When James Kirk Paul arrived at the mouth of the Ontonagon, at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula, on May 2, 1843, there were no lighthouses on Lake Superior. A small Indian settlement occupied the west bank of the river that the Chippewa had called “The Ontonagon” for generations. The churning water was high and red with run-off clay and melting snow from the hills up-river.
Paul, an adventurer from Virginia, had traveled extensively before his expedition to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’d explored Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois. He’d worked as a boatman on the Mississippi and the Missouri. He’d started a fur trading business and worked as a drover. He’d become a citizen of Chicago before 1840.
While working in Wisconsin, Paul heard the story about the legendary gigantic copper boulder that was partially submerged in the Ontonagon River just waiting to be claimed. According to Paul’s account, he and his companion, Nick Minclergue, who spoke the native Indian language, traveled north to find the treasure. Paul built a cabin on the east side of the river opposite the Chippewa settlement and began to search for the boulder.
Written accounts about the amazing copper boulder and the attempts to remove it from the Ontonagon River are confusing and contradictory.
There is proof that the gigantic scarred chunk of copper did exist because it is on display in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Some records claim that the copper rock might already have been taken from the area before Paul arrived. Some accounts claim that Paul, who is recognized as the founder of Ontonagon, orchestrated the move. But there is no evidence that Paul ever left Ontonagon and there is no record of him ever receiving any payment for the copper mass.
In 1843 the copper boulder, supposedly relinquished by the native people in an 1842 Treaty, was somehow transported down the Ontonagon River, shipped to Detroit, claimed by the Federal Government and stored in the yard of the War Department. Newspaper accounts report that Julius Eldred landed the prize in Detroit on October 11, 1843 and later transported it to Washington. Congress paid him $5,664.98.
Jim Paul remained in Ontonagon and continued to prospect the area. He opened a tavern and hotel to accommodate the flood of prospectors who came to search for copper and silver, dreaming about discovering “the big one.”
Samuel Knapp was one of these men. In 1847 while tramping the hills about 12 miles inland, near the community now called Rockland, Knapp discovered a series of depressions filled with loose sand and dried leaves. Randomly selecting one of the depressions, he dug several feet through the soft soil until he finally hit solid rock. Cleaning away the loose earth, he discovered a vein of pure copper. Exploring other depressions, Knapp estimated that the vein was several hundred feet long.
Knapp immediately began to work his mine, The Minesota, which was established by Federal Government permit No. 98. The huge chunks of copper coming out of the ground at “Good old 98” increased “prospecting for copper” to “copper fever” in Ontonagon County. Shipping the ore on Lake Superior became critical, as inland transport was impossible. (Minesota was spelled incorrectly in a state charter and never changed.)
FIRST LIGHTHOUSE COMPLETED
That same year, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Lighthouse Service, acquired the land for the Ontonagon lighthouse on the west bank of the river. But the Federal Government didn’t appropriate the money for construction until 1850. Finally, in 1852, F.W. Chittenden, a contractor from Detroit, was hired to build the harbor light. The project, which was completed in 1853, cost the Federal Government $5000. Like most lighthouses in operation in the United States between 1815 and 1852, the first structure in Ontonagon was initially equipped with a Winslow lamp.
Samuel Peck was appointed the first lighthouse keeper on August 26, 1853.
In the meantime, copper continued to move down the river and several large schooners and a steamship were put into service on Lake Superior to bring supplies to the developing communities and to haul out copper. Four other lighthouses were built on Superior before the light was completed at the mouth of the Ontonagon.
Until 1855 when the Soo Locks were completed, the St. Mary’s Rapids at Sault Ste. Marie prevented the direct transport of goods, lumber and ore between Superior and the other Great Lakes. Everything was lugged around the falls just like the Native people had been doing for centuries. The Algonquin, the first large schooner launched on Lake Superior, and The Independence, the first steamship, were built on the lower lakes and hauled around the rapids.
Captain John Parker, who got his start on the Fur Trader, which was also hauled around the falls, sailed Lake Superior for thirty years. Notations in his log describe the rigors of one trip he captained on the Burlington between the Soo and Ontonagon. Leaving the Soo on November 11, he encountered severe storms all the way to Marquette. Two other steamers, who opted to keep going rather than hole up at Taquamenon Bay, had to throw their deck loads overboard to stay afloat.
“After some repairs (in Marquette) we were ready to continue our journey,” Parker wrote. “The Burlington had a cargo of packet freight for Ontonagon and among the consignment was several head of cattle…we finally got under way and arrived at Copper Harbor with the wind still blowing and the snow falling fast. Mr. Northrup who had charge of the warehouse at that place offered me $50 if I would leave the Burlington at that port. I told him the Burlington would lay up in Ontonagon River that winter… It was about midnight when we arrived off Ontonagon, but I had to keep the boat headed up the lake, expecting to run back in the morning. However when daylight came the storm was raging harder than ever…”
The Burlington finally made its way back to Ontonagon about daylight on December 11, one month after leaving the Soo.
