Devils Island Light Seeing The Light

Devils Island, off Bayfield, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

Devils Island is the northernmost island on the western edge of the Apostles Group, and represented an important turning point for both east and westbound vessels coasting along Superior's southern shore. With the opening of the first lock at Sault Ste Marie in 1855, maritime traffic along Superior's south shore increased dramatically, and while Eagle Harbor Light had been established 123 miles to the east to guide vessels around the Keweenaw in 1851, and Minnesota Point was lighted to mark the entrance into the twin ports of Duluth/Superior 72 miles to the west in 1858, this important navigational landmark remained unlighted for more than thirty years.

The Lighthouse Board took up the call of mariners, requesting an appropriation of $15,000 for the establishment of a station at Devils Island in 1888, and while Congress enacted legislation for the establishment of the station, they neglected to follow-up with the requested appropriation, and without the necessary funding, work on the station could not begin. After the Board reiterated the request for funding in its 1889 annual report, Congress responded with the requested funds on March 2 of that same year, and the Eleventh District Engineer dispatched a survey crew to the island to select a site and to begin the process of obtaining clear title.

While awaiting for matter of title to be decided in the Wisconsin courts in 1890, Eleventh District Engineer Major William Ludlow determined that the planned station would benefit greatly from the incorporation of a steam-powered fog signal, and without having included the cost of such a system in the original proposal, recommended that an additional $5,000 be appropriated for the new station. Congress quickly approved the additional money on March 2, bringing the total amount of the Devils Island appropriation to $20,000. The importance placed on this new station was evidenced by the fact that the plans called-out that it be outfitted with a flashing Third Order lens, an order reserved for only the most critical aids to navigation on the Great Lakes. In fact, at that time only six Third Order stations were in operation in the entire Eleventh District, with four of them on Lake Superior at Whitefish Point, Au Sable Point, Manitou and Outer Island, another of the 22 islands making up the Apostle Group. However, after receiving a number of bids for the station's construction in 1891, the Board realized that it had significantly underestimated the costs associated with such a remote and inaccessible construction site. Estimating that the total cost for the station was going to end up closer to $42,000, the Board beseeched Congress to appropriate an additional $22,000 to begin construction.

Click to view enlarged imageWith no progress in reaching an agreement on the purchase of the island from the current owner, proceedings were initiated to acquire the property through condemnation. Realizing that it was highly unlikely that Congress would be forthcoming with the increased appropriation yet that season, and understanding that the lighting of Devils Island was critical to maritime interests, work quickly began on the construction of a temporary tower structure on the north shore of the island. The temporary tower consisted of a skeleton timber-framed structure with an enclosed wood-sided watchroom. Standing 24 feet square at the base and 9 feet 6 inches square at the top, the structure stood approximately 60 feet in height. Outfitted with an octagonal cast iron lantern containing a fixed red Fourth Order Fresnel lens, the light stood at a focal plane of 87 feet by virtue of its location atop one of the island's cliffs. The Devils Island Light was exhibited for the first time on the evening of September 30, 1891, its light visible at a distance of 13 miles across the surface of the lake.

Click to view enlarged imageWork began on the island in earnest at the opening of navigation in 1892, with the construction of a 1-story wood-framed outbuilding which would serve as temporary quarters for the construction crew as they worked through the summer, and by October the station was virtually complete. A steam-powered hoisting derrick was constructed to the west of the site to allow supplies to be hoisted up the cliff and a cellar was blasted in the rock with a 1-story brick keepers dwelling constructed atop this foundation. A 100 foot-long trench was blasted in the rock to allow the connection of a sewage disposal  pipe leading from the station's cellar directly to the lake, and a landing crib and boat house were constructed at the shore. A pump house and covered water delivery pipe were built to the fog-signal building located 500 feet to the northwest of the tower. The fog-signal building itself was a wood frame structure with the exterior sheathed in corrugated iron and the interior surfaces sheathed with smooth iron sheets. The walls were packed with a mixture of sawdust and lime to help fireproof the structure, and the duplicate 10-inch steam whistles and boilers were then installed within. The steam whistle controller was adjusted to ensure that the signal conformed to the predetermined 60-second repeated characteristic, consisting of a 5-second blast followed by a 10-second silence, 5-second blast and final 40-second silence. However, without an appropriation for the necessary funds for the permanent tower and second keeper's dwelling, work on Devils Island was stopped at the end of the 1892 season of navigation.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Lighthouse Board repeated its request for the funds for completing the station in each of its annual reports for the following three years, with Congress finally authorizing the work on February 15, 1895, and following-up with an appropriation for the necessary funds on March 2. However, the wording of the appropriation specifically called-out that the appropriation was to be spent on the construction of the permanent tower, and while the total amount of the appropriation was sufficient to complete the station, without written approval to build the keepers dwelling, construction of the dwelling was out of the question. Congress amended the appropriation on June 11, 1896, allocating $4,000 of the remaining funds for the construction of the keepers dwelling. Condemnation proceedings were finally brought to a close in August, with an award of $1,600 being paid to the former owner of the island. With the funding sorted-out, Eleventh District Engineer Major Milton B. Adams advertised bids for the metal work of the cast iron tower and placed the order for the Third Order Fresnel lens with Parisian lens manufacturer Henry-Lepaute. A working party arrived on the island on July 1, 1897 and work began on the second dwelling, which was built as a duplicate of the first structure, and laid concrete foundation for the new tower.

