More Michigan Island Mysteries


The Michigan Island Mystery describes how examination of historic documents could clarify claims that the first lighthouse in the Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands chain was built on the wrong island. This follow-up article examines some other stories surrounding this historic light station.

Originally published in the Great Lakes
Lightkeepers Association Beacon


Tower Entryway
Michigan Island tower entry: inside the lighthouse, well-sheltered from errant gusts of wind.

The tale is all over the Internet: “The lighthouse on Michigan Island is haunted.” Long ago, they say, a keeper at this Lake Superior light was killed when a gust of wind slammed the tower’s heavy iron door shut on him unexpectedly. Now, his moans can be heard during stormy weather, and the door swings open unpredictably, "even when bolted shut."

It’s a scary story, all right, the sort to raise shivers on a night when the wind howls and lantern panes rattle, but the tale has one major problem: it has no basis in fact or tradition. Extensive records detail the station’s history, listing the keepers and assistant keepers, and noting their terms of service and reasons for departure. Some were transferred or promoted, some quit or were fired, but not one died on the island. What’s more, the lighthouse has been manned every summer by National Park Service volunteer keepers for many years, and not one has reported any unusual sounds or inexplicable door behavior.

When I first encountered this online whopper, while working as Park Historian at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, I found it ironic that someone would go to the trouble of fabricating a bogus ghost story about this particular lighthouse. The oldest of all the Apostles Island lights, the small stone tower on Michigan Island has been the scene of both joy and tragedy, and its walls have sheltered both the best and worst of human nature.

Michian Island Lighthouse 1904
The lighthouse in 1904

Take the story of “Poor Willy,” for example. In 1985, Edna Lane Sauer, daughter of longtime keeper Ed Lane (served 1902-1939), recounted this memory in a letter:

“I know there is supposed to be a grave on Michigan Island and I've often wondered if it could have been the son of one of the keepers who always anchored the sailboat out and then swam ashore. He took cramps and died. I remember one old journal that told of the accident and always mentioned "Poor Willy." We children used to cry about Poor Willy.”

Unfortunately, the journals, or logbooks, that Ms Sauer mentions have not survived to the present. In this case,  other records flesh out the sad story. The keeper’s logbook for the Outer Island light station pins down the date of the incident:

September 3, 1878 -- At 8 p.m. the Second Assistant returned, absent three days 11 hours. Mr. Miller and party bring the sad news of the drowning of Mr. Rumrill's (the keeper of Michigan Island light) son last Sunday while trying to swim to the station boat which lay at anchor a short distance from the shore.

Pliny Rumrill
Michigan Island Keeper
Pliny Rumrill

“Poor Willy,” then, was the son of Pliny Rumrill, keeper of the Michigan Island lighthouse from 1874 to 1883. Was his grave on the island? Surprisingly, an account by a tourist gives us the answer, in moving detail:

It was while lying at Bayfield pier that we heard of the drowning of Willy Rummel (sic), of Michigan Light. Willy was the only son of the lighthouse keeper, a bright boy of 17, and his death was a sad loss in that little family of five, whose home looks out upon the blue waters of Lake Superior. The Eva Wadsworth was detailed to go out and meet the Mocking Bird and bring the remains and family to Bayfield, where the last sad rites were to be held.

It was a scene I never can forget: the little tug containing the grief-stricken mother and the two fair-haired sisters, and back of her was a little sailboat in which was the casket, and there at the very foot sat the sorrowing father holding the rudder of the little vessel.

The casket and mourners were soon aboard, and with the two accompanying boats we steamed back to the Bayfield pier. The villagers went up to the church and the farmers came over the hills for miles to attend the funeral of the boy who for years had trimmed the flame of the Michigan Island light. They buried him in a little grave overlooking Chequamegon Bay, and the sorrowing family went back that night to their island home.

Sadly, though, Willy Rumrill was not the only child to perish on the island: keeper  Roswell Pendergast’s infant son had died there some five years earlier. His brief obituary in the Bayfield Press gives no information on burial arrangements, so the question of a grave on Michigan Island remains tantalizingly open.


Continue to Part Two: Pure Courage and Unspeakable Evil



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