Editor’s Note: The West Sister Island Lighthouse sits on an 82-acre island in the western basin of Lake Erie. It was built in 1868 to replace an earlier tower. The lighthouse was automated in 1937 and the keeper’s house was demolished in the 1940s by the Army Air Corp in a World War II training exercise.
West Sister Island took its place in history during the War of 1812. It was here, on September 10, 1813, that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry sent the famous message to General William Henry Harrison after the Battle of Lake Erie, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
Today, instead of being a well-maintained historic site that is open to the public, the island is part of the West Sister Island National Wildlife Refuge and is off-limits to the public.
Recently Lighthouse Digest subscriber Brian G. Margavich, who is also the keeper of Florida’s Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, had the rare opportunity to visit the lighthouse.
Following, in his own words, is his account.
After twenty-eight years of wondering and two years of emailing and planning, I was finally able to accompany the Coast Guard Station Detroit Aids to Navigation team on their mission to recharge the West Sister Island Lighthouse in Ohio!
The remains/floor of the old “connecting hallway” is still used to enter the tower. The walls are long gone and in fact, the bricks/blocks from it still litter the ground of an island that otherwise has no sign of humans.
As we entered the DARK interior of the tower (there is no glass… all the windows were bricked in and in July 1936 the lens room was removed and roof set down on the walls) . . . one thought came to my mind. This is the first U.S. lighthouse I’ve been to that has never seen commercial power. There was no light switch on the wall, no receptacles, no metal conduit running up the inside of the tower. The two marine-grade batteries in the plastic case inside of what used to be the lens room, is the only power on the entire island, which is 8.5 miles from the nearest Ohio mainland.
A quick background on this from me – We lived on Russell Road in Oak Harbor, Ohio back in the early 1990s. I used to be able to look out my bedroom window with binoculars and see West Sister Island and its white light flashing at nighttime. While participating in boy scouts, my leader told us tales about his childhood troop camping out there with permission. He told us about how one night during a severe storm, his whole troop took refuge inside the unlocked lighthouse, cooped up on the stairs!
In August 1994, while fishing a few miles offshore from West Sister, I begged my dad to explore the lighthouse (I was 14 years old). We beached the boat a few hundred feet east of the lighthouse on a sandy beach and I ran over to the lighthouse. However, no sooner did I touch the south-facing wall of the tower than a patrol boat yelled at us over their PA System to “Get off of that island right now!”
That was where my adventure ended.
Fast forward to 2020. As the volunteer lighthouse keeper of Florida’s Pensacola Lighthouse, I work very closely with the Coast Guard ATON unit at Station Pensacola. They helped me figure out that Detroit was the team that services West Sister Island Lighthouse and they gave me their Chief Petty Officer’s name. I emailed him with an open mind thinking that the worst thing he could do is say “no.” I had nothing to lose. To my surprise, he actually said “YES”! He informed me that since it was remote and an LED beacon, the Coast Guard only visits the lighthouse once every three years and they had just gone in 2019. He said that because of personnel changes, which take place on a regular basis, he would be glad to put my name and contact information in the folder for this lighthouse and “hopefully” the new people would see it and contact me. On August 1, 2022 I got an email from the Chief asking if I was still interested and we made our plans!
I arrived to Toledo, Ohio. The Coast Guard stated that they would trailer their vessel from Detroit and launch at Coast Guard Station Toledo and I was to meet them on Tuesday August 16, 2022. However, because of changing weather and lake conditions, we ended up having to wait until Friday. Also, the BM1 whom I was communicating with said that he would be finding a marina more east so that the journey to the island would be a shorter route. On Thursday afternoon he messaged me with the final plans and said that they would be putting-in at “Wild Wings Marina.” After reading the email I thought to myself, that the marina name sounded VERY familiar. I researched it on Google maps and realized that we would be meeting at that the very same marina that my dad used to use, adjacent to our home on Russell Road that we rented when I was a kid. I felt this lighthouse was calling to me much like the green light to Gatsby!
Friday August 19th finally came. I left my Toledo motel early and drove over to Oak Harbor with butterflies in my stomach. While I was excited about the 57-foot forbidden lighthouse, I was terrified of the boat ride out to it! You see, my dad used to have a 17-foot Sea Ray that was okay on small lakes in Georgia, where I also lived after Ohio and before I joined the Air Force, but on Lake Erie, that single-engine boat used to scare the heck out of me! It took my dad’s boat close to an hour to reach West Sister Island from Wild Wings, and the ride was always rough.