Click to view enlarged imageThe structural iron work of the tower was delivered to the Detroit Depot in June of 1898, and after a successful inspection, was loaded on the tender Amaranth along with a working party and dispatched to Lake Superior. Arriving at Devils Island, the work crew extended the boat landing, repaired the boat house and steam powered derrick, and began erecting the 80 foot tall iron tower on the foundation laid the previous year. Work on the tower was completed on October 17th. Consisting of a central cylinder topped by a circular watch room, the entire structure was reinforced by four iron buttresses, reinforced with iron lattice work at the flared lower end at which point they were bolted into the concrete foundation. The watchroom was outfitted with circular portholes and surmounted by a gallery on which was centered a circular cast iron lantern with diagonal astragals. Standing 81 feet from the foundation to the ventilator ball, the entire structure was given a coat of white paint, with the exception of the lantern and roof, which were painted black to help differentiate them from cloudy skies, thereby increasing the towers' effectiveness as a daymark. Since the new lens had not yet been received from Paris, the decision was made to keep the fourth order lens in the old timber tower active until receipt of the new illuminating apparatus.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter numerous delays in Paris, the Third Order lens and pedestal were finally delivered to the Detroit depot in 1901, and the lens, District Lampist, a work party and the materials needed for station repairs were loaded aboard the Amaranth, and delivered to Devils Island on June 22. While the Lampist carefully removed the pedestal and lens segments from their wooded crates and hoisted them up to the lantern for assembly, the work party built approximately 1,000 feet of tramway connecting the various station buildings, cleared brush and timber to ensure that the new light would be visible from all directions, constructed a woodshed and installed an improved derrick. Work at the island continued until September 20, when the brilliant new Third Order lens was exhibited from the new tower for the first time. This new lens represented a remarkable improvement over the old fourth order lens displayed from the timber tower. Equipped with bulls eyes, the lens rotated about the lamp once every 20 seconds to emit a white flash of 1.3 seconds duration followed by an eclipse of 8.7 seconds, a red flash of 1.3 seconds and an eclipse of 8.7 seconds.

Click to view enlarged imageNo longer serving any purpose, the timber skeletal tower and lantern were dismantled in 1904, and the materials placed in storage. 1907 saw the extension of the boat landing and the construction of a 78-foot long rubble stone sea wall to protect the shore in the area of the boat house. The keepers settled into the daily routine for the next 14 years, with no major events of changes at the station. In 1914, the station's illuminating apparatus was upgraded from kerosene fuel to a more efficient oil vapor system with an increase in output of the white flash to 45,000 candlepower and the red flash to 35,000 candlepower, and a resulting increase in the range of visibility to 18 miles. Also in 1914, in order to correct a stability problem similar to that previously encountered at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Light, the new tower was retrofitted with four vertical columns connected by horizontal bracing, which provided additional bracing to the watch room, and helped increase the tower's structural rigidity. 

As part of a network of stations being installed around the Great Lakes, Devils Island was outfitted with a radiobeacon system in 1925, with the system placed into operation on October 30. A transmitter was installed in one of the station buildings and connected to an antenna located 220 feet from the tower. The station transmitted at a frequency of 286 kilocycles and transmitted repeated groups of three Morse Code dashes every 60 seconds followed by 60 seconds of silence during periods of thick weather. Additionally, the transmitter was activated every morning and evening for a half hour test between 5.00 and 5.30 and 11.00 and 11.30.

