Digest>Archives> January 1999

Devils Island Light Station - A "Landmark" in Western Lake Superior

By Jim Merkel


It should be enough to say the Devils Island Lighthouse keeps watch over the northernmost point in Wisconsin, just as the lights at Montauk Point and West Quoddy Head watch over the easternmost points in New York and Maine, respectively.

And it should be enough to say mariners in sailboats and fishing boats can see the red flashing solar-powered beacon from the lighthouse 15 statute miles away. That the station has been a primary turning point on Lake Superior since a light first went on at Devils on Sept. 30, 1891 also should give it special significance. So should the fact that locals around the Apostle Islands waged a successful fight earlier in the decade to bring the original 3rd order Fresnel lens back to the Devils Island light tower. And the fact that they still speak fondly of the day in 1928 when a President came to picnic on the rock ledges southeast of the light station.

But what often enchants people the most about the place is its mystery. Local folklore has it that of all the 22 Apostle Islands, Devils Island was the only one where the Ojibway (Chippewa) Indians would not bring their canoes, for fear of the spirits the island might contain.

Bob Mackreth, historian of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which includes the light stations at Devils Island and five other islands in the Apostles, speaks cautiously about the story.

"There's no evidence to support that. It's a local tradition. A lot of people will say that, but there's no real hard evidence to support that as an authentic Indian tradition. For all we know, that's something that a white tourist promoter made up in the 1930s," Mackreth said.

But, if the story only came from the mouth of a local storyteller, there are reasons why a listener would believe the tale. For the storms that pound the island have undercut the sandstone on the island's northern side with sea caves and blow holes that give off ghostly sounds indeed, when the climate is right.

The sea caves are on the northern end of a bean-shaped island, which extends 1 1/4 miles north to south and 1/2 mile east to west. A 80 foot tall steel cylinder tower erected in 1898 stands near the northern end of the island, as do two two-story Queen Anne-style brick keepers' dwellings, a fog whistle building and other smaller structures.

With the noise from the caves, it would be natural that anyone coming ashore in the past, and hearing it on a dark, stormy night might believe their source is a sinister spirit indeed.

Local author Dave Strzok records that the Ojibway who inhabited the area had a name similar to the current Devil's Island. Strzok, also notes in A Visitor's Guide to the Apostle Islands that the Chippewa name was metchimanitou miniss, or Evil Spirit Island.

No matter what people called it in the distant long ago, and no matter what the reason, the charm remains for Lois Spangle, who grew up as lighthouse keeper's daughter on Devils Island half a century ago. Her father Alphonse L. Gustafson was one of two assistant keepers at the Devils Island Lighthouse from 1945 until he suffered a fatal heart attack on April 29, 1951.

When Spangle came to the island, she recalls, her father told her there would be strange sounds. But he told her not to be afraid. "When we went fishing, he said let's go into this (cave). And when we went in there, I was just fascinated at the sound. I can't explain it really. It was weird, but yet it was beautiful. We knew it was Mother Nature," she said. Indeed, kayakers today venture out to the sea caves to hear the sounds.

But there was more than the sounds that today provide sweet memories for Spangle. She recalls that a Coast Guard cutter would come from Duluth at the opening of the Lake Superior navigation season in mid-April, to take keepers to their respective stations in the islands. "Devils Island was all so very hard to reach. Even now it is for landings. But in April, there was the ice, all against the rocks and everything. They had to dynamite the ice off of the rocks to get the men onto the ramp there, and then for them to get them up to the command car with their luggage and their food and everything for them to go to their dwelling. It was a very, very hard thing every year to get up to the dwelling,'' said Spangle, who also has memories of her father's service at the Long Island Light Station in the Apostles, and at Portage Lake Ship Canal Lighthouse at Houghton, Michigan.

"Mother Nature provided me with many entertainments and toys," she said, mentioning her collections of butterflies and wildflowers. Now a grandmother of nine and a great grandmother of one, she shares her memories in talks with school children, church groups and historical organizations, and in an informal group of keeper's children she's joined.