A major sand bar just off the mouth of the Ontonagon River caused serious problems for ships wanting to enter the harbor. Only four feet of water flowed over the bar, so passengers and freight had to be put ashore in small boats. Cattle and horses were dumped overboard to swim to shore. In 1855 the county of Ontonagon hired Charles T. Harvey, the man who had just completed the first Soo Canal Lock, to fix the harbor so ships could enter the mouth and to rebuild the piers.
In 1857 the Lighthouse was refitted with a 5th order Fresnel lens that cost $600 and weighed 125 pounds.
In his book, This Ontonagon Country, published in 1939, historian James K. Jamison reports that the town near the Minesota Mine built a church with a pure white 46-foot tower on the summit of the bluff near the mine. According to Jamison, the mine owners wanted to improve the chances of boats safely navigating the rough Lake Superior coastline.
Bruce Johanson, a writer who has done extensive research on Ontonagon County, agrees with Jamison’s report that navigators on Lake Superior used the harbor light in conjunction with the church tower. “By lining up the lighthouse and the tower that was 12 miles inland, they’d be sailing straight for the mouth of the Ontonagon River,” Johanson explained.
The following statement appeared in the Lake Superior Miner on October 31, 1857. “The largest piece of copper that perhaps was ever shipped in the world was taken on board the Mineral Rock on her last trip to this place. It was from the Minesota Mine and weighed 9,562 pounds. The Mineral Rock discharged 1200 barrels of flour at Ontonagon.”
SECOND LIGHTHOUSE BUILT
In 1866, the brick lighthouse that continues to grace the Ontonagon harbor, replaced the wood frame building that housed the original “northern light.” According to Johanson, who is also a member of the Ontonagon Historical Society, the 1866 brick lighthouse was constructed next to the wood structure. The wood building was torn down when the new tower was finished. From the new tower, standing 39 feet from the ground to the focal plane, the light could be seen for 13 and ¼ miles.
The 1½ story, rectangular, cream brick building’s square tower stands at the west end. The extremely high basement was built above the ground to protect the living areas from flooding. The new building cost $14,000.
Thomas Stripe, a 35-year-old Irish immigrant, was appointed the Ontonagon Lighthouse keeper on September 14, 1864 and served until August 18, 1883. He and his wife, Catherine McGyre, moved into the new lighthouse where they lived with their expanding family during the shipping season. All but three of their children were born during their years in the lighthouse. They spent the months when the harbor was blocked by ice at their home on Trap Street.
Recorded history and family memories paint a unique picture of Stripe, the one-armed lighthouse keeper. Was he a hero, a brawler, a rascal, a storyteller, an adventurer? Or was he possibly all of these and more?
The winter of 1855 was extremely brutal. Lake Superior froze early so the boats that normally carried winter provisions to Ontonagon were stranded in harbors towards the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Thomas Stripe, a hardy, experienced traveler, organized a group who drove dog sleds north to haul flour back to the starving Ontonagon community.
Earlier, Stripe lived in Canada where he worked for the Hudson Bay Company. He walked to Texas and then returned to the north woods and settled in Ontonagon, Michigan. According to family stories, he loved a good joke, and he liked to “tip a few” and swap stories with the tourists. In 1859, about a year after marrying Catherine, his arm was ripped off while he and several men were attempting to fire a canon during a 4th of July celebration in Ontonagon. One family story claims that Thomas pushed another man out of way when the canon misfired so he would take the blow.
Written accounts support the theory that he was tough. Thomas refused to take an anesthetic while they were dressing the wound.
Information about Thomas Stripe, his wife, their six children and their years in the lighthouse is sparse. Unlike many keepers, Thomas did not keep copious notes in the mandatory light keeper’s journal. His great granddaughter, Pat Simon, suspects that Thomas wasn’t educated or that maybe he was right-handed and never learned to write with his left hand after losing his arm.
“I think that my great grandmother Catherine made many of the entries in the log,” Pat speculates. “Entries using words like ‘my Tommy’ definitely sound more like a woman.”
LIGHT KEEPER’S GREAT GRANDDAUGHTER CONDUCTS TOURS
Patricia Stripe Simon, a member of the Ontonagon Historical Society and present Commander of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, conducts tours of the lighthouse and tells the stories she’s heard about her great grandfather. “No one knows why, but my grandmother had the trunk containing all of my great grandfather’s papers burned after my grandfather died. So all of his (Thomas Stripe’s) personal records and lighthouse papers were destroyed. All that’s left, beside the lighthouse logs, are stories that were passed on by family members or articles that were written in the local newspaper.”
