The Outer Island Saga

Major Weitzel Fires Back




Godfrey Weitzel
Maj. Godfrey Weitzel, U.S. Army

Like Orlando Poe, Godfrey Weitzel was trained at West Point as a military engineer. Holding the rank of First Lieutenant at the outbreak of the Civil War, he rose quickly, becoming Brevet Brigadier General in 1862, and receiving an extra star in 1864. His military career included serving as Chief Engineer under Ben Butler at New Orleans, then leading troops to victory in engagements at Labadieville and Thibodeaux.

Ironically, Weitzel's most notable accomplishment of the war came in an assignment he tried hard to avoid. In December of 1864, he was given command of a newly-organized "colored regiment." Reflecting an attitude common among his peers, Weitzel attempted to resign his commission upon learning of this new assignment. He was persuaded to stay on, and on April 3, 1865, black cavalrymen under his command were the first Union troops to enter the capital city of the Confederacy. As his troops announced to fellow blacks they encountered, "We have come to set you free!" Weitzel sent an equally electrifying telegram to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant:

"We entered Richmond at 8 o'clock this morning."

After the war, Weitzel reverted to his permanent rank of Captain, and resumed service in the Corps of Engineers. His accomplishments included construction of canals and locks on the Ohio River and at Sault Ste. Marie, and the Stannard Rock lighthouse in Lake Superior. In March, 1873, promoted once again to Major, Weitzel took over supervision of the Eleventh Light House District from Orlando Poe.

When challenged by Knight and Chapman, the veteran warrior drafted a reply disputing nearly every one of their contentions. First, they had distorted his remarks to Captain Stewart:

This gentleman called upon me last winter and told me about the petition which Mr. Chapman had prepared and stated that he had been asked to sign it. But before deciding in the matter he had concluded to call on me and learn the reasons for locating the light on Outer Island at the position which was complained of.

Captain Stewart, Weitzel reported, went away from their meeting with a new outlook on the issue.

It was after this that Capt. Stewart refused to sign the petition and he is the very best navigator on the Lakes, and is a thoroughly upright and conscientious man.

As far as other names that did turn up on the petition, Weitzel reported that spoken to many, and that he found they'd been hoodwinked.

I concluded that I had better go down and see some of the leading signers of the petition… All authorized me to erase their names and every one said that they had signed the petition under the supposition that they were asking for a new light.

Weitzel admitted that the Knight-Chapman parcel offered some advantages as a lighthouse site, but was adamant that they did not justify the additional expense of purchasing the land:

I said to Capt. Stewart that the location chosen was not as good as the one at the northeastern point of the island, but that the difference, in my opinion, was not so great as to warrant one in recommending the purchase of land which I was informed was purposely entered to make money from the Government.

Pointing out that his preferred site stood substantially higher than the Knight-Chapman parcel, Weitzel took a dig at the speculators.

If after it is built any of the taller trees should obstruct the light from the eastward, it is presumed that the owners of the land will not object to have them cut down as they seem to take a great interest in the efficiency of the light.

He also reported that his investigation had established that Knight and Chapman had not represented themselves honestly in their letter to McDill.

It will be observed that Mr. Chapman signs himself as 'Capt. of Steamer J.C. Keyes'. I went to the Collector and Inspector's Office here and could find no record of such a steamer. But in the offices above referred to I learnt that the J.C. Keyes was a little ferry boat running between Bayfield and Ashland and that Mr. Chapman was for a long time Indian Agent and Collector at Bayfield and is not known as a navigator.

Knight, he hinted, may have been acting on inside knowledge when he invested in property on Outer Island:

Mr. J . H. Knight I am told was during a long time Government Land Agent in that section of the country…

adding disingenuously,

…only the fact that I have forgotten my informant prevents me from saying that I have heard that Mr. Chapman and Mr. Knight have engaged in transactions even worse than this one before.

As a final argument, Weitzel reminded Chairman Henry that the Outer Island lighthouse was half-completed already. Changing its position would entail expenditures well beyond the original allocation.

All the stone work for the buildings is finished and the first floor joists are laid. All the material for the station is purchased and on the site except some of the brick. The appropriation for the station was $40,000.00. Of this $26,029.00 have been expended.

Weitzel's arguments were convincing. On May 6, 1874, the "Committee on Lighting" informed Henry of their findings:

…it appears that the petition for a change in the location of this light, originated with parties having a personal interest in such change, and that some of the leading men and firms who signed the petition did so under a misapprehension as to the object of the same, and have, therefore, authorized the erasure of their names.

In view of these facts the Committee recommends that the request of the petitioners be not complied with.

If Weitzel thought his Outer Island headaches would end with that decision, he was in for a letdown.



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