Skillagallee Island  Light Station Seeing The Light

Ile Aux Gallets Island, Lake Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Skillagalee Island is located some 7.7 miles Southwest of Waugoshance Island on the East side of the approach to the Gray's Reef Passage. The tiny island represents but a small exposed portion of a large gravel shoal that extends 1.8 miles to its East and a half a mile to the Northwest.

Being very low in elevation, the island is barely visible except from close by, and to exacerbate the problem, the size of its exposed surface fluctuates dramatically with the level of the surrounding water. The island was considered a navigational hazard during the earliest days when the French Voyageurs took the time to name the place "Ile aux Galets," which translates as "Island of Pebbles."

A is so often the case, the English speaking mariners and settlers found the French name difficult to pronounce, and "Ile aux Galets" soon unofficially mutated into "Skillagalee." The anglicized version took hold, and by the mid 1800's references to the original French name all but disappeared.

While Skillagalee laid claim to many wrecks over the years, the grounding of the A.D. PATCHIN was seminal in the call for the construction of an aid to navigation on the island. The PATCHIN was a 226 foot wood-hulled sidewheel steamer built in Trenton Michigan in 1846. Laden with general merchandise, she was making her way into Grays Reef Passage on September 27, 1850, when the currents pulled her out of line and onto shore at Skillagalee. While her crew managed to escape to safety and the initial damage to her hull was minimal, the weather turned evil and thwarted a number of attempts to pull her free. By late November she had been pounded to pieces, becoming yet another of Lake Michigan's many victims.

To answer the need for a navigational aid to warn mariners of the shoal's existence, Congress appropriated the necessary funds to construct a light on Skillagalee Island in 1851. As a result of the exposed location and fluctuating water tables, the tower was in constant need of repair, a cycle that would be repeated throughout the station's history. By 1868, the tower's condition had deteriorated to the point that it required a complete rebuild. Also with this rebuild, the Lighthouse Board upgraded the station's illuminating apparatus from the old Lewis lamp array specified by the Fifth Auditor's administration to a superior Third Order Fresnel lens. The station's complement of structures was completed with the construction of story-and-a-half keepers dwelling and a fog signal building. The fog signal plant consisted of a steam-powered steam siren.

Click to view enlarged imageOver the ensuing twenty years, climactic, geologic and wave conditions continued to wreak their havoc on the 1868 tower until like it's predecessor, it too required replacement. Congress appropriated the sum of $6,873 for the task in the spring of 1888, and work began on the island soon thereafter. After demolishing of the old tower, work continued through the summer. The new tower was a tapered octagonal masonry structure virtually identical to the tower constructed at Port Sanilac two years previous. Fifty-eight feet from the base to the parapet, the tower was fourteen feet in diameter at its base, tapering to a nine-foot diameter at the top. The new tower was attached to the existing masonry keepers' dwelling by a covered walkway, designed to provide the keepers with some degree of protection during stormy weather. A new cast iron lantern room capped the tower, and was outfitted with a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel, which had been manufactured by Barbier and Fenestre of Paris in 1886, and was visible for a distance of fifteen miles.

In 1890, the decision was made to upgrade the station's existing steam siren to 10-inch steam whistles. On October 4th of that year, the Lighthouse steam barge RUBY delivered a work party and the necessary equipment for the upgrade. With the upgrade completed on November 14, the RUBY returned to Skillagalee to pick up the work party, and to transfer the old sirens to Beaver Island for installation at that station. Life was busy for the keepers at Skillagalee that following year, since in addition to tending the light and maintaining the equipment, they operated the station's new steam whistles for a total of 268 hours, and stoked 26 tons of coal into their boilers.

As witness to the ever fluctuating cycle of Great Lakes water levels which plagued Skillagalee over the years, the landing crib, boathouse and boatways were all moved fifteen feet seaward during the 1894 navigation season.

In 1969, a Coast Guard crew demolished the keepers dwelling, fog signal building, oil storage shed and boathouse, leaving the tower standing alone in the middle of the island. The Fourth Order Fresnel lens was removed from the lantern, and replaced with a 300mm acrylic plastic lens, powered by 12-volt DC batteries, receiving their charge from a photovoltaic panel mounted on the gallery handrail.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We have yet to visit this light. A big thank you to Bernie Hellstrom for giving us permission to use his photographs of the light station.

Finding this Light

Ile Aux Gallets is a very small island surrounded by shallow shoals,
and we thus discourage attempting visits to the island.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 

USCG Historians office, Photographic archives.
Scott's New Coast Pilot, 1909
Lighthouse Board Annual Reports, various years from 1890 to 1900.
Northern Lights, 1995, Charles K. Hyde,
Coast Pilot 6, 2000, NOAA
Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks, 1972, Bruce D. Berman
No personal observation as of this update.
Photographs courtesy of Bernard Hellstrom
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

Click to view South Manitou Island weather conditions

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This page last modified 12/01/2007