To Save The Devils Island Lens
Rep. Janet Bewley's (D-Ashland) strong defense of the Northland environment from the proposed Penokee mine should come as no surprise to residents of the Chequamegon region. More than twenty years ago, as a private citizen, Ms. Bewley played a vital role in protecting another treasure: the Devils Island lighthouse.
Standing above cave-riddled cliffs at the northernmost spot in Wisconsin, the Devils Island light is well-known for its dramatic location. Even though it’s ten miles from the mainland, the lighthouse is one of the signature attractions of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Boaters set anchor and paddle their dinghies ashore to admire the tower; hardy kayakers paddle through the sea caves below it on calm days; visitors from around the world marvel at the scene as the climax of their tour boat excursion.
However, anyone who accompanies the park’s volunteer guides to the top sees another wonder: the Fresnel lens that once focused the beam of a small lamp into a beacon visible 22 miles away. Made from more than one hundred separate prisms, this magnificent optic exemplifies lighthouse historian Thomas Tag’s description:
"There are few things more impressive or beautiful than a Fresnel lens. This crystal cage of glass sparkles in the sun, splitting the light into tiny rainbows of glorious iridescent color like a precious diamond, and at night sends out its spokes of light to warn the mariner.”
Adding to Devils Island’s mystique, its lighthouse is the only one of the Apostle Island towers that still holds its original lens. Two more still exist as museum displays, but all the others were taken out and lost over the years.
However, in 1988, without consulting anyone about the idea, the U.S. Coast Guard decided it was time to take the historic lens out of the Devils Island lighthouse, replacing it with a modern version made from plastic. Maybe the old lens could go into a museum some day, the agency announced, but for the time being the smartest thing to do was dismantle it, crate the pieces, and keep it all in safe storage at one of their bases: maybe Sault Ste. Marie, maybe Houghton-Hancock. (The Bayfield station? “Not enough room.”)
Continue to Part Two