Lighthouses of the Apostle Islands


Old Michigan Island Lighthouse
Originally published in 
Lake Superior
August/ September, 2002

Old Michigan Island Lighthouse



"The largest and finest collection of lighthouses in the United States."

That’s the judgment of historian F. Ross Holland on the light stations of Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands: six island outposts, with eight towers between them, in one of the world’s most beautiful settings. There’s the elegant brick tower on Outer Island’s bluffs, and the tall cast-iron cylinder atop the Devils Island sea caves. A stately mansion on Raspberry, two towers each on Long and Michigan Islands, and a brownstone gem on Sand Island.

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

For more than a century, these light stations were home to men and women who endured the privations of island life in order to provide mariners with reliable beacons to guide them on the waters of Lake Superior.  The keepers and their families are gone now, replaced by solar panels and automatic bulb-changers, but visitors can tour their dwellings and climb the towers, preserved today within a national park.

The story of these lighthouses mirrors the development of commerce on Lake Superior. When the Soo locks opened in 1855, Federal authorities realized that increased shipping would need lights for guidance. Among the highest  priorities for a beacon was the harbor of LaPointe, on Madeline Island. The only town of any size on the western end of the lake, the old fur post was a natural destination.

There’d been quite a bit of discussion about exactly where to put the LaPointe beacon. Since the port was on the landward side of Madeline Island, it would not have made much sense to put the lighthouse at the harbor entrance. Such a light would not be visible until ships were right in front of it, well past all the surrounding hazards. Much better, everyone agreed, to put the light across the channel on Long Island, where it would be visible well out on the open lake.

Everyone agreed, that is, except Abraham Smolk, the mid-level Lighthouse Service official assigned to supervise construction in the region. Smolk arrived at LaPointe, took a quick look around, and impulsively decided that it would be best to place the new lighthouse on Michigan Island, seventeen miles north of the specified site. The contractor protested— erecting a tower on the Michigan Island clifftop would be far more costly than building on Long Island’s flat sand.

But Smolk held firm, and the Apostles’ first lighthouse went up on Michigan Island: a small stone tower, with keeper’s dwelling attached. Construction was finished in October, 1856, and the lighthouse entered service the following June. Just about immediately, everyone realized it was in the wrong place. Dangerous shoals lay to the north of Michigan Island, but the low tower at the island’s south end gave seamen no warning of their proximity. Abraham Smolk had no business changing the agreed-on plans, his superiors thundered. Repudiating his instructions, they ordered the builders to go back and put up the lighthouse on Long Island, at their own expense.

The contractors protested, but to no avail. They were stuck. On the brink of bankruptcy, they went back to Long Island and threw together a wooden lighthouse, as quickly and as cheaply as they could. This lighthouse served its purpose well enough for nearly forty years; then in 1897, with traffic booming at the nearby port of Ashland, the government replaced it with a pair of cast-iron towers spaced nearly a mile apart. One of these, the “New LaPointe” tower, remains in service today, while the other, at the island’s tip, stands empty now, supplanted by a plain steel cylinder  in 1986.


And the misbegotten lighthouse on Michigan Island? Stripped of its fittings, the building sat vacant for twelve years. Then, as traffic continued to increase, the Lighthouse Service decided an extra lighthouse might be useful after all. Workers repaired the effects of a decade’s neglect, and the Michigan Island light resumed operation in 1869.

New Michigan Island Lighthouse

New Michigan Island Lighthouse

The little lighthouse was never completely satisfactory as a guide for shipping, though. Abraham Smolk’s rash decision continued to haunt the Lighthouse Service. Several ships ran aground off Michigan Island, and for years, maritime interests pressed the government  to remedy the problem. Finally, in 1929, the Lighthouse Service erected a second tower on Michigan Island, nearly twice the height of the original. (right)

The “new” Michigan tower was not very new at all, though; the tall cast-iron tube had been built longside Pennsylvania’s Delaware River in 1880. When dredging straightened the course of the Delaware, the government found itself with a spare lighthouse it could send to Lake Superior. Today, two towers stand side-by-side on the island:  one still in active service, its older companion empty of all but memories.

By 1862, with lighthouses at Long and Michigan Islands, the eastern approach to the ports of Chequamegon Bay was well-marked. In that year, the Lighthouse Service installed a beacon on Raspberry Island to mark the western route. Like the LaPointe light, it was a “schoolhouse-style” structure, a wood building with a lantern room mounted on top.

This two-bedroom house may have been satisfactory for a single keeper and his family, but over the years the need for additional room became acute. In 1887, keeper Francis Jacker decided to leave his large family at their mainland home. He soon found that tending the light without help was exhausting. In a letter, he worried prophetically, “In case of an emergency, no assistance is available on the island.”


Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Raspberry Island Lighthouse, circa 1900


In September of that year, Jacker’s fears were realized while trying to move the station’s sailboat to shelter in the face of a rising gale. Blown off-course, he was driven ashore on uninhabited Oak Island, and his boat wrecked by the surf. With neither assistant keeper nor family on Raspberry Island to notice his absence, he faced certain death by starvation or exposure. Providentially, after an ordeal of three days, his wife decided to pay him an impromptu visit at Raspberry. Dismayed to find the lighthouse empty, she organized a successful search.

In the aftermath of that incident, the Lighthouse Service authorized an assistant keeper’s position at Raspberry Island. At the turn of the twentieth century, the island’s population increased again, when the agency added a fog signal to the station’s arsenal. State-of-the-art foghorns were powered by steam in those days, and a second assistant keeper was hired to help with firing the boiler and tending the machinery. The original lighthouse, bursting at its seams, was remodeled to provide separate apartments for each keeper. Some modern observers comment that the result looks more like a country manor than a lighthouse.



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