This Compass series chronicles the first 14 heroes the Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters have been named for. These men and women, who stood the watch before us, lived extraordinary lives as they lit the way for sailors in times past, braved gunfire in times of war and rescued those in peril at sea. As Coast Guard heroes, their stories are a constant reminder of our service’s legacy. As the namesake of the Coast Guard’s newest patrol boats, they will inspire the next generation of Coast Guard heroes.
With contributions from LTJG Ryan White
For decades, Margaret “Madge” Norvell kept a watchful eye on the treacherous entrance of the Mississippi river and her numerous rescues included enduring howling winds and stinging rains to shelter schooners caught in storms and pulling in shipwrecked sailors.
As a member of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, she first served at the Head of Passes Light as an assistant keeper from 1891 to 1896. Her leadership did not go unnoticed and after Head of Passes she was appointed keeper of both the Port Pontchartrain Light from 1896 to 1924 and the West End Light where she served from 1924 to 1932.
In 1926 Norvell received word that a naval airplane had gone down in Lake Pontchartrain and as keeper of West End Light, she did not hesitate in getting her rowboat underway. She battled a merciless squall for two hours on the lake as she rowed to the survivor of the crash, rescued him and then rowed the naval aviator back to safety.
Norvell’s role as a humanitarian and community leader were most evident during a storm in 1903 that swept away every building in the small community she lived in. Her lighthouse’s sturdy structure remained the only building that could provide shelter, and she cared for over 200 people who had been left homeless by the storm’s unforgiving winds and rain. Norvell served admirably for 41 years with the U.S. Lighthouse Service and her devotion to duty as she vigilantly stood the watch ashore saved the lives of countless sailors.
A special place in the Coast Guard’s history
Being a lighthouse keeper was one of the first non-clerical U.S. government jobs that were open to women. While the appointment as keeper was usually given to the male spouse, such as the case with Norvell, women assumed the professional duty of keeper to assist their spouse or to take over when their husbands became ill or passed away.
Mary Louise and J. Candace Clifford have chronicled the lives of these groundbreaking women in their illustrated history Women Who Kept the Lights.
“The exploits of these women have not been recorded in places where the public can become familiar with them,” wrote Mary Louise Clifford. “Because writers of the time did not feel that the activities of working women were exemplary, very few noted their accomplishments.”
Despite their lack of written records, women keepers stood the watch in their own right and served their country with distinction for years. These women were true trailblazers of their time and their heritage as humanitarians and lifesavers lives on with every man and woman serving in the Coast Guard today.