The Outer Island Saga
A Lighthouse On The Outermost Island
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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
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:
...as 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
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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