Squaw Island Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Beaver Island Archipelago, Lake Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Squaw Island, is the northernmost island in the Beaver Island archipelago, sitting approximately three miles West-Northwest of Garden Island. Marking the western edge of the busy Grays Reef Passage, the island is surrounded by shoals with as little water depth as six feet extending almost a mile to the south and two miles to the north.

Click to view enlarged imageTo warn mariners making the passage, Congress appropriated the sum of $25,000 to establish a light station on the island on March 3, 1891. The Lighthouse Board began negotiations for the purchase of land on the island immediately, and on June 23rd issued contracts for the construction of the fog signal equipment specified in the station plans.

While the necessary equipment arrived at the Detroit Depot on September 1st, construction on the island did not start until the following spring, when the lighthouse engineer's tender Amaranth anchored offshore, and off-loaded a work crew who shuttled the tons of material to the shore. With the materials unloaded, the Amaranth steamed off to work on other projects.

Click to view enlarged imageThe station's plans called for the construction of a brick main building with an integrated octagonal tower, capped with a prefabricated cast iron lantern. As work progressed through the summer, the station complex took shape with the addition of a fog signal building, oil storage house, two-seater outhouse, wood-framed barn and well head building. The fog signal building was equipped with a duplicate set of steam-powered 10-inch steam whistles to be used during thick weather. The installation of duplicate systems ensured that one of the two units would always be available to scream its warning across the lake to mariners making their way through the passage.

Click to view enlarged imageFinally, cribs were constructed on the east side of the island to support a landing dock for the use of the keepers and the delivery of supplies. A wood-railed track was laid connecting the dock with the main building and the fog signal, and a small rail car was installed on the track for use in the movement of oil, coal and other supplies from the dock to the appropriate buildings in which they were used.

Click to view enlarged imageAmaranth returned to the island later that summer to deliver the district lampist, whose task it was to install and adjust the new Fourth Order Fresnel lens, which had been custom-manufactured for the station in Paris. The red lens rotated around the lamp, and equipped with bullseye panels was designed to make the light appear to flash a bright red every fifteen seconds. Thus, adjustment of the lens's clockwork rotational mechanism was critical to ensure a precise speed of rotation.

Work on the island was completed on September 16th, when the Amaranth returned to return the work crew and left over supplies to the lighthouse depot. William H. Shields was appointed as the station's head keeper, and on the evening of October 10th, 1892, Shields climbed the cast iron stairs within the tower and exhibited the light for the first time.

Click to view enlarged imageOver the next two years, it became plain that the dwelling was too small for both the head keeper and assistant keeper and their families. In 1894 the answer came in the form of the tender Amaranth, which again delivered a work crew and materials to the island to convert the original barn into a separate dwelling. On completion, Shields moved into the converted barn, and his assistant lived on the second floor of the main building, with the first floor being used as a common area for cooking and washing purposes.

Click to view enlarged imageOn December 14, at the close of the 1900 navigation season, Shields, his wife, assistant keeper Owen C. McCauley, 2nd assistant Lucien F. Morden and Shield's niece Lucy Davis loaded their belongings in the station's 25-foot sailboat and set sail to winter on Beaver Island. An unexpected storm rolled-in, and capsized their sailboat, tossing all five into the icy water. Morden and both women quickly perished, however Shields and McCauley somehow managed to survive the night, to be rescued the following day by the steamer MANHATTAN. As a result of the disaster, Shields lost a leg, and after recovery was transferred to "lighter" duty at the lighthouse depot in Charlevoix.

McCauley faired somewhat better, and was promoted to the position of head keeper at Squaw Island at the opening of the 1901 navigation season. 

Click to view enlarged imageWith construction of the Lansing Shoal light station offshore in 1928, the Squaw Island light was deemed obsolete, and the station was abandoned. With the closing of Squaw Island, McCauley was transferred to St. Joseph Light, where he served as head keeper until his retirement in April 1935. McCauley passed away in St. Joseph in 1958.

Abandoned, the buildings quickly began to deteriorate. Vandals arrived on the island to unleash their destructive stupidity and with the windows and doors broken out birds and bats roosted and nested throughout the building. Squaw Island passed into private ownership, and on behalf of the current owners, Bernie Hellstrom has spent a great deal of the past ten  years stabilizing and restoring the station's buildings to prevent their loss to posterity.

Keepers of this light

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

Finding this Light

Squaw Island is privately owned in its entirety, and landing on the island would therefore be considered trespassing. Thus visitors are strongly  encouraged to respect the rights of the owners, and are discouraged from attempting to visit the island.

Reference Sources

Email from Thomas A. Tag on McCauley & the station's lens.
Lighthouse Board Annual Reports, 1891, 1893, 1894 & 1900
Various emails on station history from Bernie Hellstrom.
Coast Pilot 6, 2000, NOAA
Northern Lights,
Charles K. Hyde, 1995
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/07/2003

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