Rock Of  Ages Light Seeing The Light

Isle Royale, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Consisting of a strip of exposed rock 50 feet wide and 210 feet long, with it highest point some sixteen feet above the water, Rock of Ages lies two and a half miles off the western end of Isle Royale. While the 205-foot wooden sidewheel steamer CUMBERLAND had been the rockís only victim in over a half century of Superior navigation, changing navigation patterns in the final decade of the nineteenth century suddenly made Rock of Ages a critical impediment to safe navigation on the big lake.

As Duluth grew to preeminence as the lakeís major shipping port, a growing number of mariners were choosing to set a course along the northern shore during Superiorís violent storms in order to avoid the uncertain and changeable conditions of open water. With Rock of Ages lurking directly in the path of vessels choosing this course, a cry arose in the maritime community for the establishment of a Light on Rock of Ages. Concurring that the situation represented a disaster waiting to happen, the Lighthouse Board first recommended that a Congressional appropriation of $50,000 be made for construction of a Light and fog signal on The Rock in its annual report for 1896.

Congress ignored the request for of the following two years. Surprisingly, even the loss of the 257-foot wooden-hulled propeller HENRY CHISHOLM on Rock of Ages on October 20, 1898 did nothing to spur action, and the Board continued to repeat its plea for funding on an annual basis until 1900. Realizing that it had grossly underestimated the cost for establishing a first class Light in such a desolate location, the Board increased its estimate for construction to $125,000 in its annual report for 1900. With Congress continuing to turn a deaf ear to its pleas, the Board decided to take a different tack in 1903, and requested a lesser appropriation of $25,000 to fund a detailed survey and examination of the site.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress finally responded with the requested appropriation on March 3, 1905, and a surveying and engineering team was dispatched to Rock of Ages from Detroit that summer. On June 30, 1906, a second appropriation of $50,000 was made, and congressional approval was given for the construction of the new station provided that total construction costs could be kept below a ceiling of $100,000. Agreeing with the budgetary limitations, Eleventh District Engineer Major Charles Keller drew up detailed plans and specifications for the new station over the winter of 1906 - 1907. Plans for the new tower borrowed heavily from current state of the art construction methods in use in skyscraper construction, with a central structural steel skeleton structure supporting masonry tower floors and walls. As an indicator of the importance placed on this new station, Keller's plans called for the tower to be capped by a massive Second Order Fresnel lens. With an appropriation of the remaining $50,000 on March 4, 1907, construction of the new station was completely funded, and Keller awarded contracts for supplying the necessary building materials, with the contract for the towerís steel skeleton support structure awarded to the Russell Wheel and Foundry Company of Detroit.

In order to support such a difficult offshore construction site, Kellerís plans called for the establishment of a base station in Washington Harbor on Isle Royale using a number of leased abandoned mining buildings at the head of the harbor. Here, supplies could be stored, components prefabricated, and quarters for the work crew established until work on The Rock had progressed to a point at which quarters could be established on the rock itself. A chartered steam barge loaded with materials left the Detroit Depot on May 21, 1908 arriving in Washington Harbor on May 27. After erecting a pair of landing wharves, installing a tramway to transport materials and the rehabilitation of the old mining structures, a 50-man work crew was dispatched to begin work on The Rock itself.

Click to view enlarged imageConstruction on the Rock began with a small crew of quarrymen delivered to the site, where they set about the task of blasting of a flat section at the west end of the rock mass to a level of approximately two feet above the water level. With site preparation completed in June, a circular pier with walls of heavy riveted steel plates standing fifty feet in diameter was erected. Standing twenty-five feet in height, the upper walls flared out in a graceful curve to 56 feet in diameter at the top in order to form a wave deflector. With completion of the pier walls, a sturdy timber platform was erected and attached to the east side of the pier to serve as a working area from the work crew could begin the process of filling the pier casing with concrete. The lighthouse tender AMARANTH, her holds loaded with gravel and cement, arrived at the site and anchored in deep water just off the Rock. Using a large cement mixer on her deck, a crew set about mixing innumerable loads of concrete and transferring them by boom to a scow for transport to the Rock, where the construction crew poured innumerable layers within the circular pier. As the concrete level within the pier rose, forms were placed at its center to create a two-story cellar lined with porous tile. At the very center of these cellars, a steel column was integrated with its lower end lagged into a footing in the floor of the lower cellar. This column was to serve as the central core of the steel skeleton, and as such was designed to transfer the load of the entire structure directly down to the bedrock below.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the surface of the pier complete, and thus able to serve as a work platform for the continuing construction of the tower, a large bunkhouse was erected on the timber platform, and the construction crew was able to live on the Rock on a full time basis. With daily trips to and from the Rock no longer necessary and work progressed at an increased rate, and the skeletal steel core of the structure began to rise quickly.

