rom time to time, Dad would reminisce on bits of remembered stories his father, Andrew John Nowland, shared about his time in the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Dad knew the name of the ship – the Hyacinth - and that she plowed the waters of Lake Michigan. He also knew his mother made giving up sailing a requirement for marriage. Dad especially remembered the names Beaver Island, South Fox and Skillagalee.
I was only fourteen when my grandfather died in 1972 at the age of 71, and I was much too young then to have paid attention to old stories. Time passed and my dad marked a milestone when he had lived more years than his father. As the years continued to mount, Dad would more often comment on his father’s sailing days.
Then my older brother’s early death reminded me anew of how short and unpredictable life is. So I began to wonder what more I could learn about my dad’s stories. But where to start?
My younger brother told me he had once been in contact with the curator of the Milwaukee Public Museum concerning the lighthouse tender Hyacinth. But that was years ago. And now his information was on a laptop that no longer worked. He couldn’t even access it. Well, at least it was something.
I found an Internet list of Museum employees. My brother recognized the name of Al Muchka. I sent him an email explaining who I was and what I was after. And he did not disappoint. Al gave me valuable insights about how and where to find more information.
That led me to write a letter to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) giving them my grandfather’s name, birth date, death date, social security number, and that he had worked for the U.S. Lighthouse Service based out of Milwaukee in the 12th Lighthouse District aboard the USLHT Hyacinth sometime in the early 1920s.
The NARA sent me complimentary copies of Andy’s service record cards. And what a find they were. When Dad saw the familiar scrawl of his father’s signature, he was visibly moved. That alone made it all worthwhile. Andy started his service on September 4, 1921 and left for good on March 31, 1926. He was let go twice due to a reduction of crew for winter but was hired back each time until he elected to leave the service at his own request. We knew that Andy was an able bodied seaman, but were impressed to find that he had been promoted to Quartermaster.
Meanwhile, my brother went through an old photo album of Grandma’s. To our delight, he found pictures of Andy during his sailing days.
But where did Andy’s ship, the Hyacinth, travel? What were the lighthouses Andy might have serviced? Would one of them be the strangely named Skillagalee? And is there really a Beaver Island in Lake Michigan?
From the pages of the NARA I found an independent researcher for hire who specialized in Coast Guard and Lighthouse Service records. Would it be possible for me to see the actual deck logs of the Hyacinth? Are they still around some ninety-one years later? If so, they could contain information about where the ship went, what work the men performed, and could possibly offer names of crewmen who had accidents, were hired, or let go. Dad willingly footed the bill for June, July, and August of 1925.
In the mail I received copies of the actual pages of the ship’s log. To my utter delight, Andy was mentioned by name on June 15, 1925, “Andrew John Nowland, quartermaster was sent to marine doctor at Milwaukee in afternoon with lame back, and returned.” Not only that, but his brother, Ivan, is also mentioned later in August, a find that Dad said gave him goose bumps. Up till then, he had only had anecdotal evidence that Ivan also sailed.
And Dad’s lighthouses are mentioned. Not only did the U.S. Lighthouse Service lighthouse tender Hyacinth service Beaver Island, South Fox, and Skillagalee lighthouses, she also serviced many more along both shores of Lake Michigan.
Even though I felt blessed to have all this information, I started longing for something more tangible. As a family, we began to talk about the possibility of actually visiting these places. What would it be like to walk where Andy had walked, to visit the places he had been, to take pictures of the lighthouses he had serviced?
I researched lighthouses, consulted maps, and made further use of the Internet. And this year, the only child of Andy, my 78-year-old Dad, and seven other family members, will visit lighthouses along the west coast of Michigan. We’ll charter a plane from Charlevoix to fly over ten lighthouses, including South Fox and Skillagalee, before landing on Beaver Island.
Yes, there really is a 58 square mile island called Beaver in Lake Michigan. It has seven lakes, 600 permanent residences, and two lighthouses. On another day we’ll see lighthouses from the water as we take Shepler’s extended westbound lighthouse cruise where we’ll pass close to White Shoal, Gray’s Reef, Waugoshance, St Helena, and yes, the Skillagalee Lighthouse, which, by the way, is also known as the Ile Aux Galets Lighthouse.
You too can experience the thrill of discovering lighthouses. And you don’t have to connect them to a family member. Just by visiting and/or supporting their continued existence, you can make your own history. Why not start today?
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2012 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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