Throughout the annals of lighthouse history one can find enough stories of tragedy to fill several volumes of books. However, two memorial markers honoring Michigan’s South Manitou Island Lighthouse keeper Aaron A. Sheridan, and his wife Julia, and son Robert at the South Manitou Island Cemetery recounts perhaps one of the most tragic of all the lighthouse tragedies, a tragedy that would affect many lives for many years thereafter.
Civil War veteran Aaron Sheridan started his position as lighthouse keeper at South Manitou Island Lighthouse on July 21, 1866. He had big shoes to fill at the station, not because any of the previous keepers had gained any notoriety, but because the previous keepers, from the very first keeper through the seventh keeper at the lighthouse, had all resigned. Later that year, newspapers that found their way to the lighthouse would tell of the dedication by President Grover Cleveland of the Statue of Liberty and the subsequent first ever ticker tape parade in New York, something that keeper Sheridan might have found hard to comprehend compared to his life at this remote island lighthouse.
Apparently life at the South Manitou Lighthouse suited keeper Aaron Sheridan, as he stayed on much longer than any of his predecessors. Eventually he was also fortunate enough to get his wife, Julia, appointed as his assistant keeper, thereby giving the family some extra income. He might have been the keeper there for many additional years had it not been for the tragic events that happened on Lake Michigan on March 15, 1878.
South Manitou Island is located in northeastern Lake Michigan about 16 miles off shore from the town of Leland, and about ten miles to the southwest on the mainland is the community of Glen Arbor. It was during a return trip from Glen Arbor when events unfolded that would change many lives forever. There were no weather reports in those days, although some local fishermen claimed that they could predict the weather with “gut feelings,” supposedly from years of experience on the water. Some reports indicated that the day began being pleasant, but the weather on Lake Michigan can change almost without notice, especially during the month of March.
Aaron Sheridan was the keeper at South Manitou Island during a time that major and significant changes had been made. He and his family lived in the second keeper’s house that had been constructed at the site. This keeper’s house also had a light tower that protruded from the roof. That dramatically changed in July of 1871 when materials and a work crew arrived to build what would be a 104-foot tall lighthouse that would be attached to the house by an enclosed walkway. It must have been quite exciting to watch as the tower rose up in height, but all the additional activity at the light station must also have been quite taxing on keeper Sheridan and his wife.
The new tower was built under the direction of Brevet Brigadier General Orlando Poe who was the Chief Engineer of the Eleventh Lighthouse District. General Poe might even have visited the island and met with keeper Sheridan. The following year, in 1872, the new 3rd order Fresnel style lens that had been made by Henry-Lepaute of Paris arrived on the island and was installed. The new tall tower necessitated that the government add the position of an assistant keeper. Aaron Sheridan was able to secure the position for his wife, thereby adding substantially to the family’s income. Julia was officially appointed assistant keeper on September 30, 1872.
More changes came to the light station in 1875 when the fog bell was replaced by a steam powered fog signal that was housed in a new structure that was constructed at the lighthouse. This extra work necessitated the hiring of a 2nd assistant keeper named Jeremiah Becker who officially reported for duty on May 27th of that year.
There are numerous written accounts of what happened on that tragic day in March of 1878; some of those accounts were from newspapers of the time and others are from various written memories that have appeared in various books, other types of publications, and now on various Internet web sites. Some of the publications that gave accounts of that tragic day in 1878 are in the books Island Tales by Kay Curtis, Isle of View by Charles Anderson, A Gleam Across the Waves: A Biography of Martin P. Knudson, and South Manitou Island by Myron Vent. All are very similar, but not all are consistent. However the event is best chronicled and researched in the book Remembering, A History of the Sheridan Family by Stephen Sheridan, who is the current president of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.
Some reports indicated that local fisherman Christin Ankerson, a friend and local fisherman of Aaron Sheridan, had invited him and his wife, Julia, out for a sailboat ride. Since the Sheridan’s young son, Robert, was just about a year old at the time, Mrs. Sheridan, rather than leave the Robert with the other children, decided to take the baby boy along. However, those accounts were far from being correct.
