Gull Island Light Seeing The Light

Off Michigan Island, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

Gull Island is a small sliver of rocky land, barely breaking the surface of Lake Superior a scant mile off the Northeast point of Michigan Island. As the only exposed portion of a shallow rocky ledge extending almost three and a half miles in a northeasterly direction from Michigan Island, the ledge represented a hazard for any vessel with a draft greater than that of a canoe moving through the area.

Considering various alternatives to warn mariners of the danger that the ledge represented, in 1906 the Lighthouse Board recommended that Congress appropriate the sum of $85,000 for the construction of a light and fog signal to mark the tiny island. Unfamiliar with the practicalities of the situation, Congress referred the matter to the Department of Commerce for additional investigation. In its response, of February 1, 1907, the Department of Commerce reported favorably on the proposal, noting in part that "Several vessels have run aground in this vicinity during storms. If there had been a light and fog-signal there, the wrecks might have been prevented."

Wary of such a large appropriation, on May 14, 1908 Congress instead allocated $2,000 to fund a complete survey of the area, and Eleventh Lighthouse District Engineer Major Charles Keller dispatched a survey crew, which completed its' work that September. Upon evaluation of the crew's findings, Keller modified his plan, recommending in his annual report for 1909 that the easterly end of Michigan Island would in fact represent a preferable site for an improved light and fog signal, and requested that the amount of the appropriation be increased to $100,000 to cover the associated costs.

On June 17, 1910, Congress passed an act approving the construction of the new station on Michigan Island. However with the unsettled atmosphere surrounding that year's abolishment of the Lighthouse Board and the transfer of responsibility for the nation's aids to the newly formed Bureau of Lighthouses under George R Putnam, no expenditure was approved. However, Putnam evidently concurred with the need for the new station, and reiterated the plea for the appropriation in his annual reports for each of the following eight years.

In 1918, plans were underway for the installation of a pole light at Schooner Ledge Rear Range Light on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. With the erection of the new automated light, the old 112-foot cast iron skeletal tower would no longer serve any purpose. Determining that the cast iron tower was in excellent condition, the Bureau of Lighthouses proposed that the old tower be disassembled and shipped to the Eleventh District for re-erection on Michigan island, thereby eliminating a large portion of the cost associated with building the new coast light there. The Michigan Island plan was thus modified to include a radio beacon instead of the more expensive diaphone fog signal and the construction of an unmanned acetylene light on Gull Island, thus reducing the total estimated costs for construction to $85,000.

Congress finally came through with the appropriation in 1928, and work began that same year on both Michigan and Gull Islands. Of the total appropriation, $9,495 was allocated to the construction of the unmanned light on Gull Island.

Click to view enlarged imageConsisting of an open 50-foot tall skeletal iron structure, the metal work was painted black to increase its effectiveness as a daymark. A 375 mm acetylene powered light was installed atop the structure, emitting 390 candlepower and sitting 55-feet above the lake's surface, the light was visible for a distance of 13 miles in clear weather conditions. Equipped with an automatic sun valve, the light was to operate untended. Designed to automatically shot off the flow of gas with the warmth of day and reopen the flow at dusk, the sun valves proved cantankerous, requiring frequent re-lighting and adjustment. As a result, maintenance of the light was added to the list of responsibilities for the Michigan Island Light keepers, who were required to observe and record the visibility of the light on a daily basis and to either make necessary repairs themselves or notify the appropriate personnel in Duluth of any problems encountered that were beyond their own ability to solve.

The light continued to operate under acetylene power until some time in the 1950's, when it was electrified. Today, a 250 mm 12 volt DC solar-powered optic flashes the same 10-second characteristic seven miles across Superior, warning the many pleasure boaters who now throng the area every summer of the danger lurking just beneath the water surface.

Keepers of this Light

This light was maintained by the keepers of the Michigan Island Light Station. Click here to see a complete listing of all Michigan 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. Returning to harbor after visiting Outer Island on our first day in the National Park, we swung south toward Gull Island. As we approached the island from the west, it quickly became evident that the island is aptly named, as hundreds of gulls and cormorants took to the air, circling overhead and screaming for us to leave their resting site.

With a slight breeze from the east, we quickly became aware of the strong odor emanating from the island, and quickly shot a few photographs before turning to head for the cleaner air of open water, leaving the island "for the birds."

Finding this Light

Although Apostle Island Cruise Service offer cruises by the main Apostle Island light, they do not currently offer any cruises which pass new Gull Island. Thus, a private boat is the only way this island can be seen.

Reference Sources

Congressional Record, 1907
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1907 through 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Establishment, 1910 through 1929
Annual report of the Lake Carriers Association, 1929
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1939 through 1997.
Great Lakes Pilots, 1958 and 2000.
Keeper listings for Michigan Island Light appears courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 12/02/2007

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