Editor’s Note: This story was written a number of years ago by the late Donald Nelson (1932-2006), a former Coast Guard keeper who was also a noted maritime historian. This previously unpublished story was in our archives, and we have taken the liberty of editing the story, adding additional information as well as many photos secured from various sources including Steven Laine, a relative of the late Louis I. Wilks.
Choosing to be a lighthouse keeper during the height of lighthouses being a necessity was not usually conducive to a normal lifestyle. But a man named Louis Ignatius Wilks (1892-1962) took the job seriously, right from the start. Those who knew him knew that he would be outstanding at whatever task was given to him in the service to our country.
Louis, known to most as Louie, was a credit to the U.S. Lighthouse Service and later the U.S. Coast Guard. He was a commanding figure, and a fair individual who treated every task and every person with their designated respect. Serving faithfully for 37 years at light stations in the central Lake Superior, he was a commanding figure, and idle time was not in his makeup.
There was always something that needed attention on a light station, and he made it his business to know everything and anything, and that the light station was always maintained and operated at top efficiency. Anyone who knew Louis Wilks was not surprised when, at that time, he became the youngest person to become a keeper in charge of a lighthouse.
I first met Louis Wilks in Marquette, Michigan where I grew up by the Coast Guard Station. At that time he was the lighthouse keeper at Stannard Rock Lighthouse. Being a nosey kid, I observed the lighthouse launch come and go from “The Rock” as it was called. As time went on, I got to know this man who was a legend even in his own time in the history of Stannard Rock Lighthouse.
Entering Service to His Country
At the age of 18, during the height of World War I, Louis Wilks joined the U.S. Army. He quickly proved himself as a leader and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant in charge of a machine gun company in the famous Red Arrow Division, a name that was adopted after tough combat in France when it became the first allied division to pierce the German Hindenburg Line of Defense with its tenacity of breaking into the enemy line.
After the war, on June 19, 1919 he joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service and was assigned to Sands Hills Lighthouse near Eagle Harbor Michigan, which was sometimes called Five Mile Point Lighthouse. He was assigned to serve under keeper William R. Bennetts of the yet to be completed light station. Sand Hills Lighthouse had an operating light and fog horn a full year before the actual lighthouse was finished. Upon completion, Sand Hills Lighthouse was billeted for married keepers only. Being unmarried, Louis was sent to the Portage River Lower Entry Light and given the position of 3rd assistant keeper serving under lighthouse keeper Oliver St. Andre. At some point he met Martha Burris and the couple got married on December 31, 1919 in St. Clairsville, Ohio, probably because she had family there.
In 1922 he was promoted to 2nd assistant keeper of the Portage River Lower Entry Light. As well as having to maintain the lighthouse, the keepers at the Portage River Lower Entry Light Station had to maintain three and a half miles of battery powered channel and range lights. There was lots of work at this station not normally found at many average light stations. How well I know, as I also served there with the U.S. Coast Guard during the 1950s, and the duty and work load was almost identical to what it was when it was opened.
In 1924 a northeast spring storm tore 1,500 feet of six-inch piping from the breakwater that supplied the air to the light tower fog signal. The three keepers wrestled the pipe from the canal and reinstalled it. This was far beyond what was expected, as it would have been so very easy to simply call in a lighthouse tender and its crew with the proper equipment to do the work. For their effort, the three keepers received a U.S. Lighthouse Service commendation for going beyond the call of duty.
Onward to the Apostle Islands
In April of 1925, Louis Wilks was reassigned to the Outer Island Light Station in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands where he served until August of 1926 when he transferred to Eagle Harbor Lighthouse in Eagle Harbor, Michigan. During this time, he proved himself as a hard-working responsible individual. In December of 1929, he was promoted to be Principle (Head) keeper at the Raspberry Island Lighthouse in the Apostle Islands, where the log books report that there were constant problems.
The Raspberry Island Light Station had provisions for two married lighthouse keepers and one unmarried light keeper. However, because of the children’s schooling, the families of the keepers usually only lived on the island during the summer months and on weekends as weather permitted. The married keepers had to maintain a home or apartment on the mainland in Bayfield, Wisconsin.
In reading the lighthouse journals for Raspberry Island Lighthouse for the years 1927 to 1934, it was obvious that, during the tenure of Louis Wilks, that major changes, repairs, and upkeep took place. Every daily entry was filled with work projects not seen before or after his command. The keepers also had the responsibility of maintaining the automated gas light at Sand Island Lighthouse and the York Island Shoals gas buoy to the west. Routine boat trips were made for maintenance and gas readings. Louis Wilks concluded that a trail could be cut through the woods to a point where the keepers could check on these lights nightly. This was a simple but wise improvement.
The Raspberry Island logbook journal shows a station where the keepers were constantly busy and hard work occurred daily. Boat trips to Bayfield on the mainland were constant – getting mail, supplies, shore time, etc. Often-times they would also bring supplies, mail, and passengers to Devils Island Light Station to the north. In his five years at Raspberry Island Lighthouse, Louis Wilks brought it up to a top-notch station.
A few of the interesting or unusual logbook entries read:
June 27, 1928: Made new steps for toilet. Painted flag pole and iron extensions of chimneys.
July 7, 1928: Heavy west squall blew down north chimney and tipped over old stairway to dock.
August 17, 1928: Polished brass. Repaired window sash. Replaced shingles on toilet roof that had blown off. 2nd assistant keeper’s wife is ill. She went ashore for medical aid at 10 AM.
