Gull Rock Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Off Keweenaw Point, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Bete Grise Bay is located on the south shore of Keweenaw Point, and had long served as a natural harbor of refuge for vessels seeking to escape the fury of Superior's late season nor'-westers. Entry into the bay was open to up bound vessels, however down bound captains were forced to navigate the hazardous two and a half mile wide passage between the western tip of the point and Manitou Island before making south into the safety of the bay.

While the Manitou Light was one of the first tree Lights to be built on Superior in 1849, its location on the northeast extremity of the island was designed to serve the regular line of navigation, and did little to serve vessels making the emergency passage into Bete Grise. To make matters worse, a number of shoals and rocky outcroppings peppered the passage, the most dangerous of which was Gull Rock, located a half mile off the western shore of Manitou Island. Two hundred and fifty feet in length and one hundred feet in width, the highest point of Gull Rock stood less than twelve feet above the water under the calmest conditions, becoming virtually invisible in the gray darkness of stormy days when vessels were most likely to be threading their way through the passage.

Click to view enlarged imageMichigan Sixth District Representative John Fletcher Driggs presented a petition of Michigan citizens praying for the construction of a lighthouse on Gull Rock before Congress on January 17, 1865. After consideration and approval by the Lighthouse Board and the Department of Commerce, Congress approved an appropriation of $15,000 for the project on July 29 of the following year.

Since Eleventh District construction crews were already scheduled to be in the vicinity during the 1867 season of navigation for the construction of the identical Lights on Huron Island and Granite Island, the district engineer in Detroit determined that the cost of the new light could be significantly reduced if the same structure design and construction crew were employed on the Gull Rock construction project.

Click to view enlarged imageWork on Gull Rock began at the opening of the 1867 navigation season, with planned completion by early fall. However the unfortunate drowning death of construction foreman William Tunbridge while working on the rock, caused a delay in construction until a new foreman could be selected. Construction began with the laying of a stone foundation upon which the 1 story, 2,408 square foot Cream City brick keepers dwelling slowly took shape. The attached brick tower contained a spiral iron staircase, which served both dwelling floors as well as providing access to the lantern. The tower was capped with a prefabricated octagonal cast iron lantern, with its ventilator ball standing 46 feet above the building's foundation. The lantern was equipped with a fixed red Fourth Order Fresnel lens. With a focal plane of 50 feet, it was calculated that the light would be visible for a distance of 13 miles in clear weather. A brick privy, a boat landing and a series of connecting concrete sidewalks completed the sparse station's complement of structures. Thomas Jackson was appointed as Gull Rock's first keeper, and after arriving at the station he exhibited the light for the first time on the night of November 1, 1867.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the primitive living conditions and the limited space afforded by life on the rock, Gull Island was considered one of the most isolated and difficult stations on the Great Lakes. With no fog signal to tend there was little to do beyond the mandatory morning lens, lantern and lamp maintenance. While there was barely sufficient work to keep one man busy, both a keeper and assistant were assigned to the station, likely more to provide companionship than to share the workload. Even so, the turnover rate for assistant keepers was abnormally high. To ease the situation, the district inspectors approved the appointment of a number of keepers wives to the position of assistant over the years. In this manner, Keeper James Corgan's wife Mary served as his assistant for all six years during which Corgan was keeper at The Rock from 1877 through 1883. 

According to the logbook entries of John Nolan who served as Keeper from April 1897 to May 1903, water in the passage usually began to ice over around the first week in December each year, and the Light was extinguished for the winter, and Nolan gingerly made his way to winter quarters in Copper Harbor. As the ice began to break toward the end of April, he returned to take up residence in the station. Although the entire building was cold and damp, and the illuminating apparatus dirty, Nolan reported that he usually managed to have the light illuminated on the same day as his return to the station.

Click to view enlarged imageBy virtue of its exposed location, one would assume that the Gull Rock Light would have required constant maintenance. However, Lighthouse Board annual reports on work performed at the station would indicate otherwise, with few major repairs reported over the entire active life of the station.

After successful installation of fog signal plants at Marquette Harbor, Skillagallee, South Manitou, Outer Island and Huron Island, in 1873 the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation for the construction of such a plant at Gull Rock, however the station was never so equipped. 1883 saw the replacement of the station's concrete walkways, and a 29 foot long boat landing was constructed on the south side of the rock in 1890, along with various minor repairs.

