Menagerie Island Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Off Isle Royale, Lake Superior, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Isle Royale lies out in Lake Superior some sixty miles to the north of the Keweenaw peninsula, and a scant 14 miles south of the Canadian north shore. It would be natural to assume that an island located so close to the Canadian shore would be Canadian territory. However, during border negotiations between the British and the nascent United States at the Treaty of Paris in 1783, misunderstandings resulting from a lack of accurate maps of the area caused the island to be included as part of United States territory. While a number of Scandinavian fishermen would set up operations on the island in the early 1800's, and John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company would establish a trading post here in 1837, it would not be until the late 1840's that the United States government would realize the windfall that resulted from the 1783 cartographic misunderstanding.

With the discovery of copper on the island in 1843, two separate mining camps were established, one in Siskiwit Bay on the southeastern end of the island and the other at Rock Harbor to the north. To serve vessels seeking to load copper at the latter, the Rock Harbor Light was established at the entrance to the harbor in 1855. Unfortunately, simultaneous to the establishment of the light, the copper boom on the island ended, and the Light was extinguished and the station discontinued and abandoned in 1859

With the outbreak of the Civil War, and a resulting increase in metals consumption, miners once again set their sights on Isle Royale, and new and more efficient mines were established at Siskiwit Bay on the southeast shore and McCargo Cove on the northwest. Thriving communities grew up around these mines to support the mining and shipment of copper, and with a resurgence in maritime traffic making for the island to transport copper south through the Sault Locks, the old Rock Harbor Light was reactivated in August, 1874.

Click to view enlarged imageRealizing that Rock Harbor Light served only traffic passing close to the harbor for which it was named, the Lighthouse Board recommended that $20,000 be appropriated to construct an additional lighthouse in the area in its 1872 annual report. While Congress responded with the appropriation on March 3, 1873, the Board was undecided as to the best location for the new station in order to provide the greatest benefit. After considering a number of alternatives, the decision was finally made in 1874 to locate the new station on Menagerie Island, the most easterly of the group of small islands at the opening of Siskiwit Bay. However, with winter beginning to seize Superior in its icy grip, work on the island was not scheduled to commence until the opening of the 1875 navigation season. Eleventh District Engineer Major Godfrey Weitzel's plans for the station called for both the tower and dwelling to be built of stone, and thus an order was placed with the Jacobsville sandstone quarry, approximately 80 miles south of Menagerie on the Keweenaw Peninsula, to reduce the cost of transporting such heavy materials all the way from the Detroit depot.

The Lighthouse tender DAHLIA anchored off Menagerie Island in the spring of 1875 and unloaded a working party and all of the materials for construction with the exception of the stone. While the working party busied itself building temporary living quarters, a dock, and in blasting foundations for the tower and dwelling, DAHLIA set sail for Jacobsville to load the stone quarried over the winter. After returning to Menagerie Island and unloading the stone, the tender departed, leaving the working party to continue construction.

Click to view enlarged imageOver that summer the four buildings which comprise the station took shape. The 61' tall sandstone tower was constructed with double walls to provide stability, provide an air space within the wall to reduce interior moisture, and to provide a cylindrical inner support for the cast iron spiral staircase. Standing 16' in diameter at the base, the tower's exterior walls tapered gently to diameter of 10' beneath the gallery. Supported by twin corbels on each of its eight sides, the cast iron gallery assembled atop the tower and outfitted with a tubular iron safety railing. At the gallery's center, the prefabricated cast iron octagonal lantern was erected, and the fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens placed atop a cast iron pedestal. By virtue of the tower's location on a high point on the island, the lens was situated at a focal plane of 74 feet and was visible for a distance of 15 miles. On completion, the tower was whitewashed and the lantern and gallery painted black to help the structure to serve as a more effective daymark. The 1 -story dwelling was constructed of unpainted sandstone and featured a gabled roof with partial hips at each gable end. The dwelling was connected to the tower by way of an 8 foot long covered passageway to provide protection for the keepers making their frequent trips to the tower in inclement weather. With completion of a wooden storage shed and a brick privy, work on the island was completed on September 20, 1875. William Stevens was appointed as Acting Keeper for the station, and with his wife appointed as Acting First Assistant, the couple arrived on the island and moved their worldly belongings into the new dwelling in time to exhibit the new light for the first time on the evening of October 19, 1875.