Work continued through the 1908 season of navigation until all brickwork and masonry was complete, the main deck was fitted-out, the service room and lantern installed, and installation of the stationís mechanical systems, including the steam heating plant, fog signal equipment and water storage tanks was underway. With the glazing of the lantern complete, a temporary fixed red Third Order Fresnel lens was installed and a single six-inch air operated fog siren placed into operation on the night of October 22. Thomas Ervine was appointed as the stationís first Head Keeper, however Second Assistant William Duggan was first to report for duty at the station on October 2, with Irvine and First Assistant Lee Benton arriving together on October 27. Keeper Irvine was an eight-year lighthouse service veteran, with previous assignments at Outer Island and Au Sable Point, the latter of which was likely considered to have prepared him well for duty at a remote station such as Rock of Ages. With construction crew members available to lend assistance as needed, the Third Assistant Keeper position would remain unfilled until January, 1910. As violent storms began sweeping through the area, the station was closed on November 4, 1908, and construction ended until improved weather conditions allowed resumption of work the following year.

Click to view enlarged imageWith insufficient funding available in the $100,000 total appropriation to allow the purchase of the permanent Second Order Fresnel lens lens for the station, Congress appropriated an additional $15,000 for a new lens on March 4. Responsibility for specifying and ordering the new lens was delegated to the Chief Engineer of the Third Lighthouse District, and an order for the lens was placed with Parisian lens manufacturer Barbier, Benard & Turenne on March 26.

Back on Lake Superior, work resumed at the Rock in early 1909. Between July 1 and August 31 all of the stationís interior work was installed and painted, the pier surface paved, a chain railing installed around the outer perimeter of the pier, and a permanent 11 foot by 24 foot landing crib erected.

Click to view enlarged imageOn completion, the tower stood eight stories in height, and offered relatively large and comfortable quarters for the complement of four keepers assigned to the station. A steam heating plant located in the upper cellar provided heat to cast iron radiators in all rooms, and the first deck was home to the fog signal plant and hoisting engines for the pillar crane located at the edge of the pier level. This crane was used both for raising supplies delivered by the lighthouse tenders at the wharf and for raising the keeperís boat for storage on the safety of the pier deck. An office and common room made up the second deck, and a mess room and kitchen the third. The Keeper and First Assistantís quarters were located on the fourth deck, with the Second and Third Assistants quarters immediately above on the Fifth deck. A service room and watch room comprised the sixth and seventh decks, leaving the huge lantern capping the structure above.

Click to view enlarged imageManufacturing of the new lens was completed in early 1910, and the lens was crated for shipment from Paris to the main lighthouse depot on Staten Island that summer. After receipt of the lens at the Detroit depot, the Eleventh District Lampist loaded the crates aboard the AMARANTH, arriving at Rock of Ages in early September. The Lampist uncrated the cast iron pedestal and hoisted it into the mechanical room below the lantern. The lens itself was designed with four lightning flash panels, each consisting of 7 refracting and 17 reflecting prisms, and was floated atop the pedestal on a bath of mercury, designed to virtually eliminate rotational friction. Turned by a clockwork mechanism, the Lampist carefully adjusted the rotation speed of the massive lens to ensure that the stationís designated characteristic of a double flash every ten seconds was matched perfectly. Illuminated by a double-tank incandescent oil vapor lamp, the double flashes emitted a remarkable 940,000 candlepower, and by virtue of its situation at a focal plane of 117 feet, the lens boasted a visible range of nineteen miles on the night of its initial exhibition on September 15, 1910.

Life at Rock of Ages settled into a regular routine. With four keepers assigned to the station, a regular rotating schedule was established through which one of the keepers was scheduled for a weekís leave every month. Free time at the station was spent in reading, playing cards, or fishing around the Rock. The establishment of a radiobeacon at the station in 1929 forced the keepers to quickly acquaint themselves with electronics, and was likely a source of frequent problem, as the early equipment proved to be unreliable and prone to frequent breakdowns. 1930 saw the electrification of the station through the installation of electric generators powered by diesel engines, and electrification in turn paved the way for the replacement of the single air siren with a pair of Tyfon fog signals in 1931. In order to provide the widest possible range of dispersion, the horns for these signals were mounted on opposing sides of the tower.

Click to view enlarged imageIn a foggy May 28th in 1933, with the fog signal screaming out across the lake, Keeper John F. Soldenski stood watch in watch room to keep an eye out for approaching vessels. Imagine his surprise and he watched as a the 259-foot passenger vessel GEORGE M COX came lumbering out of the fog at seventeen knots, heard the horn, and turned directly into the Reef. The COX had been built as PURITAN in 1901, and had recently been refitted as a luxury liner, and renamed after the Shipping Magnate who had commissioned the refit. As such, she was on her maiden voyage from Chicago to Port Arthur, with a stop in Houghton. Onboard were 125 crewmembers, company dignitaries and their friends.