Aaron and Julia Sheridan had six children at that time; Levi Fisk at age 11 was the oldest, George Henry was 9, James Edward was 7, Alfred was 5, Charles was 3, and baby Robert, who was less than a year old, had been born May 13, 1877. This was early spring and the water of Lake Michigan, although it had been a mild winter, would still have been bitter cold, and there is no logical explanation why they would have gone out for a leisurely sail with a small baby at that time of the year.
The most plausible explanation was that something was wrong with the baby, something that caused the family enough concern to make the journey across the open water in a small boat, most likely to take the baby to a doctor on the mainland.
In the past there had been accounts that the lighthouse boat was of a style that was unsafe and known for its ease in capsizing. Christian Ankerson later stated that he had gone with the Sheridans on the trip to help handle the boat, especially because of Aaron Sheridan’s war disabled arm. While serving in the Union Army. Sheridan had been wounded by a canister shot at the Battle of Ringgold Gap in Georgia in November of 1864. Although the arm had not been amputated, the bones were badly damaged and, as a result, he lost complete use of his arm.
Ankerson later stated, “I have always been used to boats and I consider this boat unsafe and entirely unfit for this station. She has always been considered a dangerous boat and one that would not stand a heavy sea.”
A number of reports indicated that as two of the Sheridan children watched from the lighthouse, a squall suddenly blew up. Those reports stated that as the sailboat was within sight of land as the Sheridan children watched in horror as events suddenly moved very fast and the boat carrying their parents and baby brother capsized into the frigid waters. However, those written accounts have never been substantiated and are probably incorrect. In fact, there are numerous written accounts, all written with various degrees of differences and similarities of what happened, but probably the most accurate account was written by Richard Kitchen, a local resident of South Manitou Island who actually participated in the rescue.
In a letter to Commander J. N. Miller of the U. S. Lighthouse Establishment in Detroit, Mr. Kitchen wrote, “I Richard Kitchen, do hereby take the authority to notify your department that the light-keeper, Mr. A. A. Sheridan, as well as Mrs. Julia Sheridan, were drowned in the lighthouse boat at 6 o’clock last evening, while coming from Glen Arbor and within a mile from the lighthouse. The boat upset. Following is a statement of the survivor who was picked up by our boat.”
“I Christ Ancharson, [sic] Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan, and their baby, left Glen Arbor at 3 o’clock with pleasant weather and wind south-southwest. All went well with us until within one mile of the lighthouse, when the wind went down and one of the old sails capsized the boat, and Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan held on to the keel for an hour. The baby first died in the arms of Mrs. Sheridan and finally both she and Mr. Sheridan dropped off and sank. Then I was left alone. I cried for help about four hours and a half, and at last my screams were heard about 10 o’clock p.m. when a boat came to my assistance. I was almost gone when they reached me.”
Years later it was written that Louisa Hutzler, who was ten years old at the time and grew up on the island, recalled that the Sheridan children walked the beach for days, crying as they searched for the bodies of their parents. It is definitely known that this did happen on the day of the accident. It has been reported that shortly after the heartbreaking accident that Aaron Sheridan’s hat and coat washed up on the beach, but the bodies of the three victims were never recovered or found.
As reported in the December, 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest, many years later a man named Ronald Rosie found a U.S. Lighthouse Establishment stopwatch in the sand on South Manitou Island. It is quite possible and highly likely that this watch once belonged to Aaron Sheridan. Interestingly and perhaps even strange, this Ronald Rosie was not a descendant of the Ronald W. Rosie, Sr., who was a lighthouse keeper at South Manitou Island in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Shortly after the accident the five surviving Sheridan children were taken to Yorkville, Illinois to live with their grandparents, Henry and Julia Moore. A freak and tragic accident had changed their lives forever. Although it could be said that the story of the Aaron Sheridan family history at South Manitou Island Lighthouse ends here but it did not, nor did the tragic events of that terrible day which continued to haunt the family for many years to come, And more tragedy was to follow.
