Digest>Archives> August 1997


By Bruce Lynn


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The Whitefish Point Lighthouse with the fog ...
Photo by: Bruce Lynn

Situated on Lake Superior's southeast shore, Whitefish Point often finds itself pounded by the worst storms that an inland sea can muster. These storms and gales frequently pour out of the northwest and lash the desolate shoreline with a hurricane-like ferocity. Imagine the plight of the ship captain and crew who, after having fought their way across the lake, find themselves in an area devoid of any natural harbors. This is the situation from Whitefish Point following the shoreline west nearly 80 miles to the area of Grand Marais. If a ship's crew was skilled (or lucky) enough to beat the storm and close on the point, then the real threat of running aground on the point itself is absolute. Once inside the relative calm of Whitefish Bay, the captain must watch for other vessels, as all ship traffic in and out of Superior must pass this region. With over 100 shipwrecks to its credit, this area has earned a grim nickname:"The Graveyard of the Great Lakes."

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A painting by David Conklin which portrays the ...

Before 1849, no lighthouse of any kind was in place to guide ships around this treacherous point or anywhere else on Lake Superior! However, early records indicate the presence of a Lightship off the point in 1848. The need for a lighthouse was obvious, but shipping did not really pick up steam until after the 1847 discovery of commercially exploitable copper and iron ore along the western sections of Lake Superior. The Lighthouse Board wrote of the paramount importance for having a lighthouse on Whitefish Point in its annual report of 1870: "This is one of the most important lights on the lakes owing to the point upon which it is placed, being projected well into the lake, with deep water close to it. Vessels bound either up or down the lake run for this light, and in foggy weather without an efficient fog signal, both delay and risk are encountered."

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The Edmond Fitzgerald - 729 foot Ore carrier ...

On April 3, 1847, 115.5 acres were set aside on Whitefish Point, by President James K. Polk, to build a lighthouse. The first lighthouse on the point was to be "constructed of split stone or hard bricks and laid in good lime mortar." The tower was directed to be "sixty-five feet high from the surface to the ground, the diameter of the base to be 25 feet and that of the top 12 feet...on top of the tower is to be an iron lantern of an octagon form...to be fitted up with thirteen patent lamps with fourteen inch reflectors." This first tower was completed in 1849 and painted black. J.B. Van Rensselair, the first lighthouse keeper was appointed on August 23, 1849 and earned $350.00 a year. As mother nature ravaged so many a proud ship off of this point, so too did the elements take their toll on the first tower. A little more than a decade later, a newer, more imposing replacement tower greeted mariners passing Whitefish Point.

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The Whitefish Point Lighthouse, built in 1861, as ...

The 1855 opening of the locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, added to the congestion of ship traffic at Whitefish Point. Prior to the construction of the locks, all ship traffic passing between Lake Huron and Lake Superior was required to portage the 23 foot difference between the lakes . A slow and laborious process! Once constructed, the two 350 foot long, 70 foot wide locks opened Superior to a waiting fleet of commerce.

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Robert Carlson was lighthouse keeper at Whitefish ...

The second generation current tower (see figures 1 & 2) was finished in 1861 and is an "Iron-Pyle" design. The newer tower stands at roughly eighty feet tall and is topped with a cast iron watch room and lantern. A third order Fresnel lens was placed in the lantern, which cast a beam across the lake at a distance of approximately 20 miles. The lamp within the lens was of a third order hydraulic type, which was later changed to the more powerful second order. In 1863, a lens turning clockwork mechanism was placed in the tower. The mechanism itself was not considered "lighthouse keeper friendly", for it required winding every hour! This did not sit well with then Keeper Joseph Kemp, who demanded an assistant. After a series of letters to the Lighthouse Board, Kemp finally got his assistant.

If the Lighthouse Board did not initially see the need for an assistant keeper at Whitefish Point, they did recognize the necessity for "an efficient fog-signal." Whitefish Bay is notorious for its thick blankets of fog which, at times, appear to hover ceaselessly over the point. This dense fog is responsible for numerous collisions in the early years of shipping, and much loss of life. A series of forest fires in the 1920's added a layer of smoke to this fog and made the situation more perilous. By 1875, a fog signal, consisting of two ten inch steam whistles and a boiler system, was in place. In 1903, the keepers operated the fog signal for approximately 492 hours and it consumed more than 42 tons of coal! Through the years more modern fog signals and beacons, including Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, have been installed to aid in navigation.

