Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

What Could Have Been

By Timothy Harrison


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Ile Aux Galets Lighthouse (Skillagalee) ...

There was a time in history when the Ile Aux Galets Lighthouse Station was a bustling family station where children played and the families enjoyed the good life as well as the hardships of being stationed on a small island in Lake Michigan near the mainland community of Cross Village. There were also times of sorrow such as, in October of 1901, when head keeper Andrew G. Bourissau and 2nd assistant keeper Walter E. Grobben both drowned.

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The keeper’s house at Michigan’s Ile Aux Galets ...
Photo by: Lt. Commander Leonard Garrett, USCG

The island was named by the French. Eventually the island became known as Skillagalee, which is also spelt Skilligalee, and most of the locals refer to it by that name, as did the lighthouse keepers who lived there.

Sadly, the only thing left as a monument to the many people, who while living on this island, dedicated their lives for the benefit of others, is the 59 foot light tower. The Coast Guard removed the last of the keepers in 1959 and, at that time, automated the fog signal and installed a 175mm automatic lens in the tower. Instead of trying to find caretakers to take over the buildings, the Coast abandoned the station. Without properly securing the buildings they were subject to vandalism. Photographs of the time show open windows with the curtains still hanging in the keeper’s house.

In October of 1969 the Coast Guard sent the crew of the cutter Sundew, under the command of Lt. Commander Leonard Garrett, to the lighthouse with instructions to demolish the station. The plans were to blow up the keeper’s house. However, demolition became tricky when the crew discovered that the walls were of inter-locking brick construction and three bricks thick. Fran Martin, a reporter for the Petoskey News-Review wrote at the time, “Care had to be taken because the 50-foot light station was adjacent and will remain in service.”

Although the building was dynamited, the crew of the Sundew still had to knock down some of the remaining walls of the structure. All the debris was then put into a heap and set on fire.

We can only wonder what might have happened if the structures had not been demolished. Would a caretaker be living on the island in the summer months today? Could the station have been turned over to a local community or non profit? Could the station have been turned in to a research center or an educational facility? We can only wonder what could have been.

The Coast Guard has now declared the lighthouse as excess property and the General Services Administration, under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, is willing to give it away for free to any qualified non profit or other government entity. If none of those want it, the lighthouse will be sold to the highest bidder at auction. We can only wonder what the future holds for this historic lighthouse.

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This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 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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