Digest>Archives> August 1999

John Nolen's Journal

By Richard Clayton

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Michigan's Gull Rock Lighthouse sits on a small ...
Photo by: Bob and Sandra Shanklin

Lighthouse Keepers were instructed to keep a log indicating the changing weather conditions and to record any unusual sightings or shipwrecks.

John Nolen, the head keeper at the Gull Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior in Michigan, did just that and more. He arrived as the keeper, April 20, 1897, and like many other lighthouse keepers, the log became his family journal as well. Mr. Nolen was an expressive writer with a wonderful stroke of the pen. His log read like a book that one hates to put down.

October 12: "The men could not work at the boat ways today, as the sea was coming up to the boat house door and spray was flying across the rock. Not many boats today."

Then in November, the ice began forming on the lake and he was reporting daily ship movements and how they were having difficult times going in and around the ice buildups. On December 1st, he wrote, "No boats in sight at sunrise. No hope of going ashore today. I spent the day washing towels and working the lamps. The freezing is very keen."

He left the station the next day at 9 o'clock in the morning in a rowboat and arrived at Copper Harbor at 1:00pm. He obviously had great stamina as well as courage to have spent four hours rowing on a lake that was freezing over on a cold day.

He found his family to be well, his lovely wife, Alice, their 5-year old son Jamie and their precious baby girl, Violet, who was 10 months old. John stayed ashore for a little over four months waiting for the first sign of a thaw.

April 17, 1898 "We arrived at this station and found the rock covered with ice. I found the station as I left it last December 3rd, in good condition. Got everything ready and lit it up at 6:45 this evening. We can see the Stanard Rock Light tonight. Baby Violet is not feeling well today."

The news in that part of Michigan, at that time, traveled worldwide by the telegraph lines to newspapers in the cities and via word of mouth to the outlying areas.

May 8, 1898 "Sunday. I returned to the station at 3:30 pm with the good news of Commodore Dewey's victory over the Spanish Fleet in Manila Harbor in the Philippine Islands on the Pacific Ocean. He annihilated the Spanish Fleet and silenced the forts at Manila and Cavite."

Nolen would quite often row over to Manitou Island Light or the Keeper there would come over to visit him and they would exchange supplies. They did a lot of fishing on the lake and shared their respective catches.

His life that summer was quite routine and he again closed the station on December 3rd. It must have been a long, hard winter, because he stayed on the mainland for five whole months before returning to Gull Rock.

May 4, 1899: "I started for the Station, alone, in the lighthouse sailboat at 7am. The wind was out of the east and I had a hard time getting through the ice. I had to beat and row all the way down and arrived at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Found quite a lot of ice around the Rock. I found the lighthouse very damp and lots of paint was coming off the tower. I got the lamps ready and in shape and lit up at 7:00pm." (That would have been a hard-working, cold and damp twelve hour plus day.)

His wife and two children joined him at the station in June for a quiet summer.

July 4th: "We had a little celebration of firing off firecrackers and some fireworks in the evening. We did not fire off many because of the dense fog. Even though it was foggy, we all enjoyed ourselves."

His wife and two-year-old daughter, Violet, went ashore in August. His son, Jamie, stayed with John at the Light Station until after Thanksgiving.

December 6, 1899: "Cloudy and cold wind north east. I have put everything away for the winter. Got the rowboat ready and closed the station at 9:00am. My son, Jamie, 7 years old, and I left for Copper Harbor and arrived at 11:00am. I found my family well." (Apparently, Nolan carried the log book with him when he left the island for the winter months.)

He and his wife Alice decided to move to the city of Calumet, Michigan, so that Jamie could start school there. They rented a fairly nice one bedroom house on the outskirts of town. The house was really too small for the four of them, but it was cozy and it would only be for the winter.

Jamie was enrolled in a one-room schoolhouse and there were several children in the room. He shared a desk with another boy the same age. He was learning his letters and numbers and doing very well. He would come home in the afternoon and recite all he had learned to his mother.

Life was drastically different in the city as compared to living at the lighthouse on Gull Rock. It was depressing being held in the tenacious grip of winter when the gray skies were thick with soot and the pavement deep in slush.

Jamie had been in school about a month when he came home one afternoon complaining of a sore throat and a headache. Alice noticed he was running a little fever and she put him to bed early that evening.

The next morning. Jamie's fever had worsened and he had difficulty in swallowing his breakfast. His tongue was covered by a white coat with red spots. The Nolens were very concerned and agreed he should stay home. They were putting cold cloths on his forehead to bring down the fever. That evening, as Alice was preparing to give Jamie a bath, she saw his body was covered with bright red spots. John ran to the police constable's home to ask about a doctor. It was then that he learned there were other children with the same symptoms and that a doctor from Houghton was on his way. The doctor said that it sounded like Scarlet Fever.

Their friends and neighbors told them of a few patent medicines they could buy at the store that supposedly were guaranteed to help. The most popular one for children with sore throats was Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup. It had morphine in it to deaden the pain. (Can you imagine that kind of treatment for our children today?)

The doctor and a nurse arrived at the Nolan's home a few days later and verified that Jamie had Scarlatina, commonly called Scarlet Fever. The doctor told them to buy some vapor rub and spread it on his neck and chest. Also, he should breath in steam with vapor rub added to the water. There was a new treatment being recommended for the rash. The boy should soak in a tub of 90-degree water to soothe the rash.

The policeman posted a quarantine sign on their home. He said all the children in Calumet were being ordered to stay in their homes. The doctor now believed that the illnesses were probably caused by contaminated milk.

On February 8, 1900, Jamie died. Age, 7 years and 4 months. John made a coffin for Jamie and he carried the precious little box to the cemetery for burial. Two other children had died the same day. The Nolens were devastated. John wanted to move right back to Copper Harbor, but they were still under quarantine. The sickness continued to take its toll among the children in the city.

March 13, 1900, Violet died at the age of 3 years and 2 months. The quarantine was lifted in April. The Epidemic was over,, but had taken its terrible toll.

At 10am, on April 23rd, the Nolens, along with the Assistant Keeper, arrived back at the lighthouse aboard the tugboat "Silver Spray". They found the Rock all covered with ice and discovered that all the walkways on the east end of the dwelling had been washed away. The sea must have gone clean over the Rock last fall. Nolan lit the light at 7pm.

He wrote a brief account of their decision to enroll Jamie in school in Calumet, and the dates of the children's deaths from Scarlet Fever. He ended the accounting with a poignant tribute to their dearly departed children, as penned these lines in the Gull Rock logbook - "O! How we long for the touch of those little vanished hands-and the voices we loved that are still."

Alice must have been four months pregnant when she arrived at Gull Rock with her husband, because the entry of November 11th says; "Sunday today. The tug "Little Jerry" came and took Mrs. Nolan and baby Francis as far as Bete Grise at 2pm."

It is noted that on the 4th of July in 1902, they had a little celebration of fireworks to please baby Francis. A later notation in the log dated April 25, 1903 says, "Mrs Nolen with the two children arrived on the tug "Cora A Sheldon."

John Nolan was stationed as Keeper of Gull Rock for ten years and in May 1907, he was transferred as the Keeper, to the Eagle Harbor Light. His wife and family could join him there in a lovely home next to the light tower.

And they lived happily ever after.

This story appeared in the August 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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