The difficult conditions on the island can be clearly felt from William's entry in the station log book on Oct. 26 1875, when he wrote "Damp and cloudy. The East northeast gale increased almost to hurricane. At 6 AM the sea went clear over tower, rocks and broke the window sashes on south side of the house. Washed away everything loose, lumber, wood, rocks off the island." The Williams' both received permanent appointments on November 18, 1876, however their time on the island was not to be long-lived, as William accepted a transfer to the less exposed and confining Portage Lake Ship Canal Light on August 9, 1878.

Click to view enlarged imageJohn H Malone was appointed to replace Williams, and unlike his predecessor, chose not to have his wife serve in any official capacity at the station, instead arranging for his brother James to take the Assistant position. While life on Menagerie Island was far from luxurious, it must have suited John and his wife well, as they would end up staying on the island a remarkable thirty-two years, raising twelve children in the shadow of the Menagerie Island Light. Although a number of sources have reported that Menagerie Island received its name for Malone's "menagerie" of children, this appears to be pure fancy. Official government documents reporting on the site chosen for the station in 1872 made specific reference to "Menagerie Island." and since the Malones did not arrive on the island until August 1878, the name was evidently in common use at least six years in advance of their arrival, and long before their family would have reached a number that could have been considered a "menagerie." However, the size of their family is a matter of record, and one can only imagine the trials faced by John and his wife in raising and educating twelve children on such a small, barren island. When considering the storms that ravaged the island, the fact that none of the children ended up drowning in Superior's frigid waters is in itself amazing. In one such storm on October 1, 1884, Malone's log entry recorded that waves smashed over the island with such ferocity that the boathouse and ways were completely ripped from their foundations and carried away.

In a violent storm on November 7, 1885, the two year old Canadian Pacific luxury passenger propeller ALGOMA lost control in the lake, and was blown aground on Greenstone Island off Rock Harbor. Malone made note of the disaster in his log after learning of the accident on the 9th, a few days before closing the station for the season. On his return to reopen the station on May 12, 1886, reminders of the wreck were evidently still visible in the area, as he noted in the station log that "Indian boats pass with loads of furniture from ALGOMA - chairs, lounges, bedsprings and feather pillows." and seven days later, he recorded that "lifejackets, pillos (sic), parts of a piano" were washing up along Menageries rocky shore. 1886 was also the year in which John's brother George accepted a promotion as Acting Keeper at the Minnesota Point Light on October 2, 1886, and was replaced by George Genry on the opening of the 1887 navigation season.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Malones had to be resourceful to supplement the supplies left by the lighthouse tender during the District Inspector's infrequent visits to the station. They planted a small garden in the sparse soil on the Menagerie, and managed to successfully grew lettuce and radishes. They also maintained a potato patch on nearby Wright Island, where the soil cover was considerably deeper. Frequent mention was also made in the log books of fishing, trapping, hunting rabbits and ducks, and the collecting of seagull eggs. While seagull eggs might not sound appealing to our tastes of today, they apparently constituted a considerable part of the family's diet. They also appear to have represented some "trading value" with the outside world, as Malone's log entry for June 1, 1887 stated that he had "collected 1,478 gull eggs to date - 32 eggs blowed out for supply vessel crew." What he might have traded for the eggs is an interesting matter for speculation, and will likely never come to light.

Click to view enlarged imageAs was the case with the keepers assigned to most of Superior's offshore lights, the Malones only lived on the island during the navigation season, spending their winters in Duluth. Under normal circumstances, one of the lighthouse tenders was expected to take them out to the island in early May with the disappearance of most of the lake ice, and then return to retrieve them in mid November before the ice grew too thick to allow the vessels to penetrate However, life on Menagerie was far from normal, and in those frequent situations in which the tenders were unavailable, Malone was left to his own devices to make his way to and from the island. In his first entry in the station log for 1889, Malone documented the harrowing and circuitous journey he took to get out to his station that year as follows:

