Michigan Island Old Light Seeing The Light

Michigan Island, off Bayfield, Wisconsin Home Back

Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged image
Click thumbnails to view enlarged versions

Historical Information

The story of the first Light station on Michigan Island in 1857 is one of the Apostles great mysteries. While there are many details surrounding the origin of the station yet to be discovered, all indications are that the establishment of this beautiful old structure was rooted in ether bureaucratic bungling or outright deceit.

Commerce on Lake Superior at the middle of the nineteenth century was very different than it is today, and while the discovery of iron ore in the Missabe Range would soon cause the twin ports of Duluth & Superior to assume the role of Superior's preeminent ports, in 1850 the bustling fur trading center at La Pointe on Madeline Island served as the lake's hub of maritime commerce. Although the harbor at LaPointe was protected from deadly Superior Nor'westers by its situation in the lee of the Apostle Islands, and from Northeasterly blows by the body if Madeline Island itself, entry into the harbor was no simple task from any direction.

Captains making for La Pointe from the east were forced to thread the needle through the narrow South Channel between Long Island and the southerly tip of Madeline Island, before swinging northwest into more open water, and thence to the harbor at LaPointe. Vessels wishing to avoid the South Channel by swinging around the northerly end of Madeline Island were forced instead to negotiate between the Madeline coast and Michigan, Stockton, and Basswood Islands before swinging south to LaPointe. Given the choice, almost all captains chose the route through the South Channel, since it was a considerably shorter distance. Shorter distances meant less time, and even in the mid nineteenth century commercial captains were only too aware of the fact that time was money. While making the passage through the South Channel under sail was difficult under the best of conditions, without the benefit of a light to mark the westerly tip of Long Island, the task was formidable under darkness or in thick weather of any kind.

Click to view enlarged imageTaking up the cause of maritime interests on February 8, 1851, Wisconsin Senator Orasmus Cole presented a memorial before Congress on behalf of the Wisconsin Legislature praying "for an appropriation to build a light-house at La Pointe, on the southern shore of Lake Superior." On March 3, 1853, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the construction of the LaPointe light, and in his annual report for that same year, Eleventh District Inspector Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves reported that plans for the station had been drawn up, a site had been selected, steps were underway to obtain title for the reservation, and directions would be given for getting the work underway. Uncharacteristically, no mention was made of the exact location chosen for the new station.

Click to view enlarged imageMilwaukee builders Sweet, Ranson, and Shinn were awarded the contract for building the LaPointe Light and a number of other stations on Superior in 1854. However, there was evidently some contention with the contract that required settlement before work could begin, since Sitgreaves reported that "Owing to the late day at which the sanction of the board to the contract was obtained, the light-houses on Lake Superior have not yet been commenced." The annual report for the following year indicated only that work on the Light had begun, and the 1856 report stated merely that the work was "in progress." The station was completed late in 1856, and consisted of a small whitewashed stone 1 story keepers dwelling with an attached stone tower standing 64-feet tall, and capped with an octagonal cast-iron lantern. On completion, the contractors were required to submit the structure to the district inspector for his approval, and in the 1857 annual report it was stated that acceptance of the station was refused, due to the fact that it was "not built in conformity to the terms of the contract."

Click to view enlarged imageWhile the specific grounds for its rejection were never clarified, ten years later in the 1867 Lighthouse Board annual report, an "out of the blue" reference speaks of the desire to re-establish a light station on Michigan Island which was "discontinued in 1857." Since no mention of a lighthouse on Michigan Island is made in any annual reports or Light Lists prior to 1857, and Light Lists after 1867 state that the station was built in 1857, it appears likely that Sweet, Ranson and Shinn built the LaPointe Light station on Michigan Island, and the station was never placed into service, or only placed in service for one season. This is also born out by the fact that the contractors subsequently submitted a number of invoices to the District Inspector and President of the Lighthouse Board for additional expenses incurred in erecting the station on Michigan Island, as opposed to the flatter land at Long Island, where they were originally instructed to build. While it is possible that the contractors built the station on Michigan Island in error, it is difficult to believe that they would have subsequently attempted to obtain additional payment for their increased expenses with such fervor had they not built it exactly where they were instructed. Thus, it would appear that they were either erroneously instructed to build on Michigan Island, or someone in the Lighthouse Establishment was attempting to get two stations built for the price of one.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile the specific reasons behind the construction of the Light on Michigan Island remain to be discovered, Lighthouse Board annual reports and Light Lists both indicate that the LaPointe light, consisting of a small wooden keepers dwelling with integrated roof-mounted tower was finally built on the southwestern tip of Long Island in 1858, and the Michigan Island light remained unmanned and abandoned for ten years.