Another Irishman, James Corgan, was appointed as the Ontonagon light keeper on August 18, 1883. The 34-year-old made the following entry in the lighthouse log on October 27, 1883:
Ontonagon Lake Superior, Lat 46* 52’ 24”, Long 89* 19’ 16:
“Landed at light house at 9:45am having been transferred from Gull Rock Lt Station off Kewernaw point to this station by Lt House Inspector, J. C. Matson. Left Gull Rock on 23rd at 4pm where I left my brother Henry in charge there being no appointment made to relieve me. Took my family and effects on board my own tug the May E Corgan and came to Copper Harbor where I remained to close up my affairs until the 26 at 6pm when I again had a pleasant run and arrived here as above stated with my wife six children and Dan Corgan my brother. Informed Mr. Thomas Stripe the present keeper of my orders to relieve him - - he commenced moving out immediately to the town across the river.” Jas Corgan, Keeper
Corgan served as the light keeper in Ontonagon for 37 years. For his first ten years he shared the two-bedroom lighthouse with Mary Raher, whom he’d married in 1872, while wintering and teaching school in L’Anse, and their 8 children. Mary, who’d been born in Ireland, was 16 when they were married. She died on February 12, 1893 at age 36. In 1896, James Corgan married Miss Josie Dolen of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In the late 1880’s, several improvements to the lighthouse made life easier for the Corgan family and future light keepers. An 18-foot square, one-story brick kitchen was added to the east side of the building and a large woodshed was built nearby. In 1889, an iron gallery was placed around the light at the top of the tower to make it easier to wash the windows surrounding the light.
The Lighthouse Keepers of Lake Superior, published by Great Lakes Lighthouse Research reports that only 11 keepers manned the Ontonagon Lighthouse from 1853 until the lighthouse was decommissioned as an active manned station in 1963. Peck, Spillman and Schuler were appointed before Stripe. Thomas Stripe and James Corgan served as consecutive keepers for 55 years. James Corgan retired from lighthouse duty in 1919 at age 70.
At the time of his retirement, Corgan was also the harbor master, the collector of customs, and a deputy U.S. Marshall. A strong proponent of education, he helped introduce free textbooks into the public schools. He operated a grocery, James Corgan and Sons, which he later turned over to his sons.
Henry, Hand, Warner, Gagnon, and Carpenter kept the lighthouse until 1945 when Arnold Huuki was appointed. Huuki operated the lighthouse until a battery-powered light and an automatic foghorn were installed at the end of the eastern pier in 1963.
Before the lighthouse was officially closed on January 1, 1964 and leased to Huuki and his wife as a residence, ownership of the Ontonagon Lighthouse and the land was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “In the early 1960’s,” explained Ruth Ristola, the President of the Historical Society, “the Corps of Engineers wanted to do some work at the mouth of the Ontonagon. But they didn’t have enough space to make the changes. They approached the Coast Guard regarding the lighthouse and the Coast Guard signed it over.”
The Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens from the tower and presented the it to the Ontonagon Historical Society. The lens and lighthouse keeper logs are on display in the Ontonagon County Historical Museum on River Street in the Village of Ontonagon.
The lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in October of 1975. In a recent article, Johanson explained how this important designation has also created problems. Repairs to the building must be “historically correct” and necessary repairs to a 134 year-old-building do not rank high on the Federal Government’s current “to do” list.
Also complicating the issue of the historical importance of the Ontonagon Lighthouse has been the shifting shoreline. The lighthouse, which used to stand within spitting distance of Lake Superior, is now several hundred feet away from the lake due to sediment deposits after over a hundred years of river channel dredging.
The Lighthouse Preservation Committee, a part of the Historical Society, has been trying for years to obtain ownership of the Lighthouse. “There’s currently a program going on in Michigan to save the Lighthouses,” explained member, Bruce Ruutila. “There are 72 lighthouses in Michigan that are going to be transferred from the Federal Government to ‘somebody.’ All except two of the lighthouses are under the ownership or guidance of the Coast Guard. Ours is one of the two. Ours is under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
According to the Committee, the lighthouses can either be transferred or sold, preferably to a local community group or non-profit organization. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and local government are supporting the Historical Society’s efforts to obtain the lighthouse. Everyone agrees that repairs must be made soon since cracks are already visible in the tower foundation, window frames are rotting and the paint is peeling on the outside and the inside.
The Historical Society recently received word that a long-promised bill has been drafted by Michigan Congressman, Bart Stupak, which directs the Secretary of the Army to convey the Lighthouse and the 1.8 acres to the Ontonagon County Historical Society.
According to Johanson, when the transaction does occur, the Historical Society will immediately implement the management and development plan already prepared by the Lighthouse Preservation Committee. The Ontonagon Lighthouse site will be developed as an historic attraction so others will understand and appreciate the role that this lighthouse played in the development of the United States.
For additional information about the Ontonagon Lighthouse write to the Ontonagon County Historical Society, PO Box 92, Ontonagon, MI 49953 or call 906 884-6165, Monday thru Friday, 9AM – 5PM. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Historical Society’s website can be visited at
http://www.ontonagon.com/mi/ochs.html. Private tours of the lighthouse can be arranged through the Historical Society.
This story appeared in the
July 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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