‘The Lady of the Lighthouse’

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Area historian, author publishes book about Seahorse Key’s lighthouse keeper

By Mark Scohier


It’s not often one finds area historian and author Toni C. Collins walking around in period clothing. She does it on occasion, but usually only for special events aimed at teaching the public a bit about the history of Levy County or, as was the case Monday, to help form in the mind of a reporter the likeness of a 19th Century lighthouse keeper named Catharine Hobday.

“The books are coming today! I just checked with UPS,” Collins said about her latest literary accomplishment, a book about the life of Hobday called “The Lady of the Lighthouse: A Biography,:” which went to print the beginning of August.

The book is a second for Collins and is published by her own company, Suwannee River Publishing Company.

Hobday’s story, she explained, is a continuation of her first book, “Cedar Keys Light Station,” which she spent close to 10 years researching. A portion of that book deals with Hobday’s life, but Collins said she didn’t start to get a complete picture of the woman she so admired until a relative of Hobday’s, Norman E. Lewis Jr., contacted her after seeing a picture of her, dressed as Hobday at an open house event on Seahorse Key, in the Chiefland Citizen.

Collins wrote in her introduction:

“As a descendent of Catherine’s youngest brother, John Daniel Dorgan, Norman spent 20 years researching and documenting this fascinating and captivating Irish immigrant family. The search led him through more than a century-and-a-half of family history, three wars, and a great deal of maritime history. He was kind enough to share all of his finding with me.” 

“He provided me with document after document after document,” she said Monday.

“I just felt, after getting all this information from Norm, that I had to get it out.” Collins starting writing in February, weaving the details of Hobday’s life into a cohesive narrative.

Collins said her biggest challenge was dealing with the responsibility of writing so thoroughly about someone else’s family.

“This was my first biography ... and it was not easy. I agonized over this one.”

Hobday, who was appointed assistant lighthouse keeper at age 76 under her son, lighthouse keeper Andrew Hobday, died in in 1879. She was buried on Seahorse Key, the island where she’d lived and worked for the last six years of her life.

She was married five times, with four of her husbands dying within the first few years of marriage. Most of her husbands, like her father and brothers, were sailors. Her father and two of her brothers were even on the ship that went up the Apalachicola in 1816 and attacked the “negro fort,” which was at that time being used by blacks and seminoles. About 300 died in the attack, an act by order of Andrew Jackson that helped spark the First Seminole War.

Collins, a ships’ captain, said it’s her own interest in maritime activities that drew her so strongly to Hobday’s life and family. She descibes Hobday as resilient, “streetwise” and upbeat, even in the face of adversity.

“Life in the 1800s was not easy.”

Collins is already in the process of completing her third book, which is about the railroad from Dunnellon to Wilcox, It goes to print in January. Her latest book is a limited edition, and it can be purchased at her website, www.suwaneeriverpublishing.com, or by giving her a call at 352-490-5636.