I arrived to Wild Wings an hour early. I couldn’t sit at my motel and relax with all of these nerves, and I didn’t want to take the chance of being late and causing them to wait for me or leave without me. So, I sat in my rental car staring at the boat ramp listening to Christian music, just trying to relax, but I was worried sick. At 11am the Coast Guard crew pulled in driving a white pick-up truck pulling behind them a 27-foot, heavy-duty boat with two large Yamaha motors on the back! I was instantly relieved! Once onboard, I normally sit as close to the back of the boat as possible – the ride is smoothest near the motors. Well, the back of this vessel has two seats that fold down that look like a saddle on a jet ski! The lake was pond-like that morning, with a few waves here and there, but I wasn’t scared at all on this boat, not with these seats! It took us 27-minutes to reach the southwest tip of the island where the lighthouse is located. I was so relieved!
Once we arrived to the island, we offloaded the two new batteries, a spare beacon, and a spare solar panel. I immediately started taking photos. I touched the outside of the tower to reenact that amazing day 28-years prior. When we walked around the tower to the north side, I immediately knew what I was looking at! To an untrained eye there was an elevated “sidewalk.” But I knew that it was the “floor” and all that remained of the hallway that used to connect the 1848 tower to its former 2-story keeper’s house. The walls of the hallway were completely gone – the bricks that formed it were scattered all over the ground right there in what is otherwise a wooded area. This structure and those bricks are the only sign that humans ever were on the entire 64-acre island.
One of the Coast Guardsmen unlocked the padlock and forced the door open. The floor of the tower looked like the ground was wall-to-wall sand and dirt. I waited outside the tower until he climbed up to verify the integrity of the stairs and make sure there were no severe safety hazards. He emerged on the catwalk 57-feet up and yelled down that it was safe for me to proceed. When I stepped inside, past the tower door, it was pitch black inside!
It occurred to me right then and there that there is no light switch on the wall, nor are there plugs, nor is there metal conduit running up the inside of the tower. This lighthouse was never electrified!
The tower once had several windows, but they were all bricked-in and painted black on the outside to still look like windows. We had to use flashlights to see inside the tower. For years I had wondered, even dreamed about, what the inside of this tower looked like! So here I was, 28 years to the month, after two years of emailing, and hundreds of miles flown to get here, just to find out that the spiral stairs were IDENTICAL to Pensacola (my lighthouse). West Sister Island Light was built using a very common pattern used in many lighthouses that are see-thru cast iron stairs with ovals or “footballs” in the pattern. In the dark and the excitement of being inside this never-seen-by-civilians tower on this forbidden island, I didn’t count how many stairs there were.
We climbed to the top, climbed through the hatch and into what used to be the lens room prior to 1936. Today that lens room is only three feet tall because the government had removed the lantern windows and put the roof right down on the lens room walls.
You can still see the vents in the walls that would have provided air flow for the oil lamp when this thing had a 4th order Fresnel lens. That room now houses two marine-grade batteries that power the LED light outside and are recharged during the day with a single solar panel. The batteries are the only source of electricity on this entire island!
Then I stepped out into the daylight and onto the catwalk for a rare bird’s eye view of that end of the island and Lake Erie. The Electrician’s Mate (EM) then disconnected the two old batteries and lowered them down on a rope to his teammate on the ground, and hoisted up the two new batteries. He tested the self-contained LED beacon on the new batteries and checked the charging system. The beacon was neat because it has built-in flash controls and brightness. This one flashes white and is visible for 10 nautical miles. The whole thing about coming every three years is wild to think about, especially, because the keepers of old used to have to climb the stairs several times per night to rewind the “grandfather clock” that would have rotated their French glass lens in order to create the same flash effect! Technology really has changed the lighthouse’s functionality forever! The guys finished up their checks, let me take a few more pictures and then we climbed down, closed and re-locked the door, to be closed tight for another three years.
We re-boarded the boat and began our 27-minute trek back to Wild Wings Marina. I was just in awe of this whole opportunity! It brought me full-circle: Back to being 14 years old and listening to my scout leader, with my jaw on the floor, hearing about his camping trip.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2022 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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