Legendary Lighthouses: Great Stories-Western Great Lakes

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Great Stories
Lighthouses of the Western Great Lakes

Whitefish Point and the Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald,

Apostle Islands

New and Old Presque Isle

St. Helena’s/Restoration Project

Fort Gratiot/Lightship Huron

Michigan City/Harriet Colfax, Lake Michigan

Big Red/Holland

Whitefish Point, Lake Superior, Michigan, 1849 and 1861

Lake Superior’s White Point Light, located in the treacherous southeastern reaches of the lake, has shined its light more or less unfailingly for almost 150 years -- except the night the Edmund Fitzgerald went down.

Known as the Graveyard of the Lakes because of dangerous shoals in the area.

Seventy major shipwrecks have occurred near there since the beginning of regular navigation on Lake Superior, including the loss of the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald. This is ironic because the Bay itself is relatively calm.

The tower is an interesting structure. It is a steel cylinder supported by skeletal steel "iron pile" framework. It looks modern but was built in 1861 to replace the original tower.

Excellent restoration -- restored as Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Museum

  • Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters, dating to 1861, fully restored and reopened last fall
  • Quarters housed two side-by-side residences: one has been restored to mid-1890s; other to 1920s
  • 1920 U.S. Coast Guard Lookout Tower opening this summer

With the signing of United States Coast Guard Re-authorization Bill by President Clinton on October 19, 1996, ownership of the five acres Shipwreck Museum portion of the U.S. Coast Guard property recently transferred to Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

Bertha Endress Rollo, 86, lived at quarters from 1910-1931, with grandfather, Captain Robert Carlson.

There is an interesting rescue story that took place in April of 1933. Two Michigan fisherman discovered that the field of ice where they had been fishing had broken away from the mainland and had carried them into the open lake. A Coast Guard surf boat went out to rescue them and got crushed between massive blocks of ice, marooning three coast guardsmen as well as the sailors. Eventually, the keeper at Whitefish Point rescued all of them.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald mysteriously vanished in Lake Superior while making for Whitefish Bay on November 10, 1978. Its sudden disappearance set off a debate about how a 700-foot ship could be swallowed by the lake in the blink of an eye.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was a 729-foot ship, more than 1/8 mile long, capable of holding the 350,000 people that populate Minneapolis. When it was launched in 1958, it was the world’s largest freshwater freighter. Perhaps the events of its launch were omens of its eventual fate. As it was placed in the water, it crashed mightily into the dock, and one of the frightened onlookers suffered a fatal heart attack. The vessel was a fond and familiar sight to residents of port cities from Duluth to Toledo. At one point, a Detroit newspaper ran a column about her activities. The Fitzgerald set out on its final voyage on November 9, 1978, from Duluth Harbor, en route to Detroit, Michigan. Although the weather was balmy that day, two massive storms were heading to the area. On November 10th, as the Fitzgerald and other ships in the area battled the 80-mile winds and 25 foot waves, they kept in radio contact. In the afternoon, McSorley notified the captain of the Arthur Anderson of some damage to the Fitzgerald. At 7:10 p.m. that night, an officer of the Anderson radioed to McSorley, and he quietly replied "We are holding our own." Moments later, the Fitzgerald was hit by two tremendous waves, and the Anderson’s captain saw the white blob representing the Fitzgerald suddenly disappear from his radar screen. The force of the two waves snapped the ship in two, sinking it in ten short seconds.

Captain McSorley was apparently heading for Whitefish Point that evening to find calmer waters for his ailing ship. Ironically, the powerful third-order Fresnel lens on the Whitefish Point Light went out when power lines snapped in two during this furious gale.

An annual memorial service at Whitefish Point on November 10 includes the "Call to the Last Watch," during which each of the 29 lost crew members of the Fitzgerald is remembered by tolling the Fitzgerald’s bell and concluding with a 30th toll of the bell for all sailors lost on the Great Lakes.

Gordon Lightfoot wrote and sang a popular song "Ballad of the Edmund Fitzerald" to commemorate its crew. (He’s now an honorary board member of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.)

The bell of the Fitzgerald was recovered on July 4, 1995 in a historic project.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society has produced a 14-minute Emmy-award winning documentary about the Fitzgerald.

Information on GLSHS is on our contact sheet.

