The Michigan Island Mystery

Part Two


Back to Part One

The Islands Involved

The first lighthouse in the Apostle Islands was planned for Long Island, but built on Michigan Island, seventeen miles away. Why?


This question remained baffling for years. In 1988, one of the first researchers to examine the riddle wrote, "All we can do is speculate... What makes such confusion hard to understand is that… LaPointe was a substantial town at the time. It may never be known what happened to cause the mistake." Four years later, another study offered a confident explanation: "Incredibly, records and inference combine to show that the contractor hired to build the LaPointe Light put it on the wrong island by mistake."

Reading the historical clues carefully makes it difficult to agree with the latter contention. However, they explain why answers were easy to miss for so long. Detectives are rarely so lucky as to find a mountain of evidence like the one that eventually built up on Michigan Island.

After the job was finished, the contractors, feeling cheated by the government, addressed a lengthy protest to the Treasury Department, seeking to recoup extra costs incurred doing exactly what they had been told to do. Included in a massive package of documentation was a "cover-your-back" letter Alanson Sweet wrote to Abraham Smolk, dated August 1, 1856:

As the representative of the contractors (Messrs. Sweet, Smith and Ransom) for the building of a Light-House at LaPointe Harbor, Lake Superior, I will state to you that we will go on and build the Light-House on Passage Island, Lake Superior as you have located or may locate it hereafter, under your direction. But we do not waive any rights by so doing, that we may have under our contract for building a Light-House at LaPointe.

Here we see both explanation and ambiguity:

  1. Clearly, Mr. Sweet was reluctant to build the tower at a spot different from one previously arranged.

  2. To make the story more confusing, original contractor Morgan Shinn dropped out of the firm, to be replaced by a man named Smith.

  3. The "Passage Island" we know today is far across Lake Superior, with its own lighthouse.

Might uncertainty about the island's name have been a cause of error? Almost certainly not. "Passage" was an alternate name for Michigan Island at the time; Lighthouse Board documents used the names interchangeably as late as 1871.

Lorenzo Sitgreaves
Lorenzo Sitgreaves

Reaching for an explanation, a 1992 study speculates, "The government's representative in Bayfield, lacking clear orders himself, apparently directed the contractor to proceed with construction on Michigan Island."

That hardly seems possible. Lorenzo Sitgreaves was an experienced explorer himself; among many accomplishments, he was the first Euro-American to document the Petrified Forest and the ancient Pueblo site now preserved as Wupatki National Monument. To suggest that he would neglect to provide his representative detailed instructions about the site he had carefully selected beggars belief.

So what might have "government representative" Abraham Smolk been thinking to change the terms of agreement?

One hypothesis comes to mind. Michigan Island was not the only place where Smolk changed plans on the fly. Among eleven lighthouses ordered in the contract, he shifted the site for three. The additional expense peeved the contractors no end, and they took time to complain in detail:

… by the direction of the government agent, and under our protest (the lighthouse) was constructed at its present location, and at a vast increase of expense. At LaPointe there was a good harbor… and the buildings must have been constructed but a few feet above the level of the lake, while at the point where it was constructed… (building materials had to be) hoisted up a perpendicular bluff, 110 feet high, with capstan and horsepower.

"One hundred ten feet high." In two of Smolk's three change orders-- the "Passage Island" and Grand Island lights-- the lamp moved from the shoreline to the top of a bluff. Could it be that Abraham Smolk decided that a light on top of a cliff would be visible a greater distance, and thus "better?" That we probably will never know. Smolk left some records, but not a word of explanation, though he lived to be one hundred years old. He's said to be buried in the Fort Mackinac post cemetery, but a walk among the headstones a few years ago brought this writer no insight, ghostly or otherwise.


Michigan Island 1904

Michigan Island Lighthouse, 1904.


Whatever Smolks' reasoning, the consequences of his unilateral decision were grave. After only one year of operation, the lighthouse was shuttered, supplanted by a replacement hastily constructed on Long Island, the site originally specified. It is clear that someone-- presumably superiors in Washington-- overruled Smolk after the fact. Many sources claim that Sweet, Smith, and Ransom were directed to build this new light at their own expense, but this has not been proven so far, and actually seems questionable. Their detailed screed, itemizing every penny spent beyond the initial agreement, makes no mention of an entire extra lighthouse. Here's another mystery yet to be solved.

The beacon on Michigan Island was relit a decade later, to shine until the present. Even so, the light remained "in the wrong place" in one important respect. At the island's southern point, it did a miserable job of warning mariners of the hazards nearby. It became a standing joke that to see the Michigan light, "you have to run over Gull Island first."

A virtual fleet of ships grounded off the island before the 1929 erection of a taller tower. Among them were a steamer captained by Alexander McDougall, of whaleback fame, and the William Corey, flagship of the Pittsburgh Steamship Line.

The only wreck which seems to hold spectral potential was the tragicomic loss of the R. J. Stewart, which ran aground on the Gull Island shoal one foggy night in 1899. The packet steamer caught fire the next morning, but all except one sailor survived. The last man off the burning Stewart leaped onto the gunwales of the lifeboat, capsizing it and dumping all aboard into Lake Superior. The panicky sailor drowned as his shipmates swam for the safety of Michigan Island along with the cargo: a herd of cattle.

No report has ever surfaced of dripping apparitions, human or bovine, and volunteer lighthouse keepers on the island have yet to report any ghostly moos.



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