On his first visit to the Long Island Light Station in Lake Superior, Jim Nepstad had an experience that illustrates the impression many have about the station's historic navigational aids.
"I had kind of been told that this particular light is not quite as historic as some of the other lights in the lakeshore," said Nepstad, management assistant for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
"I went with low expectations and walked away really pleased with it," said Nepstad, who made his first visit to the light station in September 1999, not long after he came to the Apostle Islands. "The location itself that it's in is probably one of the nicest physical locations for a lighthouse within the lakeshore. It's just right off of a beautiful sandy beach."
Nepstad, who is working to establish an Apostle Islands Lighthouse Foundation, is not alone in diminishing the importance of the Long Island Light Station located on the far southern end of the lakeshore's 22 islands.
Long Island is often the last considered and last visited of the six historic Apostle Islands light stations. One popular lighthouse book, for example, listed the Apostle light stations at Devils, Sand, Outer, Raspberry and Michigan islands as attractions on the southern shore of Lake Superior, but left off the one at Long Island.
Periodic non-stop Apostle Islands lighthouse cruises take tourists by the above-mentioned five lights, but bypass Long Island. Dave Strzok, who operates the Apostle Islands Cruise Service, said Long Island is too far out of the way to be part of the tour. In addition, shallow water extending into the lake prevents cruise boats from coming close enough for a good view, while trees make it hard to see the towers.
If it appears there's a conspiracy to diminish the importance of the navigational aids on Long Island, that's nothing new. Seemingly, that plot began even before there was a lighthouse on that narrow sand spit.
When the government decided there should be a lighthouse to guard the approach to the little port town of La Pointe, the plans were to establish the light on Long Island. But by a foul-up that grew out of the lack of quick communications in the 1850s, a contractor built a lighthouse 17 miles to the northeast, on Michigan Island. The government then told the contractor to build another lighthouse on the right spot, if it wanted to get paid. Hence, what should have been the first lighthouse in the Apostle Islands was actually the second.
A more recent omission also worked to make the buildings and two light towers of the Long Island Light Station the most overlooked of the six stations of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
"Long Island was not added to the National Lakeshore until considerably after the rest of the islands," said Bob Mackreth, historian at the lakeshore. While the lakeshore was created in 1970, Long Island wasn't part of the lakeshore until the middle of the 1980s.
"We're not as far along in the process of restoring and stabilizing the lights as we are with the rest of them," Mackreth said. "The buildings have received basic stabilization. They have not received quite the same amount of work that the others have yet. We'll eventually rectify that situation, but of course it takes time."
As if that's not enough, Long Island isn't even an island, but a continuous chunk of sand extending northwest from the south shore of Lake Superior. A map published in 1964 showed a narrow island separated from a sand spit, extending to the south shore. But that ended in the 1975 storm that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald. "Geologists tell us that Long Island has joined and split from the mainland many times over the centuries," Mackreth said.
Travelers who wish to see Long Island in the summertime get there by private boat or water taxi. Scheduled cruises to Long Island and the other light stations of the archipelago are available during the Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration, which is scheduled for September 6-27 this year. Details about the lighthouse celebration are available from Keeper of the Light, PO Box 990, 19 Front St., Bayfield, WI 54814, www.apostleislands.com or 800-779-4487.
Visitors to the island will learn details of the construction of the light station there, including the boo-boo that deprived Long Island of the "First Lighthouse in the Apostle Islands" status, and how there came to be two light towers on that island.
Right after the opening of the first of the Soo Canals in 1855, settlement and commerce into Lake Superior expanded sharply. The government decided it was time for a lighthouse leading to La Pointe, a village on Madeline Island that was at that time the main port in Western Lake Superior.
So, in 1857, a contractor set out for the Apostle Islands to build a lighthouse. But in that time before instantaneous communications, the contractor apparently went to the only representative of the federal government in the area, the collector of customs. Depending on who is telling the story, either the collector mistakenly directed the contractor to Michigan Island, or local shippers persuaded him to build it there.
Whatever happened, the contractor was sent back to Long Island the next year, with instructions to erect a light in the right places, or forfeit any chance of payment. That contractor hastily built a wooden tower on a squared timber foundation, about a quarter-mile east of the western end of Long Island.
In that location, the light was on the south end of a 1-1/2-mile-wide channel. On the north end of that channel was Madeline Island, and the village of La Pointe.
The lighthouse didn't go on Madeline Island because of the route ships took to La Pointe. They came from the east, on the southern side of Madeline Island. La Pointe is in a harbor on the west side of Madeline.
