Digest>Archives> January 2000

Raspberry Island: The Storybook Light of the Apostles

By Jim Merkel


Annie is only the creation of a writer of a dramatic musical play. Nonetheless, the tale of this fictitious lighthouse keeper's daughter catches the spirit of the real Raspberry Island Light Station, a storybook place in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore of Lake Superior.

In Warren Nelson's "Keeper of the Light," Annie describes what happened when she was 9, and traveled with her mother from the family farm in Iowa, to rejoin her father, the newly-named Raspberry Island keeper.

The story of Annie, inspired by the accounts of real-life keepers' families, charms audiences each summer, when they see it performed at the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, WI. Those who take the regular summertime excursion boats from Bayfield to the Raspberry Island Light may be similarly charmed, and sense what Annie sensed, as she approached the island the first time.

"The assistant motored us out, and father was yelling over the racket of the engine about garden plots and fruit trees and my room that had a window that looked out over the lake," Annie tells the audience, in one of several vignettes of the production about Apostle Islands Lighthouses. "There just up ahead, was our very first look at the beautiful Raspberry Island light. Ohhhh. 'Which window is mine?' I yelled. 'Are there whales and mermaids?'"

There are no stories of whales and mermaids on Raspberry Island, a mile-long hourglass-shaped island that got its name from the Ojibway Indians. But there are tales just as interesting about this island, arising from more than 135 years' service as a sentinel for mariners.

Lit the same month as the Union victory at Gettysburg, the Raspberry Island Lighthouse was the third light station constructed in the Apostle Islands. It also was the first lighthouse on the western end of the 22-island Apostle Islands archipelago. The lighthouse about 1-1/2 miles from the mainland gained a special importance, as waterborne trade picked up between two port areas on the south shore of Western Lake Superior. On the western end of Lake Superior was Duluth. About 80 miles to the east, in a splendid harbor protected by the Apostle Islands, were the port towns of Bayfield and Ashland. The mariners traveling between those ports found comfort in the fifth order Fresnel lens at Raspberry Island, after it went into service on July 20, 1863.

In 1881, another light was lit on the western end of the Apostles, at Sand Island. But that beacon west of the Raspberry Island Light didn't diminish the importance of the one at Raspberry. In 1887, an official of a steamer that traversed waters near the light wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury attesting to its value. In that letter, J.C. Thompson, master of the steamer Horace A. Tuttle, called the light at Raspberry Island the most important one between Duluth, Bayfield and Ashland. The circumstances behind that letter make for one of the stories told about the Raspberry Island Lighthouse.

Change came with the start of the 20th Century. In 1902, a red brick fog signal building was added, with a 10-inch steam whistle and a hoisting engine for a tramway.

The new steam whistle meant more people would be working at the light station. Because of this, the lighthouse was divided so the keeper and two assistants could have private quarters.

More changes came in 1928, with the installation of a 23-kilowatt diesel-driven electric generator. Five years later, two diesel engines and two air compressors were installed in the fog signal building. With that, the steam whistle was converted to a diaphone. Then in 1947, the light was automated, ending the need for keepers on the island. Five years after that, the light was placed in a metal tower in front of the fog signal building.

Today, the fifth order Fresnel lens of the Raspberry Island Lighthouse is in the Madeline Island Historical Society, located on Madeline Island, a 2-1/2-mile ferry ride from Bayfield. But the heart of that lighthouse remains on Raspberry Island.

Today, as one of two Apostle Island light stations accessible to regular summertime cruise boats, the light station is restored as it was in the 1920s and 1930s, complete with a garden plot to the rear of the light station.

"According to letters and journals written during the days of manned light stations, lightkeepers' families competed with each other for productive and beautiful gardens," Dave Strzok, owner of the Apostle Islands Cruise Service, wrote in his book, "The Visitor's Guide to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore." "The Raspberry Island Lighthouse flower gardens were acknowledged as being the most beautiful as they framed the large white duplex."

But there was much more to Raspberry Island than pretty flowers and plants. Francis Jacker, who kept the light from 1885 to 1892, knew it for an unfortunate experience that convinced his superiors to grant his request for extra help.

Jacker's grief was that a tightfisted Lighthouse Service would not hear his pleas for reinstatement of an assistant keeper. "In case of an emergency, no assistance is available on the island, and the proper surveillance of the revolving apparatus during the long nights of the fall when frequent windings are required, is exhausting," he wrote in his log.

Jacker's prayers were answered, but not the way he would have preferred.

On the morning of Sept. 13, 1887, a westerly gale developed, which endangered the station's sailboat, which had been anchored near the dock on the southwest tip of the island.

"Jumping out of bed, I hurried to move it to a place of safety at the eastern extremity of the island - the dilapidated condition of the ways rendering it impossible, for the moment, to have it hauled up to the boathouse."

But in the dark, Jacker sailed by the landing point. In the storm, he was forced to sail southeast. "I could do nothing but to sail, under reefed canvas, with the current of the wind and waves, thus drifting over to Oak Island."

