Day: September 4, 2020

Flashback Friday: A Tale of Two Lighthouses

Wavy lake under clouds
Lake Superior on a stormy day in 1912. Photograph by J.T. Reeder.

Like Robert Frost’s famous woods, the lake is lovely, dark, and deep.

Lake Superior claims a number of superlatives. By surface area, it is the largest freshwater lake in the world; by volume, it is the third among its peers. The deepest point, north of Munising, is among the lowest places above sea level in North America. Any swimmer knows that it is the coldest of the Great Lakes, and its most sincere fans faithfully swear that it is the most beautiful lake on Earth.

For all its charms, and in part because it is a lake among lakes, Lake Superior also poses a unique danger to the vessels that sail it. Merchant mariners realized this quickly as commerce on the lake grew. By 1844, just as the copper mining rush was set to begin, the John Jacob Astor had floundered at Copper Harbor. As century wore on–and as the boom in the Upper Peninsula progressed–it brought with it the creation of the Soo Locks, more ships on the lake, and a growing number of vessels beneath the waves. Late autumn storms, hidden shoals, rocky shores, capricious winds, and other hazards of the lake claimed an expanding list of victims.

Safe navigation of the mighty lake required guidance and guideposts. Mariners needed to know where the shoreline lay and where perils in the water might threaten their journey. Although industrial-scale shipping was new to Lake Superior, the solution was an ancient one. Lighthouses would steer sailors and their vessels away from disaster.

Lights began to wink on throughout the Upper Peninsula. As the prospective hub of early mining, Copper Harbor received one of the earliest lighthouses. Congress authorized its funding in 1847, and construction was complete by 1849. However, this first structure would not last long. A mere fifteen years later, an annual report submitted by the Lighthouse Board found that the Copper Harbor light needed “extensive repairs.” By the time the approved improvements wrapped up, the government had invested over $13,000 (more than $200,000 in today’s money) in creating a more enduring lighthouse around the original shell. Where once the light and the keeper’s dwelling had been separate structures, the renovation brought them into a single brick fortress. Research conducted by Fort Wilkins State Historic Park speculated at what had caused the initial deterioration–errors in design and location were unlikely, but shoddy building materials might have been to blame–but could not draw firm conclusions. No matter the cause, the 1866 renovation of the lighthouse cured what ailed it. The building that stands guard over Copper Harbor today is the very same one that ushered ships safely onward a century and a half earlier.

Lighthouse built in the schoolhouse style
The style of the Copper Harbor lighthouse as adopted in 1866.

Strictly speaking, a lightkeeper’s job was not an easy one. Each keeper took responsibility for ensuring that the beacon remained visible in spite of gale force winds, driving rain, and the blinding blizzards that sometimes arrived during Lake Superior shipping season. If a storm descended on Copper Harbor and iced over the lighthouse windows, it was the keeper who hastened up the tower and defrosted them. It was the keeper who fastidiously cleaned the powerful Fresnel lenses that directed light to vessels struggling against the rolling waves, the keeper who faithfully filled the lamps with oil. Yet the keeper assigned to the Copper Harbor lighthouse enjoyed certain blessings that eased many of the difficulties of tending the station. Whole families called the light home during the navigation season. While the man of the house might be the one who wore the Lighthouse Service uniform and assumed official authority for maintaining the lighthouse, his wife often shared in the keeper’s duties on an essentially equal basis. She poured the oil, polished the lens, and cleaned the windows; she gauged the weather and provided information for the lighthouse log. The couple’s children played around the lighthouse, their voices filling its modest rooms; they learned, as well, alongside their parents and occasionally chose to join the Lighthouse Service themselves. Indeed, Copper Harbor lightkeeper Charles Corgan and his wife Mary saw multiple sons take up the responsibility of tending Lake Superior lights. Henry, with his own family, spent more than thirty years keeping the Copper Harbor light, right up until its automation in 1919; James and his wife maintained the Gull Rock light, located east of Copper Harbor, before moving to Ontonagon.

Large lighthouse lens
The Fresnel lens that served as the Copper Harbor beacon light.

Yet while the lighthouse life, with all its challenges, had certain pleasures and perhaps romantic appeal in a place like Copper Harbor, other Lake Superior stations could not offer the same allure. Out in the middle of the lake–some 25 miles away from the Keweenaw Peninsula and over 40 miles from Marquette–sits Stannard Rock Lighthouse. Where Copper Harbor’s keepers could walk to a pleasant village for supplies and visits with neighbors, the crew of Stannard Rock had only what sundries arrived by boat and each other for company. Climbing to the top of his home, a man stationed at Stannard Rock looked in every direction and saw the blue carpet of Lake Superior. His quarters echoed with waves breaking around the station and with the voices of his three male coworkers. Families did not come to Stannard Rock: it was, in the parlance of Lighthouse Service men, a stag station. A photographer, capturing an aerial view of the station, gave it a more eloquent name: “cornerstone of loneliness.”