The thought of keeping such memories alive may have been what inspired residents of the Apostle Islands area to wage a successful battle to bring back the 3rd order Fresnel lens first installed in the tower in 1901.

That lens was installed 13 years after the Vessel Owners Association asked for a red flashing a 3rd order Fresnel light and fog signal in 1888. Congress appropriated $20,500 for a light and fog signal in 1890, but it was clearly inadequate for the steel light tower people wanted.

But it was enough for a temporary wooden tower, which beamed a red fourth order lens from the shores of Devils Island on Sept. 30, 1891. While the permanent tower was erected in 1898, delays meant the requested 3rd order lens didn't come until 1901.

Forty inches or so in diameter, and about six feet tall, the lens was and is a marvel.

"That lens to my mind is just a fantastic work of art," Mackreth said. "We almost lost it."

When the station, in 1978, became the last in the Apostles to be automated, the Fresnel lens remained. But in 1989, the Coast Guard decided to replace it with the small, efficient solar-powered unit, and dismantled the original 3rd order Fresnel lens.

"There was a bit of controversy over it, and eventually, after a group of citizens went to court, the Coast Guard was compelled to return the lens to the National Park Service, and we arranged to have the lens reinstalled," Mackreth said.

Prior to that reinstallation in 1992, Greg Byrne, an objects conservator for the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry, WV, worked seven days a week for three weeks to repair damage done to the lens. Then helicopters from the National Guard brought dozens of wooden packing crates back to Devils Island, where a boom system was set up to raise the pieces to the lantern room.

"It was quite an exhilarating experience, to put it mildly, leaning out over the balcony and trying to guide some of these heavy pieces into the lighthouse," Mackreth said. The solar powered beacon still provides the light for passing ships and sailboats. But, Mackreth said, "We got the lens back together, and it's a point of pride for all of us that the 3rd order Fresnel lens is back in the tower at Devils, where it belongs."

The exhilaration they felt may have been like that experienced on the day President Calvin Coolidge came for a picnic on Devils Island, on Aug. 22, 1928, along with an entourage that included local dignitaries, cameramen, reporters and guests.

President Coolidge's day trip to the Apostles and his luncheon came near the end of an 88 day summer vacation in northern Wisconsin, after he chose not to run for re-election. The president and the party viewed the sea caves, watched a fisherman lift fish from a net, and then got off on a narrow ledge of rock southeast of the lighthouse, according to Guy M. Burnham, in the 1929 book, "The Lake Superior Country, in History and in Story."

"At Devils Island, at the extreme northwest of the (Apostle) group, the first stop of the cruise was made, the party landing at 1p.m. for luncheon in a grove on a prominence of land affording an uninterrupted view of the vast expanse of lake," said an account in The New York Times the following day.

Burnham reported that the President toured and inspected the lighthouse, before signing his name in the journal of Hans F. Christensen, the keeper at Devils Island.

"It's the first time in my four years here or my 12 years at Eagle Harbor, Michigan that anything so great has happened," Captain Christensen enthused, Burnham's book said, before adding, "He declared he would write to his inspector, telling him that the lighthouse had been inspected and OK'ed by the President of the United States himself."

Born in Denmark on June 23, 1878, Christensen was Devils Island keeper from April 1925 to April 1934. He started sailing when he was 14, came to America later in his teens, sailed on the Great Lakes and then served on a ship in Santiago, Cuba in the Spanish American War. He became an assistant keeper at Split Rock, MN, around 1911, and assistant keeper at Two Harbors, MN, around 1912. He was named first assistant keeper at Eagle Harbor, MI, in 1913, and transferred to Devils in 1925. Christensen and his wife Anna, also a Danish immigrant, had three children. Anna died at the age of 80 in 1961, and Hans at 89 in 1968. Both are buried at Eagle Harbor, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, not far from where they spent much of their lives.

At the end of his life, it's possible Hans Christensen would have agreed with the words of Lois Spangle, when she said, "It was a great life, I will say. I'm happy with my heritage."

This story appeared in the January 1999 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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