Bois Blanc Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Bois Blanc Island, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Bois Blanc is French for "white wood" and was likely named by the early French Voyageurs for the towering forest of white pine and basswood which blankets the high ground at the island’s center. For years, Bois Blanc served as the primary source of lumber for the settlers on nearby Mackinac Island, who also planted apple trees and potatoes on the island to supplant their diet of whitefish, pulled from the fecund waters of the Straits.

With hidden shoals lurking beneath the water between the island and the mainland, up-bound vessels chose to take a course to the east of Bois Blanc, and while the island thus served to mark the turning point westward into the Straits, shallows reaching far out into the lake from the long peninsula on the island’s northern shore represented a significant threat to captains unfamiliar with the navigational intricacies of area.

Seeking to improve navigation through the area, a group of concerned Mackinac Island merchants petitioned Congress for the construction of a light to mark Bois Blanc in December 1825, and responding to a motion presented by Congressman Austin Wing on December 11, 1826, Congress instructed the Committee on Commerce to investigate the validity of the request for the new light. As witness to the importance of Mackinac Island as a center of commerce, Congress appropriated the sum of $5,000 for the construction of a light on Bois Blanc Island in 1828, making it only the second light to be approved on Lake Huron after the Fort Gratiot Light, which had been established on the lake’s southern shore to mark the entrance to the St. Clair River in 1825.

At this time, responsibility for the nation’s aids to navigation fell under Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, and with the establishment of a growing number of lighthouses across the country, Pleasonton delegated local lighthouse administration to area Customs collectors. Serving as the Collector of Customs at Mackinac, Abraham Wendell was responsible for Lights in the upper Great Lakes, and thus wielded a considerable amount of political clout in the awarding of lighthouse construction contracts and the selection of keepers.

After a reservation for the new light was surveyed close to the water’s edge on the outer end of island’s northern peninsular, Wendell received bids from a number of contractors, with the construction contract finally awarded to William Philo Scovil of Cleveland Ohio. Scovil’s crew arrived on the island in early 1829, and worked through the summer erecting the 30-foot tall circular stone tower and detached dwelling. The tower was capped by an iron lantern, and outfitted with an array of thirteen Lewis lamps with reflectors, exhibiting a fixed white characteristic.

Wendell selected Eber Ward as the station's first keeper. A frequent and eloquent letter writer, Ward’s correspondence provides us a with a good idea of life at Bois Blanc light in those early days. His correspondence with Wendell also makes it clear that the quality of Scovil's construction left a great deal to be desired.

In one letter to Wendell penned by Ward on April 24, 1833, Ward reported that "The chandelier and lamps were defective, and the reflectors and lamp imperfectly secured upon the chandelier… The window caps and frames permit the wind and rain to pass them into the rooms. The cellar is not secured from frost, and the cellar windows, though on a level with the ground, were not provided with grates, and one is broken out, both glass and sash. But by far the greatest difficulty arises form a want of good chimneys in whichever room a fire is kindled, the smoke is intolerable, and at times the tenants are forced to abandon it. I believe there are few light houses in the US where repairs are attended to with so much trouble and expense as at this." Ward also pointed out that "The lighthouse tenement was built amongst a thicket of stumps, and when the builders left, it was surrounded with piles of gravel, stones, stick etc. A portion of these I have cleared away, but much still remains."

With rising water levels, the land around the tower became increasingly waterlogged. In late 1837, Ward became so fearful that the tower would topple, that he removed all of the oil butts from the tower. Evidently, Ward’s concern was well-founded, as in the face of constant pounding by the waves, the tower crashed to the ground on December 9, 1837. At the time of the collapse, Ward was visiting Mackinac Island, and his daughter Emily was at the station with Simon Bolivar Brooks, the orphaned son of a family friend.. In her later years, Emily recounted the story of the tower’s collapse to her granddaughter Frances Ward Hurlbut, who recorded her memories for posterity in her book "Grandmother’s stories."