No lighthouse is placed without a purpose, and Stannard Rock’s is an important one: it marks a high, dangerous reef that navigator Charles Stannard documented in August 1835. Few mariners, quietly journeying down toward Detroit or north toward Duluth, would expect to encounter such a threat in the midst of the lake. Thus the Stannard Rock Lighthouse–after an arduous, decade-long process of testing materials, constructing parts of the light tower, and repairing damage incurred during each winter hiatus–came into being. On July 4, 1882, the lighthouse commenced operations.

Lighthouse in the middle of a lake
Stannard Rock Lighthouse, “the loneliest place in America”

That first year, recalled Lake Superior Magazine in a profile of the lighthouse, Stannard Rock taxed its crew: “The light was authorized three assistants, but six came and quickly went. After assessing the bleak surroundings, three quit the Lighthouse Service outright and a fourth made it a bare three weeks before quitting.” The Daily Mining Gazette, writing in April 1932 of the departure of keeper and assistants to Stannard Rock for the season, told the story of a challenging summer ahead. “For months, the four men [Wilbur Belonger, Louis Deroscher, Robert Bennetts, and an unnamed ‘new man from Flint’] will keep vigil on the lake, tend the light, receive signals on their short wave radio set and sound warnings in foggy weather for the benefit of mariners on Lake Superior.” To keep the station fed, and to fight the psychological effects of isolation, “each of the men will have one week off each month, at which time they will go to the mainland for mail and necessary supplies.” On an exceptionally clear day, the other crewmen working might look west and spy the Keweenaw Peninsula or the Huron Mountains on the horizon. Otherwise, their only reminders that a world existed beyond the lighthouse came later in the summer, when lighthouse-tending boats or fishermen ventured far out into Lake Superior. These first weeks of spring were too chancey a time for most sailors to risk the trip.

So the crew on duty polished the lens, filled the light, broadcast guidance, and manned their posts. They climbed the flights of stairs connecting all ten floors of the lighthouse–linking the cellar, pumps, sleeping quarters, eating space, and light–and played cards in their off-hours. Some men did well there: Lake Superior Magazine documented one keeper, Louis Wilks, who served for twenty years and passed upwards of three months “on the rock” without a mainland trip. His assistant, Elmer Sormunen of Chassell, also offered over two decades of service to Stannard Rock. Yet being so far away from community proved to be a greater cross than most men could happily bear. When the Coast Guard took over, according to a 2002 article by Donald Nelson in the Superior Signal, its administration found that the servicemen it assigned to Stannard Rock could generally endure but a single year there. Automation seemed the key to keeping the light illuminated and the shipping lane secure while preserving the well-being of the Coast Guard men.

Man playing solitaire
Louis Wilks, one of the long-serving men of Stannard Rock, playing solitaire.

The last year of manned operation was to be 1961. Tragedy marked that season, however. A gasoline explosion tore through Stannard Rock on June 18, killing thirty-five-year-old William Maxwell and forcing his three companions to flee outside to the deck. Propane and coal stored as fuel at the lighthouse created a massive, raging inferno. The men could not reach their radio, if it survived, and their mainland counterparts apparently failed to notice that the Stannard Rock light had gone out. A buoy tender, the Woodrush, making its biweekly run to the lighthouse found fire still burning and the survivors still clinging to the exterior two days later. Together, the lighthouse men and the crew of the Woodrush put out the flames. One victim of the blast needed hospital treatment; after ferrying him back to the mainland, the Coast Guard returned to Stannard Rock to light a lamp that would hold the station over for the remainder of the shipping season. Other than people investigating the accident and technicians who installed the automated system in 1962, no one would return to serve at Stannard Rock. The loneliest place in America grew lonelier still.

Where the light at Copper Harbor offered sociability and stability, Stannard Rock provided solitude and uncertainty. Living at the Copper Harbor lighthouse drew its young inhabitants into service; being stationed at Stannard Rock drove several keepers away. But this, it may be supposed, speaks to the nature of Lake Superior. The lake challenges. It entices with tranquil beauty and threatens with an unmatched fury. It calls to some and intimidates others. It is peaceful; it is mercurial. It’s home.