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Apostle Islands, Lake Superior, Wisconsin

In addition to its natural beauty, wildlife and pristine beaches, the Apostle Islands National Seashore on Lake Superior offers an elegant jeweled necklace of six old lighthouses. Well maintained by the National Park Service, these historic structures create a living outdoor lighthouse museum. There were complete light stations -- collection of buildings necessary to keep the light burning, including the tower, one or more keepers houses, oil house, water pump, boat house and privies.

-- Raspberry Island - 1863

Considered the most beautiful of the Apostle Islands lighthouses.

Meticulously restored to its 1920s appearance, including charming grounds with flowerbeds, vegetable garden, and laundry hanging on the clothesline.

The lighthouse is now a museum with tours conducted by an actor representing a 1920s acting lighthouse keeper named "Toots Winfield." Toots was an assistant keeper from 1922-1930. Living history presentation includes colorful stories about the lighthouse and keepers.

-- Devils Island - 1891 and 1901

There is very little in common with the French penal colony of same name. Spacious Queen Anne-style keepers quarters.

President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge visited for a lunch on the station deck.

It was the last of the Apostle Island Lights to be automated.

The Light itself sits above interesting geological formation. There are sandstone cliffs 40’ high in many interesting shapes. There are lots of kayakers in late fall around the sea caves.

There is a volunteer program called Volunteer Lighthouse Keepers. The volunteers are couples and singles from all over the country. They get to live in the keepers’ quarters for the summer season and receive a small stipend. They don’t need to do anything with the lights, which are solarized with few moving parts. They greet visitors, tell history of the lights, and maintain the lawn. The dwelling is fairly primitive, but nice -- no electricity, no flush toilets, some running water, battery operated candles. Some couples from nearby areas share stints -- alternating every two weeks.

-- Michigan Island Old and New- 1857 and 1869

The construction of the Old Michigan light was based on a monumental mix-up. The lighthouse was supposed to be built on nearby Long Island, and the mistake was not realized until after the beacon was lit. The Lighthouse Service allowed the light to be lit for the shipping season and then moved the lantern room to a structure on Windmill Point on Lake St. Clair. The need was still recognized for a beacon at Michigan Island. In 1869 a new lantern room was installed.

In the early years, before 1880s, keepers would house at the lighthouse over the winter when Lake Superior was frozen over. One Michigan Island keeper wintered there in 1895-6. He went fishing and the ice broke and he floated away. His wife saw him go. She was stranded for four days with three little children until he was rescued.

-- LaPointe - 1858

The original tower was replaced in 1896 and is a white cylindrical tower with a 10-sided walkway around a circular room at its top. Above it is the octagonal lantern room and ventilator cap. Adjacent buildings no longer used.

-- Outer Island - 1874

Northernmost of the Apostle Islands.

An attractive 90-foot tower of smooth white brick with a black band setting off a row of arched windows near the top. A passageway connects the tower to the three-story keeper’s house.

A chapter in Cheryl Roberts’ book covers Fran Carpenter Platske stories about life as a child of a keeper on Outer Island

A story in THE NORTHERN LIGHTS by Charles Hyde: A keeper at Outer Island died during the last few weeks of one shipping season. The assistant keeper was unable to contact passing vessels and spent two weeks with the corpse until the lighthouse tender finally took them off the island.

-- Sand Island - 1881

The keeper’s house and tower are made of native brown stone and are very attractive.

-- Chequamegon Point -- 1896

A square, white steel-sided room rests on four thin legs, over which sits an octagonal lantern room, capped by a red roof and ventilator ball -- not as attractive as the others. In 1987 the tower was moved back 150 feet from shore to protect the light from erosion.

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Presque Isle Lighthouses, Michigan, 1840 and 1871, Lake Huron

The story here is that there is an old and new lighthouse, a "lighthouse park,"some good history and ghost stories.

The Old Presque Isle Lighthouse was built in 1840, when increasing number of commercial vessels began using Presque Isle Harbor for shelter as well as a source of cordwood to fire their boilers.

The New Presque Isle Lighthouse was authorized in the 1860s by President Abraham Lincoln.

At 113 feet high, it is the tallest lighthouse on the Great Lakes.

The beacon is visible for 25 miles and still being used as a bearing by commercial vessels bound for Lakes Michigan and Superior.

The 113-foot light tower and attached keeper’s house are the centerpiece for 100-acre public park; keeper’s house is a brick museum with exhibits about off-shore wrecks.

There are also two range lights on the property.

Garrity family keepers of the lighthouse from Civil War days until 1935 -- nearly 80 years. (Patrick Garrity 1861-1885; Thomas Garrity (son) 1885-1935.)

