Margaret Norvell was never in the Coast Guard, but she served a 41 -year career with the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The service became part of the Coast Guard in 1939, five years after she died on July 17, 1934 in New Orleans.
When she died she was only one of a few women to serve in such a capacity.
Born Margaret Celeste Dimitry Ruth, February 11 1860 in Washington D.C., she descended from an old Washington family. Her great-grandfather Robert Mills designed the Washington Monument and Library of Congress. She moved to New Orleans as a child.
In 1883, she married Louis Gray Norvell, from a prominent St. Louis family. Louis made some bad financial decisions and after losing his fortune became a light house keeper on the mouth of the Mississippi River on Deer Island at Head of Passes. When he drowned in a storm in 1891, trying to rescue boaters during a storm, Margaret took on his responsibilities as keeper. She served at the Head of Passes Light until 1896, the Port Pontchartrain Light (1896 to 1924) and the West End Light (1924 to 1932).
During a storm in 1903 that swept away every building, Margaret’s lighthouse provided shelter, there she cared for over 200 people who had been left homeless. Margaret later said that it was the most horrible experience of her career: “The pitiless rain came down ceaselessly, the wind howled about my lighthouse at Head of Passes and the water rose and lashed at the fastness of my home. I could look out into the swirling water and see people swept by and I was powerless to aid them.”
Dorothy Dix wrote in 1897: “Mrs. Norvell speaks of her decision [to become a light house keeper and dedication to duty] as nothing, though I think there is something heroic in the thought of a woman reared in every luxury settling herself to a life of hard work and isolation.” What Miss Dix did not say was that she also raised two small children and did it alone while doing her job in an exceptional manner.
Later again in 1926, when a small airplane crashed in Lake Pontchartrain, she battled terrible squalls for two hours in a small rowboat on the lake and rescued the survivor of the crash, a young naval aviator. Norvell served for 41 years with the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
To honor her service to our nation and dedication, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned the cutter Margaret Norvell June 1, 2013 in New Orleans. The 156-foot patrol vessel is the fifth in the Coast Guard’s Sentinel class of “fast-response cutters.” About 55 of Margaret Norvell’s descendants attended.
The motto of the cutter Margaret Norvell says it all: “TRUE STEADY UNFAILING.” What better way to describe her.