Click to view enlarged imageIn the book, Emily recalled "As the storm increased in violence, every great wave would dash itself to foam against its brawny sides. About five o'clock I saw that if I was to save the lamps and the great reflectors I must begin at once… I had no sooner got out of the house than the wind, with a sudden dash, nearly took me off my feet, the rain half blinded me, and the spray wet me through; but I ran quickly, and in a moment was in the light-house, climbing its hundred and fifty steep steps with all the speed I could. When I reached the top what a magnificent sight met my gaze! Whoever has stood on a perilous height, and seen the mad waters leap and roar and dash with all their mighty force against the frail structure that supported him, can imagine the wild exaltation of soul that filled me through and through to the exclusion of all fear… It took all my strength to carry those great lamps and reflectors down the winding stairs; and sometimes when I would stop to take breath, and would hear the beat of the waters and feel the shock it gave the tower, it would give me a momentary spasm of terror; but it would be but momentary, for my work must be done, and I had no time for fear. I think I climbed those stairs five times before I got everything movable down…. After I had got everything down I changed my wet clothes for dry ones, and we ate our supper, and then took our places by the window to watch for the light-house to fall… We had not long to wait. The night had come; the rain had ceased, and the moon gave such light as scurrying and wildly driven clouds would permit. Suddenly we saw a long zigzag line run from the tower's base to its top. I said to Bolivar, "Put on your overcoat and hat", and I put on my warm shawl and hood…. another line shot up and around, and the tower tottered. Now, said I, "Bolivar come!" He took my hand, and we went out the back way, shutting the doors behind us, and ran for the woods, a few rods off. We had scarcely got there when, with one mighty crash, down went the huge pile of masonry , and the waves washed over the place where the light-house once stood. We could see that the house had not been injured; so with thankful hearts we went back, and Bolivar was soon in bed and asleep. But I could not sleep for thinking of the ships that were in peril, and especially of Eber; and tears that I could not restrain wet my pillow that night and succeeding nights."

Evidently the tower was not the only one of the station’s structures to be threatened, as in a letter to Wendell on December 12, Ward reported that "The dwelling house appears now to be in danger of sharing the same fate from the same cause…Every easterly wind carries away a portion of the narrow strip of land between the house and the lake… In easterly storms, the sea breaks against the house and drives the water through its walls… I cannot, therefore, ask you to do anything for me, unpleasant as my situation is, in this wilderness of snow and water. I believe, indeed, that it would be useless to expend any money to protect this building. It appears to me to have an irreparable fault. It stands below the level of the lake, between which the house and earth consists entirely of coarse gravel and loose stones."

Click to view enlarged imageAfter learning of the fate of the Bois Blanc light from Wendell, Pleasonton recommended a Congressional appropriation of $5,000 for the complete replacement of the station, with Congressional approval of funding on July 7, 1838. Soon thereafter, during his inspection of lights in the district, Lieutenant James T Homans visited the island and selected a location for the new light, describing the location as "some rods farther from the lake than the former site, and on much higher ground." With the agreement of District Collector Wendell, title was obtained, and the contract for the station’s construction awarded to Detroit contractor William Scott.

Scott’s construction crew arrived at Bois Blanc early the following year, and completed the new buildings over the summer of 1839. While we have as yet been unable to determine the design of this new light, there was little variation in design of stations established under the tight-fisted Pleasonton administration, and thus it is highly likely that the new tower and dwelling bore a close resemblance to the original structures. To reduce costs, the new lantern was equipped with only nine Lewis lamps and reflectors, which was likely considered a positive change by Ward, who was now responsible for trimming thirty percent less wicks and cleaning thirty percent less reflectors on a nightly basis.

Ward did a considerable amount of fishing in the waters around the island, frequently salting upward of 100 barrels of whitefish a year, which he shipped to family members in Ohio for resale here prices were better. Whether his fishing interfered with his light keeping duties or not, In October 1839 the oil supplier who delivered oil to Bois Blanc reported to Wendell that Ward was paying "more attention to fishing than to the light." On learning of the report filed against Ward, Pleasonton instructed Wendell to "correct this for the future, or report him for removal."

Click to view enlarged imageWhether there was any truth in this negative report is lost with the individuals involved, however Ward continued to serve as keeper of the Bois Blanc Light. If anything, his ongoing written communications with Wendell indicate him to be a diligent keeper. In one such letter written on August 20, 1841, Ward informed Wendell of problems experienced with condensation in the lantern, stating "I am informed by those whose business it is to visit and examine Light Houses, that openings ought to be made through the copper dead lights at the bottom of the Lantern, through these openings air could be admitted which would prevent the vapor gathering on the glass. I have lately opened a window in the tower in order to ascertain by experiment whether the admission of air would be of service, and I find the lights appear better, that the vapor does not accumulate so soon nor in such great quantity. I hope that you will think proper to have the necessary openings made."

