Digest>Archives> August 1999

Outer Island: Place of Remoteness and Beauty

By Jim Merkel


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Wisely did the Ojibway Indians choose the adjective Outermost for the island on the northeastern edge of the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior. It befits the tone of the place that appears on modern maps as Outer Island.

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In naming the nearly-8,000-acre chunk of land Outer Island, the namers were not only saying the place is at the edge of an archipelago just off Wisconsin. They were putting those who would come into contact with Outer Island on notice about the remoteness of the life they would face there, more than 25 miles from Bayfield, WI, the gateway to the Apostle Islands. Chief among those who needed to know were the keepers and families who would live at a lighthouse that went into service on the northern end of the island in 1874.

"When you talk about romance and loneliness, it's kind of hard to beat the Outer Island station for its beauty and its setting," said Bob Mackreth, historian for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. In a talk at the 1998 Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration, Mackreth spoke of the loneliness and beauty of the island, and of the world class sunsets available for viewing for the visitor. "To my mind, it's strictly one of the most aesthetically appealing of the Apostle Islands lighthouses."

Yet that setting means only a few visitors to the Apostles get a close look at the Outer Island Lighthouse. "It's perhaps the least visited lighthouse of all the Apostle Islands, but when people go there, I know they are impressed by its beauty," said Bob Wiinamaki, a former cruise boat captain in the Apostles.

To get there, the visitor must use his own boat, hire a water taxi or sign up for a special cruise during the annual Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration in September. (The celebration, being held in 1999 from Sept. 8-29, offers cruises to all six Apostle Islands light stations, as well as talks and other special events. For details, call 1-888-779-4487.) Once on the shore, that visitor then has to climb a stairway leading up a 40-foot-tall red clay bluff. On top of the bluff, another climb awaits to the top of the 90-foot tower, by way of a cast iron spiral staircase leading to a watchroom.

"The view from the top of the light is panoramic, including most of Outer Island, islands to the west and south, the north shore of Lake Superior from Duluth-Superior to shore over sixty miles to the north," Dave Strzok, owner of the Apostle Islands Cruise Service, wrote in his book, A Visitors Guide to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

With hooded arched windows and decorated brackets supporting the watchroom walkway, the whitewashed brick lighthouse tower is clearly influenced by the Italianate architectural style of the 1860s and 1870s. At the bottom of the tower, a wooden passageway leads to the three-story red brick keeper's quarters.

What the visitor won't see is a third-order Fresnel lens, with a central band of six glass prism bull's-eye panels. In the late 1930s, the light was electrified, allowing automatic operation in the winter, when keepers weren't present. The Fresnel lens was removed in 1961, when the station was fully automated. In a nearby building, visitors can see an air diaphram fog signal run by air compressors and diesel engines, installed in 1925. That replaced a locomotive whistle, with a coal-fired boiler used to build up steam pressure.

"The fog signal at Outer Island is in the best condition of any of the fog signals here in the Apostles," Mackreth said. "None of the historic fog signals are operational. This is the one that's closest to its original condition. Who knows? Perhaps some day, they might be able to restore it."

As much as the buildings attract the history and lighthouse enthusiast, there are simpler pleasures awaiting.

Julie Van Stappen, who oversees the natural resources program for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, has found time for plenty of trips to the top of the tower in her visits to Outer Island. "It's one of my favorite spots," Van Stappen said. "When you look out the lighthouse, you're looking out across Lake Superior . . . Obviously, lighthouses are great for views."

When John Irvine looked out from the Outer Island Light Station on Sept. 2, 1905, he had a view that wasn't nearly as pleasant as the ones Van Stappen enjoys on her breaks from work.

Irvine, who was keeper at Outer Island for more than 10 years starting in March 1898, began his entries in the station's log book for Sept. 2, 1905, the same way he almost always did.

"2 - Cleaning, Trimming Lamps and Lens. Tending Signal." The monotony ended with the next sentence. "A Terable gale blowing from the NE, the Biggest Sea that I have seen since I have been at the Station which is eight years. About 2:30 PM, sighted a Schooner at anchor about too miles NE of Station. About 4 PM seen [a] small boat leaving Schooner. I, the Keeper, huried down the beach with a white flag in my hand, and a piece of rope to render what assistance I could. I helped to pull five men ashore, pretty well eshausted.

"Five were drowned. The crew consisted [of] Captain Charles Smart and nine of a crew. The Captain, Mate, and three Seamen were saved. Four Seamen, and the cook who was colored, drowned.

"Sunday 3- Cleaning, triming Lamps and Lens. Doing what we could for the comfort of the Captain and his four men who was saved last night. They are all much improved today after a good nights rest and sleep. Weather moderating.

"4- Cleaning, triming Lamps and Lens and other necessary work. Tending to the rescued men. They were all able to go along the beach looking for the bodies of those that perished. None were found. They all got back to the Station by Noon. While at dinner, the Steamer "Venezuela" came in sight looking for her consort, which was the "Pretoria", which she could plainly see as it looks like too thirds of her Spars is above water. We signaled the Steamer. She sent a boat ashore at 2 PM, and took the men off. The sea was pretty well run down so that they did not have any truble in landing here. The "Pretoria" hailed from Duluth. She belonged to Captain James Davidson of Bay City, Mich. She was loaded with iron ore from Aloucies Bay [bound] for South Chicago. I expect She will be a Total Wreck as her decks is all coming ashore."

The entries, printed with all the original grammatical errors and misspelled words, describe one of two wrecks that occurred the same day in the Apostles, in an historic Lake Superior storm.

