Digest>Archives> March 1999

Michigan Island: The Mistake That Became a Treasure

By Jim Merkel


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The old and the new towers of Michigan Island's ...
Photo by: Bob & Sandra Shanklin

On her way up the stairway of the working light tower of the Michigan Island Light Station, Ann Mahan utters a key statement about the station.

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Gene Wilkins, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore ...
Photo by: Jim Merkel

"One of the unique things lighthouse-wise is that it has the two lighthouses," said Mahan, half of a husband-and-wife writing and picture-taking team specializing in the Great Lakes. In that sentence, Mahan sums up much of the charm of the light station, which contains at the same time the oldest and the newest light towers of the six light stations of Lake Superior's Apostle Islands.

The charm comes in the reason why there are two light towers on Michigan Island. For here is a subject for an expose on a late 1850's version of 60 Minutes. In it, the viewer would see the Mike Wallace of 140 years past, pursuing a government customs agent or contractor who's running away from the camera, all the while shouting, "So how did you wind up putting that lighthouse on the wrong island?"

Indeed, somebody goofed bad when the government sent a contractor out in 1857 with instructions to put a lighthouse next to the old fur trading center at LaPointe, which was at the center of the Apostle Islands, and then was the chief port of western Lake Superior. The government blamed the contractor for the boo-boo, ordered the contractor to put the right lighthouse in the right place, and kept the one at Michigan Island dark. The government eventually decided to use the mistakenly-built light tower, but decided it wasn't right for the conditions at Michigan Island, and erected a taller one in 1929.

If Michigan Island is a monument to colossal goof-ups, there is redemption, in the beauty of the light station's buildings, and in at least one harrowing story involving a lighthouse keeper in the 1890s.

It's possible to see it by travelling to a beach on the southwestern corner of the 3-1/2 mile-long island, and walking up steps leading to the top of a 110-foot-tall bluff. At the top, in a clearing in the midst of a forest, visitors will see an older (and non-functioning) 64-foot-tall brick and masonry tower, with quarters attached. They'll also see a 118-foot-tall steel tower erected in 1929, and a newer quarters building. Those going to the top of the taller tower will see a Model DCB-24 optic light, with a plastic and acrylic lens, installed in 1975. If they want to see the original Fresnel lens used at Michigan Island, that's at the Visitors Center of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield, WI.

Visitors to the Apostle Islands can get a taste of the stories and beauty of the Michigan Island Light Station any time during the summer season, by hiring a water taxi from the Apostle Islands Cruise Service. In spite of the loveliness of the place, Michigan is not among the two light stations in the Apostles included in stops in inexpensive regular summertime boat trips offered by the Apostle Islands Cruise Service.

"Ones who come to Michigan Island really want to come," said Gene Wilkins, a retired physical therapist and petroleum geologist who lives in Texas, and a volunteer at Michigan Island in the summer season. While on Michigan, he lives in the newer quarters, which were completed in 1928. "Those island stations where the cruise boats go by really get a lot of visitation."

The cruise service will make excursions to Michigan Island and all other Apostle Islands lighthouses during the Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration Sept. 8-29. People can get information by writing to Keeper of the Light, P.O. Box 990, 19 Front St., Bayfield, Wisconsin 54814, by calling 800-779-4487 or by visiting their web site at www.apostleislands.com.

The story visitors will learn about Michigan Island began in 1855, with the opening of the Sault Canal, past the rapids leading into Lake Superior. That brought an explosion of settlement and commerce into Lake Superior, and a need for markers to guide the shipping that soon would come.

Although Duluth eventually would become the biggest port of Lake Superior, by far the biggest one when the Sault Canal opened was LaPointe, on the western end of Madeline Island, about 17 miles southeast of Michigan Island.