"April 30, 1889. Arrived at this station today, had quite a hard trip. Left Duluth April 22nd per Steamer Ossigridge. Layed-over Two Harbors due to nor'easter. Left Two Harbors on 23rd for Grand Marais. Stayed till 25th. Snowed 4 inches. Left Grand Marais 25th, arrived at Washington Harbor 8:20 AM on 26th. Left Washington Harbor 11:30 per Brower tug, and arrived at Tobin's Harbor at 6:20 PM. Left Tobin's Harbor 10:20 AM the 27th, and arrived at Wright's Island abreast of lighthouse. Stayed until 2:10 PM April 30th. 6 inches snow fell. Arrived at crib at 3:20 in tail end of gale. Water had dropped 14 inches. We got our provisions and selves all wet. Had to buy a boat at Tobin's Harbor as water too low to launch lighthouse boat. We found station dry and in good shape. Lighted the lamp."

Not surprisingly, after being born and raised on the island, lighthouse keeping was in the blood of the Malone family. When First Assistant Alexander McLean was promoted to the position of Keeper of the Eagle Harbor Ranges on January 15, 1900, one of Malone's sons John A Malone took over as the station's First Assistant under the watchful tutelage of his father.

Click to view enlarged imagePrior to the 1890's, lamp oil had been stored in storage rooms within the dwellings at almost all US light stations. As a result of a number of fires from the increasingly volatile kerosene being used, a system-wide project of erecting separate oil storage buildings some distant from the dwellings was undertaken in the early 1890's. Perhaps indicating the low position in which the Menagerie Island Light was held in the greater scheme of things by the Eleventh District office, the island was one of the last stations in the district to be outfitted with such an oil storage shed in 1906, when a work crew arrived with materials to construct a concrete 500 gallon capacity storage building.

Perhaps growing weary of life on the small island, John H Malone accepted a transfer to Pipe Island after an incredible 32 years as keeper of the Menagerie Island Lighthouse. However, the Malone name was not to disappear from the payroll records of the station, as First Assistant Keeper John A Malone was promoted to the position of Keeper on his fathers departure for Pipe Island on October 12, 1910

By the end of the first decade of the new century, the copper mines on Isle Royale had all ceased operations and maritime traffic in the area dwindled to virtually nothing, and in order to reduce costs, the gears were turning at the Detroit office to automate the Menagerie Island Light. In 1913, a work crew arrived at the station and installed an acetylene lighting system equipped with an automatic sun valve. With an iron vault containing three acetylene cylinders located on an exterior wall of the dwelling, sufficient acetylene was available to keep the light burning for the entire season without refilling. With automation, the constant attention of keepers at the station was no longer deemed a necessity, and John A Malone resigned from lighthouse service and left the island, thus ending a remarkable 38 year association of the Malone name with the Menagerie Island Light.

October 29, 1915 saw a change in the characteristic of the acetylene light to show a white half-second flash every 5 seconds. Other than annual trips to refill the acetylene tanks and to troubleshoot problems with the light reported by mariners, things on the island stayed unchanged until 1941, when the acetylene system was replaced by a battery powered lighting system. This battery system was finally removed in 1993, and replaced with a 12 volt solar powered 300 mm Tidelands Signal acrylic optic with automatic bulb changer, which can still be seen casting its light ten miles into the darkness to this day.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

The Voyageur II, a 60' aluminum diesel cruiser transports mail and passengers to Isle Royale. The vessel leaves Grand Portage, Minnesota and travels clockwise around the park, staying overnight at Rock Harbor. Along the way, it passes close to Menagerie Island, and photographs of the lighthouse should be possible with a telephoto lens of around 500 mm focal length (10x digital.)

For close-up views of the lighthouse, a private boat or a charter boat out of Grand Portage would likely provide the best opportunities.

Keweenaw Excursions also offers a lighthouse cruise which passes Menagerie Island on board the KEWEENAW STAR out of Houghton, Michigan. For more information on any of their tours visit their website, or telephone Keweenaw Excursions at (906) 482-0884.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1878 - 1909
Annual report of the Lake Carrier's Association, 1915
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1901 - 1997
Log books of the Menagerie Island Light, transcribed by Don Nelson.
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde
Email correspondence with Don Nelson, various, 2002
Photographs of the station courtesy of Don Nelson & Wayne Sapulski.
Isle Royale National Park, foot trails & water routes, Kim DuFresne, 1984
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

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This page last modified 12/02/2007