The Sheridan Legacy Continues
Upon Aaron and Julia’s tragic deaths, Aaron’s first cousin, Lyman Sheridan, was able to secure the appointment on April 16, 1878 as the temporary keeper of the South Manitou Island Lighthouse, a position that later became permanent. Lyman Sheridan arrived at the lighthouse with his wife Mary and children Phillip, Lillian, Frances, and Frederick.
But again heartbreak struck the Sheridan clan at South Manitou Island Lighthouse. Lyman Sheridan’s wife Mary contracted tuberculosis and died. Lyman blamed the damp living conditions of the keeper’s house on his wife’s illness and death. Lyman Sheridan felt that enough was enough. He had experienced enough tragedy associated with this lighthouse and did not want to risk any more, so he resigned his position as lighthouse keeper effective on June 2, 1882. In fact, Lyman Sheridan was so distraught with life at the lighthouse that he did not even want to keep any of his furnishings and sold everything to his replacement, Martin N. Knudsen, including many furniture items that had once belonged to Aaron and Julia Sheridan.
At about that same time, Lyman’s Sheridan’s son, Phillip Sheridan, was appointed Acting 2nd keeper of the South Manitou Island Lighthouse, probably to help the new keeper, Martin N. Knudsen and his family, to settle into the lighthouse and to acclimate them with the duties associated with it. Apparently the memories of his relative’s untimely and tragic deaths at the South Manitou Island Lighthouse also caught up with Phillip, and the following year, on April 27, 1883, he also resigned his position.
However, lighthouses were in Phillip Sheridan’s blood and eight years later he again continued to follow in his father’s footsteps when he returned to South Manitou Island Lighthouse, this time as the 1st assistant keeper, a position that started on May 11, 1892. In November of 1895 Phillip Sheridan was honored for his hard work and was appointed head keeper of Michigan’s Point Betsie Lighthouse where he served until January 1, 1919 when he was transferred to become the head keeper at Indiana’s Michigan City East Pierhead Lighthouse, a position he held until his retirement on August 1, 1930. The tragic events of South Manitou Island Lighthouse must surely have followed him the rest of his life but he faithfully performed his duties to serve so that others could be saved.
Tragedy Strikes Again,
But the Legacy Continues
In the meantime, the children of Aaron and Julia Sheridan grew into adulthood in Illinois. But tragedy and heartbreak continued to follow them. In 1893 Levi Fisk Sheridan, the eldest son of Aaron and Julia Sheridan, met the same drowning fate as his parents. While working as a construction crewman on the Big Four Railroad Bridge that spanned the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky, one of the spans collapsed into the river, drowning 21 men, including Levi Fisk Sheridan. His brother George helped in the search for the bodies.
With such an immense family tragedy as befell the children of Aaron and Julia Sheridan at a lighthouse, one might have thought that none of them would ever want to be associated with lighthouses again. But such was not the case. Two sons, George and Alfred, both joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Perhaps they might have been somewhat influenced by their uncle Edwin J. Moore, who was also a lighthouse keeper.
However, Alfred’s time in the Lighthouse Service was short lived. On April 1, 1895 he received an appointment as a 2nd assistant keeper at the Grosse Point Lighthouse in Evanston, Illinois where his uncle Edwin J. Moore had been the keeper since August of 1888, a position he held until March 2, 1924 when he died. Moore might have helped Alfred Sheridan secure the job, but it did not last long. Whether he found out that lighthouse keeping was not his foray, or if he had trouble getting along with his uncle, will never be known, but nine months after becoming an assistant keeper he tendered his resignation, which was effective January 1, 1896. He eventually travelled to the west coast where he settled in Oregon.