Towed by the tug Venezuala, the schooner barge Pretoria went down after the tow line between the two vessels snapped, just north of Outer Island. During the same storm, the 3,100-ton steamship Sevona broke apart when it struck a shoal on the western end of the Apostles, near the Sand Island Lighthouse, sending seven to their deaths.

It's the kind of story that excites lovers of lighthouse stories. But it was, in fact, a horrendous break from the routine of life at the Outer Island Lighthouse. Indeed, the log did report the wedding in Bayfield on Aug. 23 of Irvine's son and First Assistant, Thomas E. Irvine. It reported as well how the younger Irvine came back on Sept. 5 with his young wife and Robert Irvine, "a Brother of the Keeper, who had not seen each other for 28 years."

That excitement aside, much of the logbook that Irvine kept is filled with reports of his daily "cleaning, triming Lamps and Lens," and other routine matters.

Gene Wilkins knows well how routine the entries could be. A retiree from Texas, he's served for several years as a summertime volunteer at light stations in the Apostles. In off-seasons, he painstakingly made his way through about 1,300 pages of microfilmed Outer Island logbooks from 1874 to 1947, transcribing them onto computer disks. His efforts to copy the log, word-for-word and misspelling for misspelling, only making minor changes and comments when absolutely necessary, are reflected in the excerpts from the log printed herein.

"It was interesting to see the different personalities that shined through in different keepers as they would make entry into the log," Wilkins said. From his work, Wilkins notes the interaction that occurred between the keepers and the fishermen on the south end of the island.

The log book also revealed that most years from 1874 to 1880, there were people at the Outer Island Lighthouse all year long. This is in spite of the fact that winter ice brought the shutdown of Lake Superior light stations from December through the start of spring. The logs do record shutdowns of the Outer Island Lighthouse those winters.

The year-round nature adds to the drama of some of the log entries in the early years at the station:

"1876 "February 7 - Walked to other side of the Island called Sand Point. >From the observation it appears all frozen between Hemlock, Presquele and this Island. Ice water between Michigan and this. In coming home undertook to come on southeast side thus making the crook of the Island, but found water close to shore about 2 miles up. Was forced to walk back and take the NW side again. Left at 1 PM arrived home 6 1/2 PM. Walked about 20 miles. The smooth ice is only about 6 " thick. Don't think it safe to try and go to Bayfield yet.

"April 10 .... At 4 AM the 3rd Assistant arrives, a boy, weighs 8 1/2 lbs. troy weight. This is an important event, at least to me. Mother and Babe are doing well.

"1879 Thursday (December) 25- SW, light, clear. Sunshine this forenoon. Thur. 13 below at 7 AM; 20 at 10 AM; moderated to 18 by 9 PM. Wind fresh, NW, tonight. Lake full of drifting ice all day. The children enjoyed their first Christmas Tree very much.

"1880 "Tuesday (January) 13- SE, light, cloudy. 4 below to 20 above. The Second Assistant and I went half way across to the Cat (Island)[and] examining the ice find it very rough all the way. On coming close to shore on our way back found the ice had moved off from 20 to 40 feet. By running back a piece we managed to get ashore by jumping from cake to cake of ice, and none too soon.

Saturday (October) 16-[...] By 2 o'clock it blew a Hurricane accompanied by heavy rain. It blew the hardest from 3:30 AM to 12 midnight tearing up trees, snapping off large hemlock and birch at the trunk as if but saplings. Between here and the landing, also back of the clearing, more than half of the trees are blown down. The cap on top of the chimney blowed off. Some of the planks off the sidewalk were thrown 20 feet away.

The Tower swayed like the top of a tree; and the Lens, well, it is a wonder to me that a piece of it is left. It was sublime and grand in its fury."

Although the storms made life rough for the keepers and their families, Wilkins said, "It wasn't a hard job, like say the stone masons or quarry miners."

Whether the keepers' lives were hard or easy, their presence helped to ease the mind of people like Wiinamaki. He sees a source of comfort for his father, in the nearly 50 years the elder Wiinamaki sailed on the Great Lakes. "It's very close to me because I know they have been a part of my family, my father's life, all his life on the Great Lakes."

Robert E. Parker has an even closer connection to Outer Island. Now 78, the Hermantown, Minn. resident, was in the Coast Guard from 1941 to 1961, and Outer Island keeper in 1952 and 1953.

"All these lights were the same at the time. They had their own generators and battery banks for electricity and they had their own motor launch for running into town for supplies and mail," he said. Running eight to nine miles an hour, it took about 3-1/2 hours to get into Bayfield, he said."

"They get some pretty good storms on Lake Superior, especially in the fall," said Parker, who was one of four men stationed at Outer Island. In the late 1940s, Parker's brother Walter Parker was involved in the recovery of an important artifact of Outer Island, while he was in charge of the Coast Guard moorings in Bayfield. On a visit to Outer Island, he got into a conversation with two men stationed at Outer, who had been swimming on the beach near the dock.

"I found a bell. There's a bell at the bottom of the lake," one of them told Walter Parker. "They dove down and they tried to move it. But it (was) attached to a piece of timber." Eventually, the bell was raised to the top of the water. It was the bell from the Pretoria, above the water for the first time since Sept. 2, 1905! So Lake Superior could claim the Pretoria, but couldn't keep all of it. Appropriately, those who helped bring it up were successors of John Irvine, the Outer Island keeper who was present when the vessel went down.

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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