The Outer Island Saga

A Lighthouse On The Outermost Island



Outer Island Light, June 2004


The construction of a lighthouse at the northern tip of the outermost Apostle Island represented a substantial shift in siting philosophy. The first three Apostles lights had been located to guide ships through the archipelago; now one would be built to guide traffic past the island chain. The lights on Michigan and Long Islands served to direct ships heading for the venerable settlement at LaPointe, while the Raspberry Island lighthouse was built to mark the passage to the new port of Bayfield. In contrast, the Outer Island tower would shine its beam toward the open lake, lighting the way for ships traveling directly from the Soo locks to the ports of Duluth and Superior at the lake's west end.

Duluth, Superior, Bayfield, and Ashland had all been founded within a three-year period in the mid-1850s, and for a time, it seemed an open question which would gain pre-eminence as the dominant port of western Lake Superior. The commercial decline of LaPointe appeared certain; its island location might have served well enough for a wilderness trading post, but ruled it out as a serious contender in an industrial age. The future lay with a port that could connect to the nation's expanding railroad network.

In March, 1868, the Wisconsin State Legislature presented a petition to the U.S. Senate seeking the construction of a lighthouse that would serve the interests of Wisconsin's westernmost Lake Superior port:

Your memorialists, the legislature of the state of Wisconsin, would most respectfully ask for the location of a lighthouse on Outer Island, Lake Superior. This island is the easternmost of a dangerous group of islands lying off a point the right on the course of vessels bound in and out of the important and much frequented harbor of Superior.

Your memorialists further respectfully represent that consideration for the safety of the many lives and vessels exposed to the perils of these dangerous islands urgently demand that Outer Island should be supplied as speedily as possible with a suitable lighthouse.

Instructions to assess this request were duly forwarded to T. H. Stevens, Inspector in the Eleventh District. In his reply, Stevens disputed the petitioners' view of the importance of the port at Superior: the whole number of vessels arriving at Superior City, as represented in a former report for the months of May, June and July of the present season was less than 25 of all descriptions. I do not consider an addition to the number of the lights already established in this portion of the Lakes as required.

There was no pressing need, he concluded, for a light on Outer Island. Stevens did leave the door open in case of changing conditions:

When the channels of commerce or established in the country better developed, a light at this point would be of value to vessels bound outside of the Apostles directly to the lower and Western ends of the lake.

In just three years, however, it seemed that the Lighthouse Board had concluded that this change had already come. The agency's annual report for 1871 contains this recommendation:

The through commerce to and from the western end of Lake Superior, increasing so rapidly as railroads having termini at Duluth are extended to westward, all passes outside of the Apostle Islands, and is greatly in need of lighthouse on the northern end of Outer Island.

Events quickly underscored the contentions of the Lighthouse Board. Duluth had won the race for rail connections in 1870, beating out its Wisconsin rivals. The city's first grain elevator was built the same year. Though fluctuations in the national economy would deal Duluth a series of temporary setbacks, the decade of the 1870s saw the city's emergence as a major shipping center for grain from the booming wheat farms of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Lumber and iron ore cargoes would rise in importance shortly after. Nonetheless, the recommendation for a lighthouse was not heeded, and the request was repeated in 1872, again without result.

In February, 1873, though, a respected voice was added to the chorus. Major Orlando M. Poe, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, wrote:

"The proposed light on Outer Island is of importance to all that portion of the through commerce of Lake Superior passing to or from the westward of the Apostle Islands, that is to say the commerce of Duluth and Superior City. It is demanded by a much larger commerce than will use L'Anse and will be a Lake Coast light instead of a harbor light."

Less than ten days after the date of Poe's letter, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of a lighthouse on Outer Island.

That was the last time anything having to do with the Outer Island Lighthouse went quickly, or smoothly.



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