Soldenski and his assistants Whipple, Marshall and Marrow managed to rescue all 125 crew and passengers, with all of them forced to spend the night crammed into the tight quarters of the lighthouse, many of them sitting on the spiral stairs. While the Portage lifeboat arrived late that night and took of a few of the injured passengers, it was not until the following day that the Coast Guard Cutter CRAWFORD arrived to take the remainder of the marooned passengers to the safety of shore in Two Harbors, Minnesota. While the Cox was the only wreck to occur on The Rock after the establishment of the lighthouse, it was not the only tragedy that would be associated with the station.

In the summer of 1939, the lighthouse tender AMARANTH had been dispatched to Rock of Ages to replace one of the stationís aging Fairbanks Morse air compressors with a new unit. The tender carefully approached the Light Station and dropped anchor in deep water a short distance from the station. A steel scow had been lowered into the water by the tenderís boom, and the new compressor lowered onto the scow, and powered by the tenderís launch, towed to the wharf alongside the lighthouse. From there, the stationís steam winch had been used to lift the new compressor onto the stationís main deck. The old compressor had in turn been lowered onto the scow, and the launch was in the process of returning to the AMARANTH with the old compressor. As the scow approached the tender it became clear that the launch was making a little too much headway, and the scow smashed into tenderís massive hull. The inertia caused the heavy compressor to slide across the scowís smooth deck, with the sudden load shift causing the scow to upend. A couple of deckhands on the scow managed to jump from the scow to the deck of the tender at the last second as the upended gunwale of the scow smashed against the tenderís hull. Unfortunately, deckhand Robert "Sonny" Bergmarker was less fortunate, ending up with his lower body crushed between the scow and the tenderís hull. Crewmen quickly hoisted Bergearker aboard the tender where first aid was administered, however it was clear that Bergearker needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible if he was to stand a chance of survival. Quickly hoisting the scow and launch back onto the tenderís deck, Captain OíDonnell ordered a full head of steam, and the venerable tender headed for the nearest hospital in Houghton. The tenderís coal passers worked at a feverish pitch to get their shipmate to the hospital as quickly as possible. However, Bergearker sadly passed away before they could get him into the hospital.

Click to view enlarged imageThat same year, President Franklin Roosevelt decided to eliminate the Bureau of Lighthouses, and placed responsibility for the nationís aids to navigation under the umbrella of the Coast Guard. The Bureau Keepers were given a choice of either maintaining their civilian status, or entering the Coast Guard, and approximately 50% of the old Wickies made the switch to military life. Bill Muessel was one of those who chose to make the change. After entering lighthouse service early in 1939, Bill had served six years on the AMARANTH and TAMARACK before spending a year at Outer Island and a second year on Passage Island. After graduation from Aids to Navigation school in Groton, Connecticut, he was assigned as Officer in Charge at Rock of Ages in 1949, in which capacity he served until 1954. I was fortunate to be able to interview Bill in June 2002, and he gave me some wonderful memories of his time on The Rock. Click here to read a complete transcript of my interview with Bill.

Click to view enlarged imageThe massive Second Order lens was removed from the lantern over a five day period in 1985, and a 12-volt DC solar-powered 300 mm optic installed in its place. The intricate Fresnel was reassembled and placed on display at the Windigo Ranger Station in Washington Harbor some five miles away.

To this day, the Cox stills sits teetering on the edge of Rock of Ages Reef, and is a popular site for sport divers. On the shallow side of the reef, her bow wreckage sits in 15 ft of water, while at a depth of 45 feet, her two boilers can be seen, and her stern lies keel-up between a depth of 50 and 90 feet. Both her screw and drive shaft are still intact.

The Rock of Ages station is now part of Isle Royale Park, and because landing at the dock is considered a dangerous proposition, the structure is not open to the public. However, the 300 mm optic still beams from the lantern every night, and the station still serves as an active aid to navigation.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Keweenaw Excursions offers a lighthouse cruise which passes Rock of Ages on board the KEWEENAW STAR out of Houghton, Michigan. For more information on any of their tours visit their website, or telephone Keweenaw Excursions at (906) 482-0884.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1896 - 1912
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1917 - 1961
Great Lakes Pilot, 1958, US Army Corps of Engineers
Telephone interview with Bill Muessel, 6/2/2002
Email correspondence with Don Nelson, various, 2002
Wreck SCUBA Diving, Isle Royale, Lake Superior, website.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/07/2003

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