
On February 19, 2010, a rededication ceremony was held for a gleaming white Biloxi Lighthouse that had just undergone a $400,000 makeover, during which the tower was rewired, the interior brick lining was rebuilt, new exterior lighting was installed, and the decorative metal fence surrounding the base of the tower was restored. Inside the tower, blue bands were painted on the brick lining to indicate the level to which the sea rose during various hurricanes. The two highest bands are Hurricane Katrina (2005) that reached 21.5 feet above mean sea level and Hurricane Camille (1969) that rose to 17.5 feet.
Head Keepers: Marcellus J. Howard (1848 – 1854), Mary J. Reynolds (1854 – 1866), Perry Younghans (1866 – 1867), Maria Younghans (1867 – 1918), Miranda Younghans (1918 – 1929), William B. Thompson (1929 – 1935), Frederick A. Schrieber (1935 – 1937), Joseph J. Olivier (1937 – 1940).