Granite Island Light Seeing The Light

Off Marquette, Michigan Home Back

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Historical information

Local Indians had no reason or desire to go to Na-Be-Quon Island. The small 2-acre island was barren save for a few strawberries, currants and raspberries growing from cracks between the rocks. When first explored by white people in the 1830's, the granite outcropping that would appropriately become known as Granite Island, was still a forbidding place. Even in such a small surface area, the island rose to a height of 60 feet above the lake, and its convoluted and craggy shoreline made landing virtually impossible.

With the discovery of iron ore in the area around 1840, Marquette was fast becoming one of the busiest ports in the Upper Peninsula, and Granite's Island's location approximately twelve-and-a-half miles to the northeast, represented a major threat to vessels making passage to and from the harbor.

On March 2, 1867, Congress appropriated $20,000 for construction of a lighthouse on the island. The lighthouse tender "Haze" delivered a construction crew and building supplies to the island in the spring of 1868, and the crew began construction with the blasting of a flat spot for the structure's foundation at the island's highest point. The structure itself was built of undressed hard granite taken from the Huron Islands, and consisted of a ten foot square, forty foot high tower attached to a 2,408 sq. ft., two-story keepers dwelling. Since no landing dock was planned, davits were installed at the water's edge to allow the keeper's sailboat to be hauled to safety onshore.

Finally, the tower was outfitted with a Fourth Order Fresnel lens at a focal plane of 89 feet, and was exhibited for the first time on October 20 of that same year. While it was initially recommended that the station be outfitted with a foghorn, none was installed at the time of construction.

Click to view enlarged imageFrequently enshrouded by fog, the keepers repeatedly complained of the need for a fog signal. Their complaints falling on deaf ears until the bell from Thunder Bay Island was replaced with a steam whistle, and the old bell was shipped to Granite Island, where it was installed in a newly constructed tower at the rear of the keepers quarters. Powered by an oil-powered steam engine located in the room below, the bell sounded every five minutes, warning mariners of the island's existence.

The annual report of the Lighthouse Board in 1890 listed the station as being equipped with a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens, varied by a red flash every 90 seconds. Therefore, we assume that the lens was retrofitted with a flash panel at some time. A counterweighted clockwork occulting mechanism controlled the rotation of the lens.

In 1905, a concrete block oil house was built on the island, and the following year a boat landing was built on the north side along with a new boathouse, trestle and winch.

Life on this lonely outpost was spartan at the least. While located a relatively short twelve miles from land, the distance may as well have been a thousand miles. Rough seas, combined with extremely difficult landing conditions made every trip to Marquette a life threatening adventure. However, this life must have suited keeper James Wheatley well, since he was the longest serving keeper in the station's history. Serving on the island for 30 years from 1885 to 1915, he retired from service at the age of 83, and personally experienced the fury that the waters around Granite Island could bring.

Wheatley's son, William, drowned in a squall in 1898 on his way to the island in a small sailboat to visit with his father. In the fall of 1903, Wheatley's assistant John McMartin launched the station boat to set out for Marquette, when a wave capsized the boat, tossing McMartin into the water. Wheatley could only stand and watch in horror as the waves pounded McMartin against the rocks of the island, eventually to disappear and drown. (Anna Carlson, the wife of the Marquette keeper, was transferred to Granite Island for ten days to fill-in for the dead assistant until a full time replacement arrived.)

Click to view enlarged imageWhile some island lighthouse keepers were able to plant gardens for both food and to while away the long hours, such activity on Granite Island was impossible. However, local lore has it that one of the keepers managed to coax rhubarb into growing between some of the cracks in the rocks. At one time there was a tree on the island, but it is unknown as to whether it rooted of its own accord, or was planted by one of the keepers.

With the 1939 takeover of the Lighthouse Service by the Coast Guard, and with a decline in vessel traffic running between the island and the mainland, the Granite Island Light was considered a prime candidate for automation.

In the fall of 1939, the fog bell and furnishings were removed, acetylene tanks were installed in a steel-sided shed by the tower, and the light was automated. Today the light is exhibited from a modern lens powered by a solar powered battery system.

Click to view enlarged imageIn the latest chapter in the Granite Island story, in 1999, the Coast Guard decided that a number of the lighthouses in inventory were considered to be "in excess," and announced that they would receive bids on the property through June 15, 1999. Granite Island was among these excess lights, and Scott Holman of Freeland, Michigan submitted the highest bid of $86,000, took title to the island, and is now the station's newest "keeper."

Holman, a longtime explorer of Great Lakes Shipwrecks has plans to restore the station, and maintains a web site dedicated to his new island. Click here to visit Scott's Granite Island web site.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We have yet to visit this light, and thus have nothing to report at this time. Since we do not expect to have access to a seaworthy vessel until 2001, it is unlikely that we will be able to photograph this light until then.

Finding this Light

 Located in the sometimes treacherous open water of Lake Superior, approximately 11 miles north of Marquette, Granite Island Light is virtually inaccessible to all but the most seasoned mariner. There are a number of charter boats services that are happy to take "lighthouse nuts" out into the lake to view Granite Island Light. For example, "Uncle Ducky Charters" offers trips that take six-passenger tours of Stannard's Rock, Granite Island and Marquette harbor for $120.00 per person. Click here to visit the Uncle Ducky website.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1853 - 1909
Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994.
Lighthouse Digest, July 1998 & December 1999.
Granite Island Website, Scott Holman.
Apostle Islands Scrapbook, National Park Service.
No personal observation as of this update.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/07/2003

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