For three days the storm pounded, as Jacker remained stranded on an island two miles from his own. When it finally cleared, the boat was wrecked, making it impossible for him to use it for a return trip. He might never have returned had it not been for a passing Indian, who noticed his distress signal, and rescued him.

"I had spent nearly three days on the desolated island, without food, without fire and being but scantily dressed," he wrote in his log

What made Jacker's misfortunes particularly bad was this fact: he was alone on the island since his family wasn't with him at the lighthouse. Without the assistant he requested, there was no one to light the light.

"In consequence of the above occurence, the light of this station was not extinguished in the morning of the 13th, and not exhibited the night following. It was relighted, however, in the night of the 14th and 15th by my family who happened to come for a visit, but owing to their inability to get the revolving machinery into motion, the apparatus did not revolve," said the entry in Jacker's log.

While Jacker had escaped with his life, a question remained whether he would escape with his job. For the light had gone out, which was an offense worthy of a reprimand or a dismissal. Indeed, word of the extinguished light got to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. On Sept. 22, 1887, J.C. Thompson, master of the steamer Horace A. Tuttle wrote a letter to the treasury secretary informing him that the Raspberry Island light was darkened when he had passed by a few days before. Wanting to know why this happened, Thompson said Raspberry Island was "important, because it is the leading light between Duluth, Bayfield and Ashland."

When the district inspector demanded an explanation, Jacker responded with the story of how he was blown onto Oak Island. By the end of the year, Francis Jacker's brother Edward Jacker received the appointment as assistant keeper of the Raspberry Island Lighthouse.

Thirty years passed, and a man came to work at the Raspberry Island light whose name today is well known around the Apostles. But it's not because of skill or dedication that Herbert "Toots" Winfield today has that local fame. It is rather for Winfield's failures that he became known, more than 60 years after his service ended at Raspberry Island.

The man who made "Toots" known is Matt Welter. From 1992 to 1998, those coming to Raspberry Island knew Welter as Toots, who was an assistant keeper of that island's lighthouse in the 1920s. Welter dressed, acted and talked as the free living "Toots," to give visitors a taste of life at his lighthouse in an earlier time.

Named second assistant keeper in 1922, Winfield was promoted to first assistant in 1923, a position he still held in 1931, when he was demoted to second assistant at the light station at Crisp Point, Mich.

Welter has a theory about why the bachelor Winfield never moved up to keeper.

"It's never really indicated, but I have a feeling why he didn't. I think he was comfortable," Welter said.

One unusual thing Welter notes about Toots is what was written in logs about the company he brought to the island. Those logs would note the names of the friends and relatives of the other keepers who visited. "But when Toots would have people there, it would always say in the log book something like 'The assistant had a group of young people out at the lighthouse, and they tented out on the lawn last night and they made quite a ruckus.'" Welter said. " The reason why he was fired was that he was found drunk on duty, in '31." Welter said. "Toots Winfield went around in 1930 to a bunch of speakeasies with a bunch of lighthouse keepers and got the whole town mad at him because they weren't really lighthouse keepers, they were prohibition officers in disguise. So he pretty much ostracized himself from the town." However, Welter said, it does tell the story that Winfield probably was hitting all the speakeasies in town when he was on shore.

"One of the stories I would tell people is 'We don't have to cut firewood here at the lighthouse, because, we can just go down to the beach and gather all the logs that come by, 'cause those Canadian boats will come down to the mills there in Ashland, and they'll bring a big raft of logs, and sometimes they'll lose a few. And they float up to our place and once they land on the island they're part of the keeper's reserve," said Welter, speaking in the voice of Toots.

"Every time I find em I go down and knock on 'em, 'cause if they sound hollow....it could mean whisky. Then I'd say, being a federal officer, I'd have to destroy all of that. A little at a time, but I'd have to destroy it all."

Welter tells some of his tales about the island, and about Toots, in a book of poetry called "Raspberry Island Red."

Now a crew leader for the Wisconsin Conservation Corps at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center in Ashland, WI, Welter recalls that one part of his popular routine was good-natured "dipping" of women who posed for pictures with him. He sees it as fitting in with the character of Toots.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore worked hard to provide people like Welter and others who followed him, so that visitors could get a taste of life at Raspberry Island. But now it is appealing to the public for help in restoration work at the island. There is a serious problem with erosion at the island, which eventually could eat away at buildings of the light station. Those wanting to help with this and other needs at the light stations of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are being asked to support a new Apostle Islands Lighthouse Foundation. The group will serve as an official partner to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, raising funds and serving as a source of volunteer labor for lighthouse-related projects.

Given extra help, those at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are hoping to keep the Raspberry Island Light Station for visitors for years to come. When those visitors arrive, they might echo the words of Annie's mother in Keeper of the Light, "Back there's the mainland, out there's the dreamland, and my home is here in between, on an island."

This story appeared in the January 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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