Click to view enlarged imageThe following year saw the removal of the 10-inch steam whistle from the fog signal building and the installation of a much improved air-operated diaphone fog signal. The station was equipped with a diesel-powered electrical generator in 1928, with a resulting increase in the intensity of the light to 300,000 candlepower for the white flash and 180,000 candlepower for the red flash. Also at this time, the flash characteristic was changed to a white flash of 0.6 seconds followed by an eclipse of 9.4 seconds, red flash of 0.6 seconds and a final eclipse of 9.4 seconds. Since the stations in the Apostles chain closed down every December, the generator was winterized before the keeper's departed and thus the light was simultaneously extinguished. However there was always the possibility that a few straggling vessels would be making their way through the thickening ice without the benefit of the Devils island light as a guide. To serve these late season vessels, that same year the lantern was equipped with a 200 mm, 130 candlepower acetylene-powered winter light. With a large tank of acetylene located close to the base of the tower, the gas was piped into the lantern and automatically turned on and off every day by means of a sun valve, which used a bimetal mechanism which expanded and contracted in reaction to the difference in day and nighttime temperatures, automatically switching the flow of gas to the lamp.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the Coast Guard's assumption of responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation in 1939, five-man coast guard crews were assigned to the island to tend the equipment. After President Nixon signed legislation creating the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on September 26, 1970, most of the islands in the chain were incorporated into the National Park System. However, the Coast Guard continued to maintained ownership of the lighthouse reservations. As the other Apostles lighthouses were automated and their crews removed through the 1970's, a crew still manned the Devils Island Light station, using it as a base of operations to maintain and repair the other lights in the island chain. Thus. in 1978 the Devils Island Light became the last of the Apostle Lights to be automated through the installation of a 12-volt solar-bulb within the Fresnel lens.

In 1986, Congress passed legislation transferring all lands within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Park boundaries over to the NPS, and in a single stroke of the pen all of the Coast Guard properties within the park were moved to NPS ownership, and while the Coast Guard still maintained the right to service the aids to navigation within the park, the NPS took ownership of all of the former Lighthouse reservations and the structures therein.

Click to view enlarged imageIn order to protect the station's Third Order lens from further deterioration or vandalism, the Coast Guard disassembled the lens and removed both it and the cast iron pedestal from the lantern in 1989, replacing it with a solar-powered acrylic 190 mm optic mounted on the gallery hand rail. The lens was shipped to storage at the NPS headquarters in Bayfield. In 1992, the Apostle Islands National Park determined that it would be fitting to restore the lens and return it for permanent display in the lantern atop the tower on Devils Island. Greg Byrne, an NPS conservator from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia was contacted, and Greg arrived in Bayfield  that summer to restore the massive  lens. The lens was carefully returned to its crates, and on August 31, was loaded on a National Guard Chinook helicopter and flown back to Devils Island, where NPS employees erected a hoist on the tower gallery and with a tractor on the ground providing the pulling power, carefully lifted the 600-pound components of the pedestal onto the gallery and back into the lantern. With the pedestal reassembled in place, the following day the lens sections were carefully hoisted to the lantern and reassembled on the pedestal.

While the Vega VRB-25 optic mounted on the gallery railing still serves as the light source for the station, the Fresnel lens sits majestically in the lantern designed to hold it, a befitting location for such a wonderful object. Visitors fortunate enough to make landing on the island can climb the tower stairs and enter the lantern to marvel at the jewel-like intricacy of the century-old French lens.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

For five days in July, 2002, we were privileged to serve as NPS volunteers, assisting Park Historian Bob Mackreth in documenting the condition of all the Apostle Islands Lights. The weather was calm on our visit to Devils Island, and the Government boat was thus able to tie-up directly to the rocks near the station. After a short walk up the overgrown trail to the top of the cliffs, the view of the expansive cleared station and the two impressive dwellings was stunning. We photographed the buildings in awe as we considered the daunting task it must have been to unload, land and transport the building materials needed for the station's construction. Wisconsin's famous biting flies were omnipresent on the day of our visit, finding our white socks particularly attractive, and able to bight right through them. After climbing the tower, we were impressed by myriad slivers of rainbow light on the tower floor as the sun, refracted through the Third Order lens. Departing the island, the boat slowly motored around the northern point of the island, and we could readily see see how deeply the sea caves penetrate the island's shore, and the wafer thin upper layer of soil in which the island's greenery has taken hold.

Finding this Light

 While all of the Apostle Island Lights are open for visitation, a private boat is needed to make landfall at Devil's Island for all but two weeks of the year. While Apostle Island Cruise Service offers daily trips around the islands, passing close to the island for photography, it is only during the two weeks of the annual Keeper of The Light festival in September that they offer landings on Devils Island.
Contact information

P.O. Box 691 - City Dock
Bayfield, WI 54814
Telephone: (800) 323-7619

For information on the Keeper Of The Light Celebration, contact:
PO Box 990 19 Front St. 
Bayfield, WI 54814
Telephone: (800) 779-4487

Historical references

Annual reports of the lighthouse Board, various, 1853 - 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various, 1910 - 1953
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1861 - 1977
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, various, 1906 - 1940
Wisconsin Maritime History Association, website
Recent photograph courtesy of Dan Tomhave, and Ken & Barb Wardius.
Historic photographs courtesy of the USCG and NPS historians offices.
Email correspondence with Bob Mackreth NPS, various, January & February 2002
Wisconsin Handbook, Thomas Huhti, Moon Travel Handbooks, 1997
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 12/12/2003

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