Michigan Island New Light Seeing The Light

Michigan Island, off Bayfield, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

By the turn of the twentieth century, iron ore was king on Lake Superior, and increasingly heavy maritime traffic was moving between the Soo locks and the ore docks at Duluth/Superior and Ashland. As such, Michigan Island became increasingly important as both a marker for vessels coasting to the north of the Apostles and as a marker for the turning point south into the docks at Ashland.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1906 the Lighthouse Board recommended that Congress appropriate the sum of $85,000 for the construction of a light and fog signal to mark Gull Island, to the north of Michigan Island. Unfamiliar with the practicalities of the situation, Congress referred the matter to the Department of Commerce for additional investigation. In its response, of February 1, 1907, the Department of Commerce reported favorably on the proposal, noting in part that "Several vessels have run aground in this vicinity during storms. If there had been a light and fog-signal there, the wrecks might have been prevented."

Click to view enlarged imageWary of such a large appropriation, on May 14, 1908 Congress instead allocated $2,000 to fund a complete survey of the area, and Eleventh Lighthouse District Engineer Major Charles Keller dispatched a survey crew, which completed its' work that September. Upon evaluation of the crew's findings, Keller modified his plan, recommending in his annual report for 1909 that the easterly end of Michigan Island would in fact represent a preferable site for an improved light and fog signal, and requested that the amount of the appropriation be increased to $100,000 to cover the associated costs.

Click to view enlarged imageOn June 17, 1910, Congress passed an act approving the construction of the new station on Michigan Island. However with the unsettled atmosphere surrounding that year's abolishment of the Lighthouse Board and the transfer of responsibility for the nation's aids to the newly formed Bureau of Lighthouses under George R Putnam, no expenditure was approved. However, Putnam evidently concurred with the need for the new station, and reiterated the plea for the appropriation in his annual reports for each of the following eight years.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1918, plans were underway for the installation of a pole light at Schooner Ledge Rear Range Light on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. With the erection of the new automated light, the old 112-foot cast iron skeletal tower would no longer serve any purpose. Determining that the cast iron tower was in excellent condition, the Bureau of Lighthouses proposed that the old tower be disassembled and shipped to the Eleventh District for re-erection on Michigan island, thereby eliminating a large portion of the cost associated with building the new coast light there. The Michigan Island plan was thus modified to include a radio beacon instead of the more expensive diaphone fog signal and the construction of an unmanned acetylene light on Gull Island, thus reducing the total estimated costs for construction to $85,000.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress finally came through with the appropriation in 1928, and work began that same year on both Michigan and Gull Islands. 

The old cast iron tower from Schooner Ledge, which had been shipped to the Eleventh District and stored since 1919, was shipped to Michigan Island along with the work crew required to bring the station to completion. Work began with the pouring of a concrete foundation for the tower, and the construction of a brick building to house the diesel engines and generators, which would power the light, radiobeacon and station quarters. The cast iron tower was erected on the prepared foundation, and the Third-and-a-half Order Fresnel was disassembled, removed from the old tower, and carefully relocated to its new home in the lantern atop the new tower. Equipped with a  24,000 candlepower electric light, the combination of the significantly increased intensity and the 170-foot focal plane afforded by the tower's location atop the cliff. Increased the light's range of visibility to a remarkable 22 miles.

Click to view enlarged imageElectrification was a double-edged sword. Positive for the keepers in that the electric light required little maintenance, but negative in that many assistant keepers were released from service, their efforts no longer needed. Such was the situation in 1939, when Michigan Island, Big Bay Point and Crisp Point Lights all became a one-man stations, and keeper Robert Westveld was left alone to tend the station. 

Click to view enlarged imageA mere five years later in 1943, Westveld himself left the station when the light was fully automated, it's infrequent maintenance to be performed by a Coast Guard crew based on Devils Island. In order to help preserve the historic object, the Third-and-a-half Order lens was removed from the Michigan Island lantern in 1972, and replaced with a DCB-224 aerobeacon, which was subsequently replaced by the present 300 mm acrylic optic. 

After restoration and cleaning, the old Fresnel lens was placed on display in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore visitor center in Bayfield, where it is proudly displayed to this day, a reminder of the days when brave and hard-working men toiled untold hours keeping the lens in optimal operating condition in order to guide mariners on their journey.

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 this tower with such a rich history. NPS has restored the interior of this tower, and it is in excellent condition.

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 Service, various, 1910 - 1953
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1861 - 1977
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, various, 1906 - 1940
Recent photograph courtesy of Ken & Barb Wardius.
Historic photographs courtesy of the USCG and NPS historians 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 12/01/2007

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