Click to view enlarged imageSuperior has always been famous for its violent November storms, and 1892 was no exception, when on November 7th the Canadian 3-masted schooner barge G M NEELON broke away from the tow of the steamer S L TILLEY and struck the rock in heavy seas. While the vessel was abandoned and considered to be a total loss, she was recovered by the wrecker J H GILLETT a year later, and after repairs was placed back into service.

Click to view enlarged imageThe lighthouse tender AMARANTH delivered the materials and a work crow to construct an oil storage building in 1896, and two years later a work crew arrived to reconstruct the boat landing which had been damaged by ice. In his log for October 12th of 1898 keeper Nolan recorded that "the men could not work at the boat ways today, as the sea was coming up to the boat house door and spray was flying across the rock." That same year, eighteen improved Fourth Order lamps were delivered at the Detroit depot, one of which was installed at Gull Rock.

Click to view enlarged imageAs a result of frequent pounding by the waves, a 40 foot long retaining wall of rubble masonry at the northeast corner of the dwelling in 1901, with a coping of Portland cement added to ensure durability and effectiveness as a barrier to water penetration. The boat landing was once again rebuilt, and a sixty foot stone filled protecting crib constructed to help keep ice away from the landing.

September 16, 1912 saw the second wreck on Gull Rock. In an attempt to escape a real gut-buster of a storm on the big, the 312 foot steel bulk freighter Spokane drove straight onto the rock and broke clean in two. As was the case with the Neelon ten years previous, while the Spokane was declared a total loss, she was subsequently recovered and rebuilt, and continued to ply the lakes for 23 years until she was scrapped in 1935.

Click to view enlarged image1913 was a particularly eventful year at Gull Rock. On June 25th an acetylene illumination system was installed in the fourth order lens. Equipped with a sun valve, the lamp was automatically turned on at dusk and extinguished after dawn. At this time the characteristic of the light was also changed from fixed red to flashing red every 3 seconds and the intensity increased from 130 to 180 candlepower. The installation of a large acetylene tank allowed the light to operate untended for long periods of time. With a resident keeper no longer necessary to tend the light, management of the Gull Rock light was turned over to the keepers of the Manitou Light, and Gull Rock was secured and largely abandoned.

Click to view enlarged imageOn November 8th, the 450 foot steel hulled bulk freighter L C WALDO, fully loaded with iron ore was driven ashore by a huge gale, ending up on Gull Rock. The Copper Harbor lifesavers struggled heroically for four days to successfully rescue all of her crew members. While she too was quickly declared a total loss, she was later removed and rebuilt, and was sold into Canadian ownership. The vessel subsequently moved into international trade, and ended up sinking near Portofino, Italy while being towed to a scrap yard in LaSpezia.

Today, the Gull Rock Light still guides mariners through the passage, its illumination provided by a solar powered 12 volt DC 250 mm acrylic optic. At some time the Fourth Order lens was removed from the lantern and while it is reportedly on display at the Whitefish Point Light Station, recent evidence indicates that the lens displayed lens in the museum came from the old iron skeleton tower which was located on Gull Island to the west of the Beaver archipelago in Lake Michigan.

The lighthouse was excessed through the National Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2002, and in 2004 an individual who owns property in the area partnered with the Michigan Lighthouse Foundation to form Gull Rock Lightkeepers to apply for ownership of the station. The group received ownership of the station in in June 2005, and is undertaking the arduous task of stabilizing and restoring the station to serve as a retreat for writers and artists.  

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Sand Point Charters out of La La Belle offers lighthouse cruises by Mendota, Gull Rock and Manitou Island. For more information visit their website, or telephone Sand Point Charters at (906) 370-2257. 

Contact Information

Gull Rock Lightkeepers


Reference Sources

Congressional Record, 1865
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various 1867 to 1903
Annual reports of the Lake Carriers Association, various 1903 to 1927 Lighthouse Digest, August 1999 & July 2000.
Gull Rock station log for 1883
The Great Lakes Shipwreck database, Dave Swayze.
August 2000 photograph courtesy of Alex Protzel
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 05/26/2010

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