Whether as a result of pressure from Wendell, reaction to Wendell’s lack of responsiveness, tiring of the rigors of life in such an isolated location, or in order to get an assignment closer to his family, after thirteen years as keeper of the Bois Blanc Light, Ward began to actively seek a position as keeper at a different station.

Ward’s son (also named Eber) was an influential ship’s captain, and was well underway in creating a shipping empire which would eventually make him a millionaire many times over. As such, the younger Eber had access to people of influence, and Ward contacted his son to see if he could pull any strings to assist him in his quest for a new position. In a letter to his father dated September 17, 1942, the younger Ward wrote "The Inspector of Lighthouses is now on a tour round the lakes. He has crossed with me. I have had some talk with him about Light Houses and Keepers. He is very particular to have everything right, and wants lighthouses kept clean. He says he can get you transferred to a light-house in some other place if a vacancy occurs. He thinks the Fort Gratiot Light will be vacated soon. McDougall is sick, and I think he will die. If you would like that change, please let me know. If any other vacancy would suit you better, I think there would be no difficulty in getting it." The younger Ward’s observation concerning McDougall was correct, as McDougall passed away a scant month later on October 15. However, William Church was appointed to replace McDougall.

Click to view anlarged imageWard was not deterred, and began contacting Church directly, and with pressure applied through his son’s connections, managed to arrange a swap of stations with Church. In a letter to Church dated June 29, 1843, Ward suggested that "Unless the superintendent should otherwise direct you intimate that near the middle of July would be the most convenient time for you to leave for Bois Blanc you may therefore expect one of my family to relieve you about the 12th of July." Indicating some of the rigors of life as keeper of such a remote station, Ward continued "You will find it extremely difficult to get wild hay in this country, and I would advise you to bring all the hay you expect to need next winter along with you as it is a difficult place to land hay. And while on the subject of landing, allow me to caution you to be especially particular when you bargain with the master of a vessel to bring you up that you and you effects be landed at the Light House, for it will cost you more to be brought from Mackinac to Bois Blanc than from Fort Gratiot to Bois Blanc. Your horse would be convenient to haul your wood and occasionally to go to Mackinac on the ice, but it will be very expensive to winter him. Hay is generally worth $20 per ton, if you bring jay it ought to be well bound in small bundles." Finally, in a bow to expediency, Ward made the following interesting offer to Church "I have two cows, one is sick, the other well. The cow is not first rate. The sick one is. I suppose there are six years old. The sick one has appeared to have consumption for the last six months, for the last ten days she has been slowly on the gain. They are both rather small. I can get $20 for the two. You can therefore have the two cows by giving me your one and $4, but to be sure of a first-rate cow, you must bring your own, for it is hard to say whether he sick cow will live or die."

Whether Church took "advantage" of Ward’s offer of a bovine trade is undocumented, however payroll records for the district indicate that the station swap took place, with Church officially taking over as keeper of the Bois Blanc Island lighthouse on September 21, 1843.

Evidently Church was ill-suited for life on Bois Blanc, as he resigned from lighthouse service after only two years on the island, and Lyman Granger arrived to replace Church on September 2, 1845. Granger served nine years at Bois Blanc, before being removed from his position on July 27, 1854. With Granger’s removal, a string of keepers served at Bois Blanc, with none of them lasting for more than two years. Granger was replaced by Mrs. Charles O’Malley, who lasted only eight months before being removed. Henry Granger took over from Mrs. O’Malley, but passed away after two years on February 25, 1857, to be replaced by his wife Mary, who found the job to be too difficult, and resigned from lighthouse service after five months on July 16, 1857

With the creation of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, a system-wide upgrading of all Lewis lamps to the superior Fresnel optics had been underway ,and as part of this upgrading, the Bois Blanc lantern was finally retrofitted with a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens in 1857, with the light now visible for a distance of 14 miles in clear weather.

Click to view enlarged imageAs witness to the difficulties of life at such an isolated station, a procession of six more keepers manned the Bois Blanc light between 1857 and 1866, with each of them either resigning or being removed from service. Perhaps contributing to this high keeper turnover, the annual report of the Lighthouse Board for 1866 reported that the station buildings were in "severely dilapidated" condition, and requested an appropriation of $14,000 to tear-down and replace the existing buildings. Congress appropriated the requested funds on March 2, 1867, and work began immediately on specifications for the new station. In order to minimize design costs, the decision was made to take advantage of an existing plan which was also being used at a number of locations throughout the district including Marquette, Peninsula Point and Grand Island North.