Soon, mariners petitioned the Lighthouse Board to have a lighthouse to mark the entry to the harbor at LaPointe. The Lighthouse Board approved the idea, and in the summer of 1857, sent a private contractor to put the lighthouse up."You know what they say in the military or in the bureaucracy, 'There's always somebody who doesn't get the word,'" said Bob Mackreth, historian for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which has charge of 21 of the 22 Apostle Islands, and all six of that island group's historic light stations. He made the tongue-in-cheek point during a speech on the lighthouses of the Apostles, given at last year's Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration.

In his talk, he said a crew came out knowing it had to build a lighthouse, but didn't exactly know where to put it. "From what we can best reconstruct, they went to the only representative of the federal government who was out here, the collector of customs at LaPointe. 'We're here to build your lighthouse,'" Mackreth said.

"The collector said he didn't know anything about a lighthouse," Mackreth said wryly, continuing his reconstruction of events. "They said, 'Well, where do you want it? We gotta build a lighthouse.'" He said, 'Well, guess on Michigan Island would probably be the best place.'"

The historian chuckled. "So the crew went out. They did take much effort hauling material up the cliff. Built a fine little lighthouse on Michigan Island. There was only one problem. That wasn't where it was supposed to go. The lighthouse was supposed to go much closer to the actual port of LaPointe." The contractor made a report to the Lighthouse Board office in Detroit on the construction of the lighthouse, and was told he wouldn't get anything until he built a station at his own expense, in the right spot, at LaPointe. The contractor built the second lighthouse, and Michigan Island wasn't used.

In 1863, one of the contractors, J.B. Smith, sent a somewhat confusing letter to Lighthouse Board Chairman Rear Admiral W.B. Shubrick appealing for more money, and giving his side of the story. "(We) had a boat loaded with the material and implements for the construction of the works and a crew of 38 men and laborers waiting to go to work. To have received definite instructions from Washington would have occasioned the ruinous delay of nearly, if not quite, two months," Smith wrote. "I don't think we'll ever know for sure what transpired," Mackreth said.

Ironically, about eight years after the construction of the lighthouse at Michigan Island, the government decided it wanted to use it after all. But it wasn't high enough, and the government erected another one in 1929. That second tower had been on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, and was dismantled and shipped to Michigan Island.

The story of the two lighthouses is evident to visitors to Michigan Island. But there is one story that may not be discovered by a visitor, that of the harrowing ride of Robert Carlson and his brother.

In 1893, Robert Carlson became keeper at Michigan Island light, bringing his wife Anna Maria and their two-year-old girl and nine-month-old twin boys with them. When winter came, and ice covered the lake, the shipping season ended, and the lighthouses shut down until spring. Usually, keepers took their families to the shore to spend the winter. But the Carlsons decided they would spend those cold months on the island. With them was her husband's brother, who was assistant keeper, making the island's total population six.

Anna Maria later described herself as totally intimidated by the experience of living at an island lighthouse. "She said when the men would go out during the day, she would lock the door behind, even though she knew there was no one else around," said Mackreth, who got his information from an account Anna Maria gave years later. One morning in that winter of 1893, Carlson and his brother went off to go ice fishing. When they didn't return by suppertime, and still were gone by morning, Anna Maria concluded the worst had occurred. "She was faced with the presumption that, number one, she's a widow; and, number two, that she's going to be out there on the island with her infants until someone turns up in the spring," Mackreth said.

Despite the despair, she knew she had to care for her children. That was the thing that got her through. To get food, she turned to a cow that provided milk for the family. She hadn't personally milked it, but had watched her husband do it. So she went into the cow's stall, only to be chased out. Then she used an ax to chop a hole into the side of the stall, reached in, and got the milk she needed for her children.

Although she knew there was provision for her children, the fate of her husband and her brother-in-law remained a mystery. What she couldn't know was that the ice floe they were fishing on had broken away, and now was floating away.

Had the floe continue to float to the northeast, those on it would certainly die when it broke apart. Instead, it floated to Madeline Island, four miles to the southwest, where the brothers hopped, with difficulty, onto other floes, and then to the shore. There, the Carlson brothers broke into an old fisherman's shanty. They found some flour and mixed it with water, providing paste that restored their strength.

