Digest>Archives> December 1999

Marquette Memories


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The 1866 Marquette Harbor Lighthouse as it ...

The Walter Aho children have fond memories of their childhood years, as most families do - except their early years include life at a lighthouse . . .

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Walter Aho in his dress whites. His daughter Joan ...

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Walter P. Aho was the youngest of the Aho ...

Their father, Walter Aho, originally joined the Coast Guard, while it was still known as the Life-Saving Service. Except for his stint overseas during World Ward II, Walter Aho spent much of his 25 years in the Coast Guard stationed on Lake Superior. Although he retired in 1951, he recalled his many years of service on Lake Superior in a 1978 interview with the Sunday Sun Newspaper of Marquette, MI. "The lake has been my life," he said.

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Walter Aho from a photograph taken during World ...

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The Coast Guard family of Walter and Margaret ...

He joined as a surfman, which he said in those days, they were called "sand-pounders," because that's what they did, "pound the sand," meaning they walked the sand twice a night, from 8 to 11PM and again from midnight to 3AM watching for distress signals from ships or pleasure crafters. He took part in many rescues and rescue attempts, many of them life threatening, many times wondering if they would get back alive.

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Marquette Harbor Lighthouse as it appears today.
Photo by: Nancy Schneiter of Marquette, Michigan

One time, off Granite Rock Lighthouse they were assigned to locate the body of a drowned fishermen when a blizzard hit and the engine on the station's 36 foot life-boat gave out and they drifted in high seas for hours. He said that although the life-boats were reliable, the engines were not and they often gave out. They were always conducting drills, especially capsize drills and every member had to learn to sail and row the life-boats in every kind of weather condition imaginable.

He said that the Coast Guard was good to him, and it was probably the best thing for him since his formal education ended in the ninth grade. Considering he could only speak Finnish when he entered school, he was pretty proud of what he had accomplished. Maybe being of Finnish decent is what made him such a good Coast Guardsman.

ois (Aho) Hoppe, the second oldest of the Aho children recalled her memories of their life living at the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse in Marquette Michigan.

"We lived on the ground floor of the lighthouse which was built on a rock point stretching out into the lake. The house had a half basement beneath it. On one half of the basement was my mother's laundry area, and on the other half a small door led into the cave-like area beneath the house. As you entered, you found yourself among the huge rocks of this point which the house was built upon. I suppose in the early days this served as the root cellar. It made a neat play area, but you really had to be careful because of the jagged rocks. Us three girls spent a few hours playing and sharing "secrets" in this neat hideaway.

"I also recall playing amongst the cedar trees near the fog signal building at the end of the point. A narrow walkway built on rails with cement above the rocks and trees led from the lighthouse to the fog signal building. We called it the catwalk. Near the end of the catwalk, close to the fog signal building was a group of cedar trees where my friends would gather and be protected from the cool breezes of the lake. One summer day two of my friends and I had the great idea of going down to the fog signal among the cedar trees to try to smoke a cigar! One of the girl's fathers (also a Coast Guardsman) smoked cigars, and she had snuck one for us to try. We had just "lit up" when to our surprise we heard voices coming from above the catwalk. Low and behold, it was our two Dads on their way down to the fog signal! We heard one of them say, 'Do you smell cigar smoke?' When we heard that, did we put that cigar out in a hurry! We were not discovered, but it frightened us so badly that you can bet we never tried that again!"

Mary Ann (Aho) Johnson, the first born of the Aho children was 14 years old when they moved into the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. Although she has many fond memories of life at the lighthouse her strongest memories are about growing up in a Coast Guard family. She recalled, "I loved the water and the Coast Guard boats! I was very proud of my "Daddy" and thought he really looked handsome in his uniform. Being the oldest, I got to go more places with him. He would actually let me drive the Coast Guard boat sometimes which made me feel real special." She recalled that one time her father took a group of Sea Scouts on a trip to Presque Isle and on the return trip the water swells got extremely rough and she got seasick and thinking they would never make it back alive she kept saying, "I'm never going to see my mother again" As confident as she was in the water and with her "Daddy" at the controls of the boat, she knew from her fathers teaching that a storm on Lake Superior, even a small one, can be extremely dangerous.

Joan (Aho) Eskew who was ten years old when her parents moved into Marquette Harbor Lighthouse shared some of her memories with us. "At ten years of age, the biggest thing on your mind is playing, but looking back on those days now, I have to consider all the things my folks had to endure back then. Just moving into the lighthouse wasn't easy. First of all, you had to climb fifty-two stairs (although my sister claims it was 64 stairs) just to reach the ground floor entrance. On the steep hill in front of the house was a set of small railroad tracks containing a small wooden cart that could be pulled up the hill by a winch located in a wooden building next to the lighthouse. There wasn't much of anything in the building and it wasn't heated, but it made a good place for us kids to play during inclement weather when we couldn't go outside. The wooden cart was used to move all of our furniture and personal belongings into the lighthouse, which took numerous trips because of the small size of the cart. As children, we liked to push the cart as far up the hill as we could, jump in, and ride it down the hill to the bottom. You had to hang on pretty tight and be careful not to get splinters in your hands. You got a pretty good bump when it hit the block at the end and came to a halt.

I'm also reminded of all the groceries and supplies which had to be carried up those 52 or 64 steps in order to feed our large family. Those steps were not my friend, I can't tell you how many times I fell on them. The odd thing is that I never fell down them, I always fell up them.

Joan recalled her first nights at the lighthouse when they thought they would never get used to the noise the big light made as it turned. The light came on at dusk and went off at dawn. "When it came on, you would hear a big clunking sound, and then just a humming through the night. We eventually got used to the sound and after living there for some time we really had to stop and listen carefully to know if the light was on or not. Sometimes we'd hear it come on at the same time and say in unison, "the light just came on."

Joan also recalled how she and her sister Lois would play with their dolls in the lantern room, but only during daylight hours when the light was not on.

"Marquette Harbor Lighthouse had three fog horns back in those days," Joan recalled. She said, "One was located at the end of the outer harbor breakwater, one at the end of the upper harbor breakwater, and the other was located near the lighthouse in the fog signal building. They would blow one after another, and all made a different sound. The two breakwater horns were not as loud as the one located near the lighthouse. Our last name is Aho, pronounced a-hoe or aw-hoe, and we used to say that the big fog horn was calling us because it sounded like Awww-who when it went off. After our Dad retired from the U.S. Coast Guard we lived across the bay about 5 miles south of Marquette on the shores of Lake Superior, but continued to hear that fog horn for many years. We always said that it was calling us home. That old fog horn is no longer in operation, the new one has a much different sound and can still be heard from our home across the bay, but it isn't calling us home anymore."

This story appeared in the December 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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