April 17, 1929: Keepers and 1st assistant went to Bayfield. Left station at 8AM. Keeper returned at 4PM with family. 1st assistant remained in town to bring his horse out to the light station. 2nd assistant keeper put in glass in kitchen window of his quarters.
October 4, 1929: Went to Red Cliff Point with 2nd assistant keeper to help drag for bodies of the mates who were killed in an explosion of the Red Cliff buoy. They were off the lighthouse tender Marigold.
July 14, 1930: 1st assistant returned to station with keeper. 1st assistant keeper suspended from duty, this date, for disobedience of orders and being intoxicated while on duty.
Diligence Pays Off
Louis Wilks’ dedication and hard work did not go unnoticed. In 1933, he got lucky when he was offered the head keepers job at Big Bay Point Lighthouse, a land-based lighthouse in Big Bay, Michigan. It seems that the Lighthouse Service had demoted John L. Dufrain, the head keeper at Big Bay Point, to an offshore lighthouse after the assistant keepers at Big Bay Point had filed complaints that Dufrain was inattentive to his responsibilities and was often intoxicated while on duty. Because Louis Wilks would be able to have his family with him at all times he accepted the new assignment. Although he drove his family by automobile to the lighthouse, all of his furnishings were delivered by the crew from the Lighthouse Tender Amaranth. Unfortunately, although Big Bay Point was a shore-based light station, the two-rut road of some four miles from Big Bay was a miserable ride. And when he arrived, he found that the light station needed major work. It was not what Louis Wilks had been expecting.
Just as from Raspberry Island’s journal, reading the Big Bay journal from 1931 to 1941 showed that Louis Wilks immediately took charge, and cleaned up and made numerous repairs bringing the Big Bay Point Light Station up to par. The assistant keepers’ problems were also quickly resolved, especially since one of them felt that they should have gotten Wilks’ job as head keeper. But the journal entries showed that keeper Wilks had a way of getting all the work done without getting on the wrong side of his assistants.
However, getting the children to school was a problem, one that Louis Wilks had not anticipated when accepting a land-based lighthouse assignment. It was often said the ride on the two-rut road was worse and more dangerous that a rough ride across the water on a boat. Also, Big Bay Point Lighthouse did not have electricity in those days, and the house was heated by a hand-fired coal furnace, which never really kept the house warm during those especially cold Michigan winter months. However, life on a remote lighthouse can also have tragic consequences. Daughter Bev was severely burned at the lighthouse and was scarred for life from the accident. Emergency medical treatment was a long ways away. Then when his son Bobby died of spasms of the larynx on March 29, 1935, life at the Big Bay Point Lighthouse thereafter was never a pleasant place to live.
A New Assignment
In the winter of 1936, Louis Wilks was offered the job of head keeper of the Stannard Rock Lighthouse. Although it was described as “the loneliest lighthouse in the United States,” and it was by no means a family light station, he decided to accept the job, mainly because he would get a house in Marquette so his family could have a normal life. And the house was just a few blocks from the school. Although he would not be home all the time, this would be a much better life for his family to whom he was so very devoted.
In April of 1936, Louis Wilks made his first 45-mile trip from Marquette Harbor to his new light station aboard the Lighthouse Tender Aspen, only to find that Stannard Rock Lighthouse was totally engulfed in ice. They could not get onto the lighthouse. More trips were made in April, May, and June, but the station still had lots of ice on it. It had been a long cold winter. It was not until June 27th that they could finally get onto the lighthouse. Louis Wilks must have been wondering what he had got himself into.
However, undaunted, Louis Wilkes took command and proceeded to be perhaps the best thing that had ever happened to the lighthouse. For the next amazing 20 years, Stannard Rock Lighthouse was his, and it would never have a major problem and always functioned as a first class light station. But, often times, for those next 20 years, ice would be an ongoing problem at certain times of the year at Stannard Rock Lighthouse.
Normally, Stannard Rock was staffed from the first of April to the first of December. During the first and last month of the season, the head keeper, Louis Wilks, and his three assistants were all on the light station together. In the off season, when the lighthouse was not staffed, a small acetylene beacon, called a winter light, was shown. Shore time varied over the years from three weeks on and one week off to six weeks on and two weeks off. One year Louis Wilks spent 99 consecutive days on Stannard Rock Lighthouse due to illness of two of his assistances. He was a compassionate man.
Although a number of Wilks’ assistants came and went over the years, one man, Elmer Sormunen of Chassell, Michigan was stationed with him for the entire 20 years. The two men became close friends and obviously worked well together; otherwise Wilks could have requested a transfer for either of them.
In 1939 when the U.S. Lighthouse Service was dissolved and its duties taken over by the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard was not going to mess with success, and Wilks was allowed to stay on as head light keeper for another 17 years, until his retirement in 1956 at the age of 58. When Louis Wilks retired from service to his country, he had served four years of Army Service, 20 years of lighthouse duty with the U. S. Lighthouse Service, and 17 years of lighthouse duty with the U.S. Coast Guard.
Lighthouse Career Ends
Upon his retirement, in honor of his long and faithful service, the U.S. Coast Guard presented Louis I. Wilks with the Albert Gallatin Award, which, at the time, was the highest honorary career service award given.
About six years after retiring and after several years of failing health, Louis I. Wilks passed away on February 14, 1962 at the Marine Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.
Louis I. Wilks was truly one of the great notable lighthouse keepers who served on the Great Lakes.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2016 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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