Digest>Archives> September 2005

Lost Round Island

By Wayne Sapulski


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Round Island Light ruins, Upper St. Mary’s River. ...

There were three Round Island lights on the Great Lakes at one time, only two of which still exist. Round Island Light in the Straits of Mackinac is known to millions of tourists who pass right by it on ferryboats traveling to and from Mackinac Island. Round Island Light in the Lower St. Mary’s River, previously discussed, is now a privately owned luxury home. Few lighthouse enthusiasts are aware that one of the earliest lights on the Great Lakes once stood on Round Island in the Upper St. Mary’s River.

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Eagle River Light c.1904 – National Archives. ...

Round Island is less than five acres in size and lies 1/2 mile offshore from the Michigan mainland due west of Cedar Point in the Upper St. Mary’s River. An appropriation for $4,000 was enacted by Congress on August 31, 1852 for a light on the island as a guide to ships entering the river from the open waters of Whitefish Bay. Efforts to secure title to the site began in 1853 and actual construction of the lighthouse at the north end of the island began in 1855. Round Island Light would mark a narrow channel running north from the island toward Point Iroquois. The channel was bordered by a broad sandspit to the east and a rocky shoal to the west. The light was displayed for the first time in 1856. For reference, an 1857 survey of the island may be viewed at the State Archives of Michigan in Lansing, Michigan.

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Round Island Light ruins, Upper St. Mary’s River. ...

Round Island Light consisted of a gray stone dwelling, one and a half stories high, and measuring 28 square feet in plan with only five rooms. A square light tower rose from the northwest corner of the dwelling and had an overall height of 30 feet. At this height, it is likely the tower barely rose above the roof peak. The original optic was a fifth order Fresnel lens from which a fixed white light, visible 13 miles, was displayed at a focal plane 45 feet above water level. No photographs of Round Island Light while it was in service are known to exist, but from the description, it likely resembled Eagle River Light on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the construction of which commenced the same year.

For reasons unknown, but likely of shoddy construction, Round Island Light was discontinued at the end of the 1860 shipping season. In the 1863 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, vessel owners making committee recommendations regarding lights, made known their displeasure that this light had been discontinued and argued for its re-establishment. They complained, “…that for want of this light, vessels actually wait until daylight, when they can have the lighthouse building for a guide through the dangerous reach.” Such delays, they complained, added to shipping costs and were potentially dangerous to ships and crews waiting at anchor as it prolonged their exposure to unpredictable Lake Superior weather.

Round Island Light was relit at the start of navigation in 1864, but the nine-year-old structure was noted to be in poor condition. A substantial rebuilding of the light occurred in 1870 at which time, the tower was raised 5 feet, provided with a new deck plate and installed with a new decagonal lantern room. This raised the focal plane of the light to 50 feet above water level. A kitchen addition was also built and other repairs were completed. Round Island Light continued in service until the end of the 1886 shipping season. The establishment of the St. Mary’s River Upper Range (i.e., Cedar Point Range) on the mainland behind the island made Round Island Light unnecessary. Shortly after the new Upper Range lights were lit at the start of navigation in May 1887, Round Island Light was formally discontinued and the illuminating apparatus was removed and taken to the Detroit depot for storage. Thereafter, the keeper of the Upper Range looked after the buildings and grounds on Round Island for a time. By 1900, however, weather and vandals had reduced the structure to an empty shell.

Today, the ruins of Round Island Light might best be described as a pile of rocks in the woods. An examination of the ruins reveals that the building was indeed about 28 square feet in plan. The basement is a depression in the ground nearly completely filled with debris. A brick archway on the eastern side, now at ground level, likely was the top of the doorway leading down into the basement. The debris pile is highest in the northwest corner where the tower was once located. The only part of the outer wall still standing is a portion about 3 feet high and 6 feet long at the northwest corner. Although some bricks are evident, the ruins clearly confirm that rubble stone material was used to construct the outer walls. The only thing holding the remaining portion of the northwest corner together is gravity, as the mortar has turned back into sand. Unfortunately, no photographs of the lighthouse ruins, when they were more intact are currently known to exist. Finally, one last remnant of the light station may be seen at the southeast corner of the island. There, the foundation timbers of an old crib dock barely protrude above the surface of the water.

Round Island is owned by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and was acquired by that agency in 1931 in exchange for land turned over to the U.S. Forest Service. The island was dedicated for public use in 1951 and for administrative purposes, was added to nearby Brimley State Park. Round Island, however, is a nasty place to visit. Access is difficult due to the rocky shoreline and the island is completely overgrown with scrub vegetation. Worst of all, the island is infested with various species of nesting birds that do not like to be disturbed during the short summer season.

Author and photographer Wayne Sapulski specializes in the history of lighthouses of the Great Lakes. He is the author of Lighthouses of Lake Michigan Past and Present. The above excerpt is from his next book on Lake Superior, which is coming soon.

This story appeared in the September 2005 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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