Passage Island Light Station Seeing The Light

North of Isle Royale, Lake Superior, MI. Home Back

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Historical Information

With increased mining of copper, nickel and silver along the north shore of Lake Superior toward the end of the 1860's, the volume of vessel traffic making its way through the area increased dramatically. With many vessels making the deep-water passage between the northern tip of Isle Royale and Passage Island, a scant three and a half miles to the north, the Lighthouse Board determined that a light on the southern tip of Passage Island was necessary to mark the deepest northern edge of the channel. Realizing that the costs associated with construction at such a remote and inaccessible location would be high, the Board requested an appropriation of $18,000 for the construction of the station in its annual report for the 1871 fiscal year. With no Congressional response, the Board repeated the request in each of its annual reports for the following four years.

Click to view enlarged imageFor some time, the Lighthouse Board had been unsuccessfully attempting to convince the Canadian Government to build a navigational aid on Colchester Reef in the Canadian waters of Lake Erie to the east of the entrance to the Detroit River. Realizing that the planned light on Passage Island would be of extreme advantage to Canadian maritime interests in Lake Superior, on March 3, 1875, Congress took the opportunity to apply some additional pressure on their Canadian counterparts by taking the atypical step of authorizing that the $18,000 be made available to the Lighthouse Board only upon the completion of a light at Colchester Reef by the Canadians.

Click to view enlarged imageSince history shows that the Canadian Government did not complete construction of the light on Colchester Reef until 1885, we can only assume that Congress decided to release the funds before the requirements of the contingency were met since the $18,000 was released to the Lighthouse Board in 1880.

The following summer, the Lighthouse tender WARRINGTON delivered a working party and materials at Passage Island, and work began at the site with the clearing of the grounds and the construction of temporary dwellings for the workers.

Click to view enlarged imageThe plans for the Passage Island Station called for a virtual duplicate of the "Norman Gothic" style structure previously used at Chamber's Island, Eagle Bluff, and McGulpin's Point, among others. The 26' x 30' two-story fieldstone keepers dwelling featured an integral fieldstone tower in its southwest corner. With a buttressed base 9' 4" square, the tower transitioned to an octagonal plan above the second floor level. A circular spiral cast iron stairway within the tower featured landings on both the first and second floors, and served double duty as the only stairs between the two floors and for access to the tower. The ten-sided cast iron lantern, fabricated at the Lighthouse Deport in Detroit and shipped to the site in sections, was reassembled atop the tower. Finally, the fixed red Fourth Order Fresnel lens was carefully assembled on its cast iron pedestal within the lantern. With a tower height of forty-four feet, the light's location atop a rocky cliff at the water's edge provided the lens with a seventy-eight foot focal plane.

Finally, with the installation of a 1,500-pound fog bell with a Steven's clockwork striking mechanism, work at Passage Island was complete, and the light was exhibited for the first time on the night of July 1, 1882.

The WARRINGTON delivered a working party and materials to Passage Island in August 1884, tasked with the construction of a steam-operated fog signal at the station. The signal building was a frame structure on a plan being used throughout the lakes at the time. Lined with smooth iron sheeting on the inside and corrugated iron on the exterior, all spaces between the wall studs were packed with sawdust and lime for insulation purposes. Twin boilers and steam engines fed duplicate 10-inch steam whistles, which were located within a cupola atop the structure's roof at the south end. Work on the fog signal was finished on October 25, and the station was officially placed in service. That first season, the 10-inch whistles were operated for a total of 174 hours. While we can assume the Passage Island keepers felt that they earned their pay that year, their efforts in attending the fog-signal that year paled to those that followed in 1895, when they shoveled 35 tons of coal to keep the whistles blaring their warning across the lake for a total of 755 hours.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1898 it was decided that the characteristic of the light needed to be modified to increase its effectiveness, and the district Lampist arrived from Detroit with a new flashing white lens manufactured by Barbier, Benard & Turenne of Paris. Rotated by a clockwork mechanism, the keeper's were required to keep the mechanism oiled, wound and adjusted to ensure that the lens would rotate at exactly the right speed to conform to its' published characteristic ten second flash cycle.

The Passage Island station was automated on December 20, 1978 with the installation of solar-powered electric bulb within the Fourth Order Fresnel lens. However, the Fresnel was completely replaced by a 190 mm acrylic optic in 1989, and the big lens was transported to the Portage Coast Guard Station, where it was placed on display in the station's lobby.

The Passage Island Light station still serves as an active aid to navigation, and is now part of Isle Royale National Park.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We have yet to visit this light, and it is doubtful that we will be able to arrange to do so for some time. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Keith B. Kotimko for sharing the photographs of the light station he took in June 2001. 

Contact information

Isle Royale National Park
800 East Lakeshore Dr.
Houghton, MI 49931-1895
Tel: (906)482-0984

Finding this Light

The MV Sandy makes the trip to Passage Island on Mondays and Fridays, departing from Rock Harbor at 1.30pm on both days. After landing at Passage Island, a Ranger takes visitors along the trail to the light station. The Sandy returns to Rock Harbor at 6.00pm. For additional information, NPS Isle Royal website has additional information on the various trips available throughout the islands.

Reference sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1871 - 1909.
Great Lakes Light Lists - 1924, 1928, 1939 & 1953.
Great Lakes Coast Pilot No. 6, 2000.
Congressional Journals May 2 & May 9, 1872.
Photographs courtesy of Keith B. Kotimko.
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1996
Email from Jeremy D'Entremont on Isle Royale transportation on 08/07/01.
US Coast Guard Historian's office.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

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This page last modified 03/15/2004