Next, they found a leaky old boat, which they repaired, using some tar they'd also found. With difficulty, they maneuvered the boat back across the lake, floating when they broke through and pushing it when they were on ice.

Four days after they left, the Carlson brothers returned, to the enormous relief of Anna Maria.

Considering what almost happened to Robert Carlson and his brother, it would be reasonable to conclude that somebody was being foolishly frugal in deciding to spend the winter on Michigan Island. In fact, said Mackreth, an account by Anna Maria much later made it clear the family stayed on the island over the winter to avoid having to take their three young children off the island at the end of the season. "Having been out on the lake in late autumn myself, I can appreciate her concerns," said Mackreth. "So maybe they weren't pinching pennies, but instead were looking out for their kids' welfare as best they could. It was still a questionable decision in hindsight, but who among us hasn't made a bad call now and then?"

Mackreth sees in the story of the Carlsons, and in the beauty of its structures, a reason for the mistakes of an earlier time. "When I look at the building of Michigan Island, I think of the horrendous mix-up in putting the lighthouses in the wrong place. I look at the buildings and I see how beautiful they are, and then I also think of the Carlson kids and their parents and what they went through in the winter of 1893," Mackreth said.

To view the lighthouses of the Apostle Islands, the greatest concentration of lighthouses in the coastal United States, you might want to order the video, Lighthouses of the Apostles, which is available from Lighthouse Depot as item #26504 for $24.95 plus $4.95 shipping, from Lighthouse Depot, PO Box 427, Wells, Maine 04090, or tollfree at 1-800-758-1444 or visit us online at www.lighthousedepot.com.

Anna Maria Carlson wife of Lighthouse Keeper Robert Carlson on Michigan Island Lighthouse. A 1931 article in the Detroit News described what happened to her at Michigan Island in 1891 with gigantic headlines that read Four Days of Terror. In that interview, Anna Maria, described being stranded on the island during the winter months when her husband did not return from fishing. "On the third day I could stand the house no longer. Leaving the little girl with the twins, I put on my hat and coat and went down to the shore. You don't know what the Michigan Island is in winter. Unbroken trails through the woods, ice hummocks barring the way, deep gulches of snow into which I stumbled, the bitter, cutting wind from the lake lashing my face; and, above all, the sight of that white expanse which was holding my husband from me.

It seemed hours afterward that I came back to the house. The twins were asleep in the cradle. Little sister was rocking them. As I closed the door, I fell to the floor, screaming. I screamed at the top of my voice, until I was exhausted. And still my husband did not come. There was another terrible night before me."

Mrs. Carlson paused, her hands gripped together, her chest heaving.

"You know," she said, apologetically, "how it is with women. Sometimes when we think we can't endure any longer, it does us good to let go like that. I think that if I had not screamed, I would have lost my mind.

That night I slept a little. On the fourth day the weather had cleared, but it was still bitterly cold. I went about the house in a daze. The same chores had to be done, the children had to be cared for. How I hated Lake Superior!

I was doing some task about the kitchen that afternoon when I heard my husband's voice. 'I'm all right, Anna,' he called to me. 'Don't be afraid.'

The next moment I was in his arms, sobbing and laughing in real hysterics.

My husband told me that he had been afraid to come in without first calling to me. He said he was afraid -afraid. He thought I might have killed the children and myself."

In later years, the United States Lighthouse Service recognized her contributions by officially appointing her Assistant Keeper while her husband served as Keeper at the Marquette Lighthouse. When the Assistant Keeper of Granite Island Lighthouse was drowned in a boating accident, the U.S. Lighthouse Service appointed her to the station to take his place until a new replacement could be found. A barren outcrop of rocks eleven miles from shore, Granite Island is one of the most forbidding spots on Lake Superior, but Anna Maria filled the job for ten days, filling the shoes of a dead man. She had come a long way from the "city-bred" girl who went into hysterics on Michigan Island Light.

This story appeared in the March 1999 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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