"If you put the light originally at the mouth of the La Pointe Harbor, they'd practically be on top of it before they got there," Mackreth said. "The light would essentially be hidden from the sea lanes by the corner of Madeline Island, Grant's Point." For most of the rest of the 1800s, the lighthouse and its keeper did their part in saving lives of mariners who passed nearby. But there was nothing the keeper could do to save the lives of the nine crew members of the schooner barge Lucerne, when it grounded just off Long Island, in a November gale in 1886. What the keeper saw after the grounding still provides good material for Apostle Islands storytellers.
"When he looked out, he saw the rigging of the ship sticking up about the water, with three sailors, frozen to the masts," Mackreth told an audience at the 1998 Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration. Divers today still can see the remains of the schooner off Long Island.
Major changes came to the station on Long Island in the 1890s, beginning with the installation of a fog signal several thousand feet east of the first lighthouse. Then in the mid-1890s, two new lighthouses were built on Long Island, about a mile apart. The first, a 67-foot-tall cylindrical tower, was built next to the fog signal. Workers removed the fourth order Fresnel lens from the original tower, and placed it in the new one, which is today known as the La Pointe Light. In the same year, the Lighthouse Board installed a 42-foot-tall tower Chequamegon Point, on the western end of the Long Island. A fourth order lens illuminated that light, which also was equipped with a striking bell signal. The original lighthouse today is in ruins, between the two others.
By the time the 1890s arrived, the importance of La Pointe had declined, while the important new city of Ashland emerged, about 12 miles south of Long Island in Chequamegon Bay. Ashland became a major Great Lakes port in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
"The point of putting the light in at Chequamegon Point, the very tip, was not so much to guide ships to La Pointe now, but to give them an idea of where the end of Long Island was, that they'd have to swing around in order to get to Ashland," Mackreth said. "We're looking at lighthouses that are really serving entirely separate functions. The original point of the Long Island Light was to guide ships to La Pointe. By the turn of the century, they were much more interested in providing beacons that would guide ships into Ashland Harbor."
With two lighthouses and more fog signals, the keeper of the light station on Long Island found himself needing extra help. Extra staff people hired to deal with the new tower cramped the original clapboard keepers' quarters at the light station. This problem was solved when that house was placed on top of a new brick first floor.
The 20th century brought additional changes. In 1924, a radio beacon was installed. To provide power for the radio beacon and the quarters, generators were brought in. Then in 1938, the Works Progress Administration built a new triplex quarters near the La Pointe Light. Both stations were fully automated in 1964.
Yet more change came in 1987, when a helicopter picked up the Chequamegon Point tower and moved it back from the eroding shoreline. Meanwhile the old Chequamegon Point Light went dark, when its beacon was moved to a practical but less interesting cylindrical tower.
It's been years since keepers and their families lived at Long Island, but Lois Spangle keeps alive memories of her teenage years at the Long Island Light Station from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s, while her father Alphonse L. Gustafson, was stationed there.
Life on an island didn't deprive Spangle of companionship. "I would go out during the summer and bring either my friends or my cousins out there. I also had other friends out there who were children of commercial fishermen," Spangle recalled. Those fishermen and their families lived in three shanties, near the keepers' quarters. "There was a lot of company for me."
An annual event for Spangle and her family was the visit of the inspectors, usually some time in July.
"They would inspect the dwelling, the signal house, and everything connected with the lighthouse there. The men would have to meet them down at the dock, and they would have to have their uniforms on," Spangle said. "None of them knew when they were coming, but through the grapevine, they would kind of get an idea."
"All of the dust pans and the oil cans and everything had to be polished, and the floors were always painted," Spangle said. "Everything had to be painted, clean. Very, very clean. And then they would go into the lighthouse tower and check that out, to see if there is any imperfection on the light itself."
Sometime later, a letter would come, telling the results of the inspection. "That would give them their notice of their next annual paycheck increases," she said with a laugh. "They never failed in anything."
Spangle's memories of the station continued even after she was married in 1945. Her first child had a first birthday celebration on the island in 1948. In later years, Spangle and her husband Ernie would take a 15-foot boat out to the island and pitch a tent there.
For Spangle and her husband, the pleasures waiting in the shadow of the light towers on Long Island are old news. Others, such as Nepstad, didn't know all that awaited them, until they made a visit.
Nepstad attributes his turnaround at least in part to the mystique of lighthouses. "Even when you climb up to the top of a tower that might not be quite as old as other towers that you've been in, there's just something magical about being up in a lighthouse tower and looking out over Lake Superior."
This story appeared in the
March 2000 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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