Click to view enlarged imageBy the mid 1860's vessel traffic in and out of LaPointe waned, with the major east-west shipping lanes moving just to the north off the Apostles. Determining that a light at the northeastern end of the islands would serve as a valuable guide to westbound mariners, in 1867 the Lighthouse Board determined that reactivating the old Michigan Island Light would serve as an inexpensive solution. Since the old station had been sitting inactive and unmanned for ten years, it had suffered considerable deterioration as a result of its exposure to the elements and lack of maintenance. Thus the Board recommended that an appropriation of $6,000 be made to refurbish the buildings, install a new lens and reactivate the light. Congress appropriated the requested funds on July 20, 1868, and the Board dispatched a crew to the island to begin refurbishing the station the following year. Roswell H Pendergast was appointed as the station's first keeper, and he arrived to assume his responsibilities on June 10. The district lampist lantern was dispatched to the island to install a Third-and-a-half Order Fresnel lens, which Pendergast exhibited for the first time on the night of September 15, 1869.

Click to view enlarged imageDay to day live at the station remained fairly uneventful for the next thirty years. As a result of receding water levels, the boat house was moved 45 feet nearer to the water in 1884, and leaks in the lantern roof were causing enough of a problem that a tin hood was installed over the lantern to protect it from water dripping from holes in the roof. Fortunately keeper John Pasque managed to escape injury in 1889 when the lantern was struck by lightning, and the lightning bolt carried down the spiral cast iron stairs before scattering across the concrete floor at the base of the tower. The 446-foot wooden walk and stairway leading from the boat landing at the bottom of the cliff to the station above, was rebuilt, and a brick oil storage building was built 75-feet from the dwelling the following year. Evidently, winter ice was causing havoc to the landing cribs since the lighthouse tender Amaranth brought a work crew to the island in 1897 to completely rebuild them, and the returned five years later in 1902 to rebuild them yet again, along with building a new barn for storage.

Click to view enlarged imageBy the turn of the twentieth century, maritime traffic patterns had shifted, with increasingly heavy traffic moving between the Soo locks and the ore docks at Duluth/Superior and Ashland. As such, the Michigan Island light station became increasingly important as both a marker for vessels coasting to the north of the Apostles and as a turning point south into the docks at Ashland. To better serve this traffic the Lighthouse Board began to formulate a plan to replace the old Light with a new and improved structure and a first-class fog signal. While the New Michigan Island Light would not be built until 1929, the die was cast, and it was just a matter of time before the old station was rendered obsolete.

Keepers of this Light

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. Visiting Michigan Island on the second day of the trip, rough water made safe mooring alongside the dock impossible. Thus, the pilot eased the bow up to the end of the dock, and we jumped off onto the dock. Michigan Island is a magical place. The volunteer keepers assigned to the station had been doing an excellent job of keeping the grass and bushes trimmed. It was a real joy to tour such an old structure. While little restoration has been done to the old light, the structure is in amazingly good condition, and it was a joy to be able to experience one of the older lights in its original conformation.

Finding this Light

While all of the Apostle Island Lights are open for visitation, a private boat is needed to make landfall at Michigan 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 Michigan Island.

Contact information

Apostle Island Cruise Services may be contacted at the following address:

P.O. Box 691 - City Dock
Bayfield, WI 54814
Telephone: (800) 323-7619
Email: info@apostleisland.com 

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 Bureau, various, 1910 - 1953
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1861 - 1901
Historic photographs courtesy of the USCG and NPS Apostles historian's offices.
Email correspondence with Bob Mackreth NPS, various, January & February 2002
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 12/02/2007

Home Back