The Outer Island Saga

Doing It Right This Time?

Back: A Very Bad Coast


Outer Island Erosion


Meanwhile, Lake Superior continued to attack the foundations on which the station rested. In 1879, the District Inspector noted in his annual report, “The grounds should be protected from the action of the Lake.” Three years after that, the District Engineer was more forceful: “The wearing away of the high bluff bank on the north side of the light house site on Outer Island, Lake Superior, has become so dangerous that I consider it necessary to do something to stop it.”

It’s ironic to note that the author of this warning, Major Godfrey Weitzel of the Army Corps of Engineers, was the same official who chose the clifftop roost for the lighthouse when it became clear that the ideal site was already taken. If he ever reconsidered the wisdom of that decision, he left no record of such thoughts. He did, however, leave a cost estimate for a proposal to install “shore protection;” according to Major Weitzel, four thousand dollars, 240 cords of stone, and 700 man-days of work would solve the problem. He added confidently. “It is the method which I have successfully adopted at other places.”

It seems, though, that Major Weitzel’s confidence was misplaced. The keeper’s log shows substantial work on the station that following summer, including placement of stone, presumably according to Weitzel’s plan. Despite this effort, a mere three years later, the District Engineer’s annual report once again noted imminent disaster: “At Outer Island the present incline and tram is about to fall from the crumbling of the bank.”

Over the next century, a succession of “Band-Aid measures” were employed to stave off disaster. Responsibility for the lighthouse and its grounds passed from the U.S. Lighthouse Service, to the Coast Guard, and then to the National Park Service. Each agency continued tinkering, with wooden retaining walls climbing their way up the bluff, and rip-rap and “gabions” (rock-filled baskets) lining its base. By the end of the twentieth century, though, it was clear that the situation had turned critical; engineering studies suggested that, at prevailing rates of erosion, there were no more than ten to twenty years left before buildings would  be lost to the lake. First, the fog signal building would go, then the tower itself.

With the arrival of a new millennium, however, also came new hope for the Outer Island light station. The Congressional delegation representing the Apostle Island region- Senators Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, and Congressman Dave Obey- secured nearly two million dollars for the National Park Service for bank stabilization at Outer Island and the comparably-threatened Raspberry Island light station.

Exhaustive engineering studies laid out a three-part strategy to “finally do the job right.” Though the two sites were not identical, and there were some differences in the specific designs, the basic plans were parallel. At each island, the lower portions of the bank would be armored by walls of heavy stone. At the top, drains would be installed to prevent surface runoff from undermining the clay. In between, the surface of the bluff itself would be stabilized by “bio-engineering” methods: planting carefully selected species that would anchor the surface in place.


Outer Island Light Station


Work began on Raspberry Island first, in the summer of 2002, and continued to completion in 2003. Attention turned to Outer Island the following year: by July of 2004, excavators and cranes were hard at work, moving rocks from barges to the base of the cliff and digging drainage trenches among the historic buildings. Unfortunately, though, Outer Island’s hard luck struck once again: even a two-million-dollar windfall was not quite enough to fix everything. The ambitious bio-engineering plans had to be scaled back in favor of a more limited approach.

What is the future of the Outer Island Lighthouse? Will it turn out that the heroic efforts of recent years actually managed to “do it right this time?”

Our grandchildren will find out.


Outer Island October 2003


Originally published in the Great Lakes
Lightkeepers Association Beacon


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