Ghost story -- ghost of a keeper’s wife (not Mrs. Garrity); supposedly locked up permanently by her husband and went insane; some say you can hear screams on windy nights.

St. Helena, Michigan, 1873, Lake Huron

St. Helena, a 240-acre island five miles from Mackinaw City, was a center of important economic activity in the 19th Century. Over two hundred residents lived in a village on its north side. There they built boats and salted fish for shipment to New York. The island was a port of last call for those venturing into Lake Michigan and a refueling stop for wood-burning ships. When the St. Helena Light Station was completed in 1973, it was one of the grandest on the lakes. However, in 1922 it was also one of the first to be automated. Abandoned and neglected for over sixty years, it was subject to deterioration from the elements and vandalism, except for the tower, which was maintained by the Coast Guard. St. Helena has now been magnificently restored through a cooperative venture between the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, two Michigan Boy Scout troops and residents of nearby communities. The award-winning restoration efforts have profoundly touched the lives of the workers, friends and neighbors of the island.

The tower, the privy, the keeper’s dwelling and the oil house have been restored

Much of the work was done by the two Michigan Boy Scout troops (14 trips).

  • -- Scouts (and parents) have moved tons of debris, large boulders and almost 57 tons of limestone as part of a landscaping plan -- with only wheelbarrows to help.
  • -- One Eagle Scout restored the two-hole privy as his Eagle Scout Service Project to earn the highest ranking in scouting. He obtained donations of paint and plaster, as well as technical advice.

Dick Moehl, the force and spirit behind this restoration, remarked that they are training a "new generation of preservationists. The parents come free."

The site is now used extensively for educational purposes.

Lightship Huron, Port Huron, Michigan, 1921

This ship is a National Historic Landmark (highest designation given).

It is 97-feet long; the only remaining vessel of its kind in Michigan.

Presently it serves as a museum.

It was originally commissioned as Lightship No. 103 by U.S. Lighthouse Service to serve as a relief lightship for Lake Michigan’s Twelfth Lighthouse District. When other ships were brought in for repairs, the Huron took over their station.

Fort Gratiot Light, Port Huron, Michigan, 1825 and 1829

This light is located just upstream from Lightship Huron.

It is Michigan’s oldest lighthouse, older even than the state itself, which was admitted to the Union in 1837.

It was established to guard the juncture of Lake Huron and St. Clair River.

The first keeper, Detroit Lawyer George McDougall, colorful character who depleted his savings maintaining the property.

It is constructed of brick, duplex style.

There are tours conducted by Bob Hanford in Keeper’s dress.

Port Huron is the boyhood home of Thomas Alva Edison.

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Old Michigan City Light, Indiana, 1837 and Michigan City East Pierhead Light, 1904, Lake Michigan (Also, Michigan City Breakwater Light)

Michigan City Light is a beautiful structure nestled on a snug rise overlooking picturesque Trail Creek. Built in 1904, it served as the tower until the Michigan City East Pierhead Light replaced it in 1904. Then it served as the keeper’s house until 1940. It is now maintained by the Michigan City Historical Society as a lighthouse museum with indoor and outdoor exhibits.

Harriet Colfax, keeper of the Michigan City Light from 1861-1904, was an amazing woman. Appointed by her cousin Schuyler Colfax, who would later become vice-president of the U.S. under Grant. She lived in the lighthouse with her lifelong companion Ann Hartwell, a local schoolteacher. Until 1904, her responsibility included lighting both the lamp atop her residence and a beacon at the end of a pier extending 1,500 feet into Lake Michigan. Her crisp records of her daily activities offer a vivid picture of her life:

"October 28, 1873: Terrific westerly gale. The waves dashing over both piers and over my head when on my way down to light the beacon. October 31: Mainlight and beacon both bewitched tonight, requiring my constant attention during the entire night."

Fierce storms often made it near impossible for Helen to service the light, but she never failed in her duty, earning the respect and admiration of sailors. Candace Clifford’s book (p. 61-74) includes extensive records from her logs.

In 1904 the beacon was moved to the Michigan City East Pierhead Light. The pier extends north from a small beach out into Lake Michigan and then angles abruptly to the west.

There is also a concrete breakwater light about 32 feet high, sitting in the water off the pier.

Holland Light, "Big Red", Holland Michigan, Lake Michigan

A pier-light, large three story building, painted bright red, with twin gables and diamond pane windows.

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