Digest>Archives> November 2004

Is There A Story Here?

By Timothy Harrison


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We love finding old stereoview images of lighthouses, especially one like this of Michigan's Rock Harbor Lighthouse, which shows a man who could be the lighthouse keeper standing in front of the tower. What makes this image even more interesting is that this lighthouse only had a few keepers, since it years of service were very short-lived.

Marl Petty was appointed keeper of the station along with brother Michael as assistant keeper when it was first lit near the end of 1856. However, Michael after only a year of service passed away in 1857 and Mark subsequently resigned his position.

The brothers were replaced by a second pair of brothers, Francis and William Bomassa, but apparently William did not like the duties at the remote lighthouse and he resigned in 1858 after only serving one year at the station. Shortly thereafter the government decided the lighthouse no longer served a useful purpose and it was discontinued in 1859.

However, in 1875, the government changed its mind and the Lighthouse Service restored the abandoned lighthouse and relit it, appointing Anthony Kruger as its keeper. For reasons unknown Kruger was removed in 1877. During this time Ferdinand Dumant served as an assistant keeper from October 1875 until September 1876 and Andrew Anderson served as acting assistant keeper from September 1876 to November 1877. Then Martin R. Benson was appointed keeper in September 1877 and served until the lighthouse was again deactivated and discontinued October 4, 1879. During that time a W. H. Benson, perhaps a relative of Keeper Martin Benson, served as assistant keeper.

Now that I’ve bored you with dates and names, what does this all mean? It means that only nine people served at Rock Harbor Lighthouse with the last one being in 1879. Photographs of lighthouse keepers are very difficult to locate and there are hundreds of names of lighthouse keepers whose photos have not yet been discovered. So, when a lighthouse historian finds a photograph of a lighthouse keeper, it’s like finding gold.

With the camera being bulky to transport during the early days of photography, it is highly unlikely that the person in the photo was any of the first four keepers to serve at the lighthouse. That leaves only five people. Then we still go back to the fact that the camera was bulky and difficult to transport especially to an area as remote as Rock Harbor and/or perhaps the person in the photo could have been someone visiting the lighthouse.

Another thought is that the photograph was taken years after the lighthouse was abandoned. However, by looking at the well-manicured lawn, white painted picket fence and condition of the lighthouse we can determine that the photograph was taken when the lighthouse was active.

Unless we stumble across some lost part of history such as the personal files of the photographer (whom we believe was Bill D. Baldwin), we may never know who the person in the photograph is.

When writing about lighthouses and their history, a lot of what we do is months and months of research, just like a detective, especially, in many cases, where records are incomplete or we find conflicting information. Whatever the case, it is unlikely that we will ever know the name of the gentleman in this photograph. But then again, one of readers might have the answer.

Quick Facts

Rock Harbor Lighthouse is located within the boundaries of Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior near Houghton, Michigan.

In the 1950s the tower began to tilt. Because of fears it might topple over, an emergency stabilization was undertaken.

Isle Royale park rangers offer hiking tours to the lighthouse in the summer months and Keweenaw Excursions offers boat tours past the lighthouse also during the summer.

The lighthouse is not easy to get to and you will need to make substantial plans in advance. To learn more go to the Isle Royale National Park website http://www.nps.gov/isro/index.htm.

This story appeared in the November 2004 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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