Work at Bois Blanc began in July 1867 with the excavating of a cellar on which a one-and-a-half story Cream City Brick dwelling was erected. A square tower standing 38 feet in height was integrated into the lakeward gable wall, and contained a circular inner brick wall supporting a set of cast-iron spiral stairs which wound from the first floor to the lantern. With a landing on the second floor, these stairs also served as the only method of moving between the floors within the dwelling. As the work progressed, a decagonal cast iron lantern was assembled atop the gallery. With the erection of a brick privy, dock and boathouse, construction was complete. The District Lampist arrived and transferred the Fourth Order Fresnel lens from the old tower to the new lantern, where it was installed at a focal plane of 53 feet above lake level, and visible for a distance of 13 ˝ miles in clear weather conditions. Keeper John Wackter followed the lens, moving his belongings into the new dwelling, and displayed the new light on an unrecorded date late in 1867.

Other than a continuation of the parade of keepers through the station, the following fifteen years at Bois Blanc were relatively uneventful, with only routine maintenance tasks being recorded in District reports. In 1884, the decision was made to relocate the boathouse to the bay on the sheltered south side of the peninsula, and a path was cut through the woods to the south side and the boathouse moved and re-erected at the head of a new timber crib landing dock. Moisture continued to plague the dwelling, and while on site, the work crew also installed 52 feet of four-inch drain from the cellar toward the shore to carry water away.

With the death of Keeper Lorenzo Holden on September 2, 1894, Henry Metivier accepted a promotion to the position of Acting Keeper at Bois Blanc, after serving for five years in various assistant positions at Spectacle Reef. After five years of isolation on Spectacle Reef, Bois Blank likely seemed like a vacation to Metivier, as he would end up being the longest-serving keeper at the station since Eber Ward departed for Fort Gratiot in 1843.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1904, major repairs were underway at the Spectacle Reef Light, with the reconstruction of the crib system around the base of the station. Lying only ten miles to the East of Spectacle Reef, and with miles of fine gravel beaches, Bois Blanc Island was chosen as the source of the tons of gravel that would be needed to mix concrete for the new crib. To this end, a work crew arrived on the island in 1904 and extended the landing on the south side of the peninsula by 64 feet to allow deeper draft vessels to load with gravel, and erected a temporary dwelling for the crew during their stay on the island. 

With the placement of a light vessel on Poe Reef in 1892, traffic patterns through the straits shifted to the east of the island, and with plans underway for the construction of permanent lights on Poe Reef and Fourteen Foot Shoal, the Bois Blanc light was deemed to have outlived its usefulness. Thus, the station was decommissioned and boarded up in 1924, and the light replaced by an automated acetylene light atop a 35-foot tall black steel skeleton tower to the east of the old light.

With the closure of the lighthouse, Henry Metivier retired from lighthouse service after faithfully tending the light for a remarkable thirty years, making his tenure by far the longest of any of the sixteen keepers who tended the light.

Click to view enlarged imageThe old station property and buildings were sold to Earl J. Coffey on August 24, 1925, and some time thereafter the steel skeletal tower was replaced by the existing cylindrical D9 tower with solar-powered 200 mm acrylic optic.

The lighthouse is owned the Martin and Reinhart Jahn families, who have gone to great lengths in restoring the historic 1867 structure, which was in severely deteriorated condition when they took ownership, with all the windows and doors broken out after years of vacancy and vandalism. Thanks to the Jahn’s hard work, and short of any additional acts of mindless vandalism, the Bois Blanc lighthouse has a great chance of standing into the next century - and beyond.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Bois Blanc Island Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Finding this Light

Plaunt Transportation offers multiple ferry trips to Bois Blanc from Cheboygan. However, since the Bois Blanc Light sits on privately owned property at the end of very narrow frequently muddy trail, the best opportunity to see the Light Station is from offshore in a private vessel.

Reference Sources

Lieutenant James T. Homans' report on lights in the district, Filed November 5, 1838
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1853-1909
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1861-1939 
Lake Pilot's Handbook, Captain George Trimble, 1907
Documents in the Trelfa Collection, various, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University
Chicago Tribune, April 16, 2000
The Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1995
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

© Terry Pepper. This page last updated 12/02/2007 .

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