In 1903, a new lighthouse keeper took over at Whitefish Point. His name was Robert Carlson. He remained at Whitefish Point for 28 years. Carlson took over as the result of a trade with the then Whitefish Point keeper Charles Kimball. Kimball had been at the point for more than 20 years and was ready for a change of scenery. Carlson was happy at the Marquette Harbor Light-station, but could profit from Whitefish Point's weather station and the extra $10.00 a month it would bring him. With a family to consider, he agreed to the trade.

Not unlike other light stations of its time, Whitefish Point's operation was a family affair. Carlson's wife Anna obtained her Assistant Lighthouse Keeper's papers in 1902 and she operated the weather station. Through this team effort, the station frequently received efficiency ratings following inspections and often obtained the covetted "E" pennant, which recognized the outstanding light station in a given district. Keeper Carlson also received a commendation for risking his life to save 11 men from the capsized fish tug ORA ENDRESS. One of the individuals aboard the distressed vessel was the keeper of the neighboring Crisp Point Light Station, who later wrote:

"Seven of us managed to get in the lifeboat that was being towed behind and, with the help of a piece of board as a paddle, we managed to get to the bow of the wreck where four men still remained and we persuaded two of them to get into the lifeboat with us. The other two refused to leave the wreck and we were being delayed, and it was gradually growing darker all the time. When Mr. Carlson managed to pull his boat across the point where the seas were not as heavy, and with the help of two fishermen, managed to get out to us with a pair of oars and rescued the two men off the bow of the boat."

Carlson and the fishermen were having great difficulties dragging the boat across the point, until Anna joined the struggle! With her help, it was quickly pulled to the shore. Carlson repeatedly asked for volunteers to assist in the rescue, but was forced to "volunteer" two out of the group at gunpoint! Keeper Carlson was later commended by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for his courage and skill shown in the face of danger. The Carlsons did not have to plunge into the howling surf every time the weather decided to turn nasty, but they did what they could when they could.

In 1923, the U.S. Coast Guard constructed a rescue station on Whitefish Point to aid vessels in distress. Although a different entity from the Life Saving Service, the crews of this station responded to over 240 calls for assistance. In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was incorporated into the Coast Guard. A Coast Guard crew of six operated the lighthouse until 1970, when the entire light-station was automated and controlled from a Coast Guard station in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

In 1973, the Whitefish Point Light Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Five years later, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) was formed as a non-profit, educational institution, dedicated to preserving the history and artifacts of the Great Lakes. Whitefish Point is the focal point for this organization and in 1985, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum was constructed to exhibit and chronicle the turbulent history of this region. Through the use of artifacts, ships models and maritime art, the museum enthralls visitors with a glimpse of Lake Superior's startling side.

Whitefish Point has been a graveyard for many ships and is now the location of a memorial. On November 10, 1975, the 729' ore carrier EDMUND FITZGERALD (see fig.4) sank just 15 miles northwest of the point. There were no survivors of the 29 man crew. The summer of 1995 saw a joint GLSHS-Canadian Navy expedition to retrieve the ship's bell from the ill-fated "Fitz." The expedition responded to many of the victim's families, who desired a memorial to their lost loved ones. The bell is now on display within the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum gallery.

In the summer of 1996, the GLSHS opened a newly restored lighthouse keepers quarters. Donations by Shipwreck Society members, staff members and private citizens have furnished the quarters to its turn of the century appearance. Historical interpreters lead visitors through the duplex and give insight to the human drama of a bygone era. The previously mentioned Carlsons raised a granddaughter in this house. Her name is Bertha Endress Rollo and, at age 87, she provides a wealth of memories from her 21 years at this point. Through Bertha's recollections and various other sources, the GLSHS paints a turn of the century picture of a lighthouse keeper's life on Whitefish Point.

Bruce Lynn is a student in Eastern Michigan University's Historic Preservation graduate program. Bruce worked as Director of Interpretation for the Lighthouse Keepers Quarters and currently researches on a part-time basis for the GLSHS.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is open from May-15 through Oct.-15 and a nominal entrance fee is charged. For more information, please call the GLSHS at 1-800-635-1742.

This story appeared in the August 1997 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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