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Devils Island Lens
Third-order Fresnel lens at the
Devils Island Lighthouse

The change sailed right over the park managers' heads, who remained oblivious to their new acquisitions. A copy of the Long Island bill in the National Lakeshore files at Bayfield bears a penciled notation, "This legislation came to our attention 5/24/1990." The way that finally happened might be even more embarrassing to the park agency.

Though NPS officials objected to the planned removal of the Devils Island lens, they offered only a muted response, believing they had little say in the matter. A group of local citizens stepped into the breach and filed a lawsuit to prevent the move. In August 1989, though the court had yet to rule on the case, Coast Guard crews confidently-some said arrogantly-went ahead and dismantled the lens, dropping some prisms in the process, crated up the pieces, and shipped them off to Michigan.

The custody dispute grew ever more heated. The citizen plaintiffs gained the support of national preservation groups and the local Congressman, but the NPS continued to tread lightly. One former staff member, who was involved in the deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity, reported that park superintendent Jerry Banta was hesitant to take a strong stand on the lens issue because he feared that antagonizing the Coast Guard would interfere with long-term hopes of getting the lighthouses transferred to NPS ownership.

It took a Coast Guard official to tell him that he needn't have worried. According to a second park staffer, long-retired, the news came at the beginning of a tense meeting between representatives of the two agencies. "We were getting ready to do battle," he recalled, when one of the Coast Guard lawyers dropped a bomb: basically, "Haven't you guys heard?"

None of the NPS personnel interviewed years later could explain just how it happened that the agency managed to overlook what seemed to be a very straightforward provision of the bill, and more than one admitted that the affair was painful to recall. Over the years that followed, the NPS and the Coast Guard maintained a fairly even relationship at the Apostle Islands, punctuated by occasional lapses in communication. At Michigan Island, the Park Service, secure now in its ownership, ordered custom-made curved glass panes to enclose the lantern room once more, sand-blasted away the rust, and repainted the tower inside and out. The issue of the Devils Island lens was eventually resolved by a court ruling that the Coast Guard had indeed overstepped its authority. An NPS technician spent several weeks repairing damage incurred when Coast Guardsmen dismantled the lens, and on August 31, 1992, park workers returned the optic to the tower, where it remains to this day.

Raising the Base
Raising the lens base
August 31, 1992

In the end, the oversight had little impact on the historic structures: both agencies had continued maintaining them in accordance with their previous agreements; so what, it seemed, if one party knew something that the other did not? Still, there seems a lesson to be learned: every now and then, we should all check to make sure that no one's given us a lighthouse when we weren't paying attention.


The author served as District Ranger and Park Historian at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from 1992 through 2005. He was on Devils Island the day the lens was returned to the tower, helping at ground level.


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