The Outer Island Saga
“A Very Bad Coast”
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Freshly-appointed lighthouse keeper O.K. Hall watched in dismay as northwest gales turned the water of Lake Superior into a hammer of destruction. Wave after wave pummeled the brand-new dock at the foot of the Outer Island cliff. A heavy scow tied alongside bounced like a child’s toy in the seething mass of breakers. Then, before Hall’s eyes, the dock began to break apart, massive timbers swirling in the roaring sea. Soon it was gone, sacrificed to the anger of the greatest and fiercest of lakes.
Later, collecting his thoughts for the station logbook, Hall wrote,
“September 18, 1874 - On Saturday it blowed a living gale from N to NW. The sea washed away the dock and ruined the scow that belonged here. This is a very bad coast to land or get away.”
A dock gone, a boat ruined, and the lighthouse had not yet even entered service.
Construction of the Outer Island lighthouse, most remote among the Apostle Island beacons, was barely complete when Hall wrote his lament. Unlike its predecessors in the archipelago, the Outer Island light was not intended to guide ships through the Apostles to the ports of the Chequamegon region; rather it served to direct mariners past the islands as they made their way to Superior and Duluth. Its establishment seemed an acknowledgement that the cities at the head of the lakes were already passing Bayfield and Ashland in the race for commercial primacy.
Problems attended the birth of the lighthouse from the earliest stages. Though the ideal location for visibility would have been the jutting promontory at the island’s northeast tip, a pair of local speculators, acting suspiciously as if they had inside information, snapped up the property before it could be secured for lighthouse use. Government officials refused to reward the schemers, and chose the next-best site, atop the bluffs near the island’s northwest point.
This decision had far-reaching consequences. The bluffs below the lighthouse proved highly vulnerable to the forces of water and wind, and erosion problems have bedeviled the station since its earliest days.
It was not until October 20, more than a month after the dock washed away, that Keeper Hall finally lit the lighthouse lamp for its first night of service. (The greenhorn keeper broke a lamp chimney in the process.) In the intervening time, work crews hastily replaced the dock and put finishing touches on the light tower and fog signal building. Unlike the lighthouse, which stood high and proud above the lake, the signal house cowered at the base of the cliff, placed low for access to water. Foghorns of those days were steam-powered, and plenty of water was needed for their boilers.
With construction complete, Hall was left alone on the island with his assistant and their families. Problems assailed the hapless keeper immediately. Little more than a month after losing the first dock, its replacement followed. In Hall’s words,
“October 28, 1874 ‑ A heavy gale from the NE with rain. (At) 5 o’clock the gale increases with fury. The dock has all washed away… The sea was very angry.”
Worse was soon to come. Stormy weather continued with such intense winds that the next day, Hall felt the tall brick tower shake beneath his feet. The day after that, the clay bank began to cave in perilously close to the fog signal building; the keeper reported that water now swirled no more than eight feet from its walls.
Two weeks of respite followed, but on November 14, Lake Superior struck its worst blow yet. With snow falling, Hall and his assistant John Drouillard began sounding the foghorn in mid-afternoon. At six pm, however, they heard the roar of the bank crashing down around them, burying the building nearly to its roof. “We thought the whole side was coming in,” Hall wrote. They doused the boilers and fled outside, where the men found that the stairway that once led up the bluff now lay smashed at its base. Their only route to shelter came by scrambling willy-nilly up the clay bank as the blizzard swirled around them.
That was the end of Outer Island’s first fog signal building, after less than a month of operation. In February, a four-man crew arrived from Detroit, trudging their way across the ice to help Hall and Drouillard remove the boiler and other equipment from the rubble. In June, work began on a new fog signal building, on the upper grounds close to the tower. Completed in six weeks, the foghorn no longer faced disaster from the lake, but adequate water supply at its new location proved a constant problem for several generations of keepers.
Continue: Doing It Right This Time?