The population of the Great Lakes region grew by leaps and bounds in the mid-1800s due to the mass immigration of people from Europe. This was particularly true around Lake Superior, which was the size of North Carolina. Since many new lighthouses were being built, the position of assistant keeper, which paid well, was enticing to young men. Such was the case of the Passage Island Light Station.
With increased mining of copper, nickel and silver along the north shore of Lake Superior toward the end of the 1860s, the volume of vessels making their way through the area increased dramatically. Many deep-water ships were sailing through the passage between the northern tip of Isle Royale and the southern tip of Passage Island and congress was made aware of the need to establish a light to mark the deepest northern channel.
Passage Island was located 3.4 miles off Blake Point, the northeastern end of Isle Royale and roughly 8 miles from Rock Harbor. Isle Royale was 45 miles long and 8 miles wide. Construction of the lighthouse began in 1881 and was finished on July 1, 1882; making it the northernmost American light on the Great Lakes. It served to guide ships into Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.
The Norman Gothic two-story residence had a 44-foot octagonal rubble-stone tower built into one corner. The light was originally a fixed red shining through a rotating fourth order Fresnel lens. The residence housed the head keeper and the first assistant keeper. The second assistant had cramped quarters in the tower. Added housing for the assistants was built at a much later date.
Imagine the life of the keeper and his two assistants living on Passage Island. It was a remote, uninhabited rocky island that stretched out about a mile in length and was 14 miles off the Canadian shore, near the Minnesota-Canadian border. By boat, the island is 22 miles from Grand Portage, Minnesota and 73 miles from Houghton, Michigan. Everyone at the light station had to deal with boredom at one time or another.
The first keeper appointed to the Passage Island Light was James Prior, however a month before the lighting of the station, he declined. His replacement was Richard Singleton, who served one year before he died. The next keeper W. F. Dermont, appointed in August 1883, stayed for ten years before he resigned in 1893. Under his leadership, the station was served by ten assistant keepers, many of whom started as the second assistant and were promoted to first assistant before leaving. They were: Louis Fleicher, John Duprey, John Leonard, Louis Beland, Eugene Johnson, William Pinkerton, Henry Baker, William Howard and John Keen. Three of them resigned, two removed, and four were transferred. Most of them served from one to three years, except Amos Foster who lasted two weeks before quitting.
The next keeper was Alexander Shaw who served 14 years before he was transferred in 1907. Under his watch there were 17 assistant keepers that passed through the watch with the same lengths of service and reasons for leaving.
Taking shore leave was on a rotating basis with one man going ashore. Either the head keeper or the first assistant manned the station all the time. The one going ashore had to be taken 8 miles south to Rock Harbor in the station boat where he would catch a ride on a supply boat or mail passenger over to Grand Portage, 22 miles distant. Travel time took a large chunk out of shore leave.
In 1930, James Gagnon was the head keeper at Passage Island. Herbert Driver was his first assistant and Lawrence Lane was the second assistant. The keeper made the following notation in his logbook on December 7, 1930:
“While sounding the fog signal during a snow storm, our water supply line, from the pump house to the signal house, froze, the time 5:30 a.m. We immediately disconnected the pipe and carried it to the signal house, where we applied gasoline torches to it. We had circulating water then until 6:30 p.m. when the pipe froze the second time. We disconnected the pipe line; then I attempted to get in touch with one of the other lighthouses by radiotelephone, but could not. Knowing that there might be steamers in the vicinity, I sent out a general radio call requesting that some one notify the harbor master at Fort Williams or at the Soo Locks that we were having trouble and that we might be compelled to sound the signal only at intervals. But, due to hard work, we sounded at all times except at 11 a.m. to 11:10, when we changed from one air compressor to the other. We had a break in the storm between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. By this time our cooling water was getting quite warm, but we carried enough ice and water during this lull in the storm to cool the water considerably. The weather was getting worse all the time; the thermometer was registering 8 degrees below zero and the wind with a half gale from the north.”
According to the Lighthouse Service Bulletin, 1930-1935, it was not until Saturday that the keepers could obtain water through the pipe line without freezing. All three men had obtained very little rest and little food other than coffee and sandwiches. For a large part of the time they carried water from the pump house to the fog-signal building, across an open stretch of rocky yard fully exposed to the driving storm, causing the head keeper to suffer a frozen face and ears.
The keepers of the Passage Island Light were commended by the Commissioner of Lighthouses in Washington, DC; “For heroic efforts in operating their fog signal for four days and three nights during a violent gale with the temperatures several degrees below zero and overcoming difficulties of frozen machinery.”
From the superintendent of lighthouses, in Detroit, came an explanation of the way in which news of the difficulties at Passage Island Lighthouse first became known.
“The radio broadcast which the keeper sent out was picked up by an amateur operator in Mackinaw City, nearly 250 miles away, who rebroadcast it. It was then picked up by an amateur operator in Indianapolis, nearly 500 miles from Mackinaw City, who promptly sent a telegram to Detroit.”
During November, arctic air masses across Alaska and Canada surged southeast into the Rockies and Plains States. At the same time, the still warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico provided a source of heat and considerable moisture to fuel the development of low pressure riding the edge of the arctic air masses. As these low pressure systems strengthened, they rode the jet stream northeast into the Great Lakes region where the relatively warm waters of the lakes caused these storms to intensify more than they might have otherwise.
The fall storm season coincided with the economic constraints of shippers wanting to get as many runs in before winter as possible, with the needs for harvested grain to make it to market. and raw materials (ore, coal) to be stockpiled for winter. As storms became more frequent and more intense during autumn, ships more often encountered dangerous conditions as the strong winds created large waves. The average wave height on Lake Superior was 26 feet, no matter how strong the wind.
Lighthouse keepers were in the business of saving lives. They had a strong sense of duty for the safety of men who went down to the sea in ships and would go to the ends of the world to save them; even if it was on an island in the northern most part of Lake Superior where it could get very cold, wet and windy.
This story appeared in the
November 2009 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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