On the other hand, Alfred’s brother, George Sheridan, had a long and distinguished career as a lighthouse keeper. However, the hand of fate of the Sheridan family tragedies eventually also caught up with him. On March 3, 1896 George Sheridan followed in his father’s light-keeping footsteps when he secured an appointment as the 3rd assistant keeper at the Chicago Harbor Breakwater Lighthouse in Illinois. Lighthouse life must have agreed with him, and approximately three years later he was able to secure a transfer and promotion to the position of 1st assistant keeper at the Calumet Pierhead Lighthouse, a position he held for a little over five years.
Then, on April 1, 1905, George became the 1st assistant keeper at the newly built Michigan City East Pierhead Lighthouse in Michigan City, Indiana. On June 15th of that year, George Sheridan married Sarah Unwin. Since there were no living quarters built into the newly constructed Michigan City East Pierhead Lighthouse, they moved into the former 1858 Michigan City Lighthouse that had recently been deactivated. For the next four years, life was good at the lighthouse. Then, on June 1, 1909, George Sheridan was officially appointed as the head keeper of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River Lighthouse.
Although lighthouse duties were pretty much the same at the Kalamazoo River Lighthouse, the remote location of the station created a certain amount of hardship for the family. They were used to living near populated areas, but this was not the case at the Kalamazoo River Lighthouse. Having a garden was impossible at the lighthouse; everything was sand.
By 1911 the family had grown to three sons: Joseph Unwin Sheridan, James E. Sheridan, and George Francis Sheridan. Just getting the oldest child Joseph to school was a major project; it required rowing across the Kalamazoo River and a two-mile walk through the woods, something that was not always possible in inclement weather.
Although the family was happy, the long and lonely winter months at the remote lighthouse started to take their toll on George Sheridan. Although he was instrumental in a number of rescues, the lighthouse did not have a phone, so calling for additional help was impossible.
George would sit in silence and stared out across the water, watching for someone in distress, perhaps thinking of the day when his parents and brother had drowned on that tragic day so many years ago at the South Manitou Island Lighthouse or thinking of his search for his other brother, Levi Fisk who had drowned in the Ohio River. As time went on, George’s mental state continued to deteriorate. He then sought medical help and he was diagnosed with melancholia – depressive manic. But in those days, the knowledge of how to treat this affliction was still in its infancy.
Then came the news that the Kalamazoo Lighthouse was to be discontinued and closed, and that George Sheridan was to await word of his transfer to the position of assistant keeper of the Lighthouse Depot in St. Joseph, Michigan. However, George was advised by his doctors to take some time off work and be hospitalized for treatment before accepting the new position. His family moved out of the lighthouse and into town.
George then went to Holland, Michigan where he took the train to Chicago and then made his way to Evanston, Illinois where he would be near his uncle, Edwin J. Moore, who was the keeper of the Grosse Point Lighthouse, and for treatment at the Evanston Sanatorium. After treatment he again returned to his family, but during the winter months it was realized that his condition had not improved. In March of 1915 George Sheridan decided to go back to Evanston and look for new medical assistance; perhaps some could be found in the big city of Chicago.
George Sherman arrived at the Grosse Point Lighthouse on March 20th to stay with his uncle. Shortly after his arrival at the lighthouse, he took a walk and never returned. He was discovered dead, hanging from a rafter in the boathouse at the lighthouse. Whether the tragic events of that fateful day at the South Manitou Island Lighthouse in 1878 and perhaps the drowning of his brother Levi Fisk in the Ohio River had caught up with him; how it had affected his mind will never be known, but it was another tragic end to a member of the Sheridan family of lighthouse keepers.
After George Sheridan’s death, Lewis M. Stoddard, Inspector for the 12th District, wrote, “Mr. Sheridan was considered one of the best and most trustworthy employees in the lighthouse service and this office deeply regrets his loss.”
Today the Sheridan family’s tradition of lighthouse keeping is still being carried forward. In 2013, Stephen Sheridan, a long-time member of the Board of Directors of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, was elected president of the distinguished non-profit lighthouse preservation organization.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2015 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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