Lighthouses had been built on Michigan Island in 1857 and Long Island in 1858 to guide mariners along the South Channel through the Apostle Islands. This route was convenient for vessels coming to Bayfield and Chequamegon Bay from the east, but mariners arriving from the west needed a beacon to guide them through the West Channel. Congress appropriated $6,000 on March 3, 1859 for a lighthouse on Raspberry Island to fulfill this role.
By 1867, the characteristic of the light was changed from fixed white to a white light punctuated by a white flash every ninety seconds through the installation of three flash panels mounted on a cast iron frame that revolved around the lens. Every four hours, the keeper had to wind up the weights that powered the clockwork mechanism for producing the flashes. In 1880, the illuminant for the light was changed from lard oil to kerosene. A detached brick oil house for storing the more volatile fluid was not built until 1901.
In September 1887, J.C. Thompson, master of the steamer Horace A. Tuttle, wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury informing him that the light at Raspberry Island, which was “important because it is the leading light between Duluth, Bayfield, and Ashland,” had been out during the night of September 13. This was a serious allegation and grounds for dismissal, but Keeper Francis Jacker had a credible reason for the outage.
Early in the morning of September 13, a westerly gale sprang up, prompting Keeper Jacker to move the station’s sailboat from the dock to a safe anchorage near the eastern end of the island. The dilapidated condition of the boatways prevented his hauling the boat up into the boathouse. In the darkness, Keeper Jacker sailed beyond the end of the island and, unable to fight his way back, drifted over to Oak Island, where his boat was heavily damaged. The storm did not abate until the 16th, when Jacker was able to hail a passing Native American, who rescued him after nearly three days on the desolate island without food or fire and being only scantily dressed.
The light was out the night of the 13th, but fortunately Keeper Jacker’s family had arrived for a visit on the 14th and displayed the light for two nights until his return. This incident prompted lighthouse officials to reinstate the position of assistant keeper, which had been abolished at Raspberry Island in 1882.
Returning to the mainland at the close of the navigation season was often risky for the keepers, as illustrated by this newspaper story from December 3, 1896:
John Eddy and John D. McMartin, light keepers at Raspberry Island light, started from the island, 14 miles away, for Bay Field Saturday at 3 p.m., in a sail boat and were driven aground by the wind and ice floes.
After spending four days on the lake and uninhabited islands, they arrived on the main shore, 15 miles away yesterday.
Mr. Eddy had both hands and feet frozen and McMartin’s ears are frozen. They subsisted on flour and water baked in a wash basin on one of the islands in a fish shanty.
After receiving requests for the establishment of a fog signal on Raspberry Island from masters and pilots of vessels navigating Lake Superior, the Lighthouse Board invited J.C. Wilson and Lansing H. Beach, inspector and engineer respectively of the eleventh lighthouse district, to comment on the matter. The following is their response, dated January 29, 1902.
The amount of shipping making use of the passage between Raspberry Island and the mainland of Wisconsin on Lake Superior is very considerable at the present time, and constantly increasing, and in our opinion the establishment of a fog-signal in connection with the light on Raspberry Island, Wisconsin, would be of great assistance to navigation in these waters.
The lighthouse tender Amaranth arrived at Raspberry Island on June 4, 1903 with the boilers and work crew. A brick building with a hipped roof was built for the steam whistle, and on September 3, 1903, Keeper Charles Hendrickson noted the following in the station’s log:
Received order from the office of the Inspector, that the fog signal at this station shall sound during thick and foggy weather, after Sept. 1st, 1903, blasts of 3 seconds’ duration, separated by silent intervals of 17 seconds. The boilers have been tested and whistle timed today.
The added workload caused by the steam whistle led to the appointment of a second assistant keeper and the need for additional living space on Raspberry Island. In 1905, Charles Keller, engineer for the eleventh lighthouse district, petitioned the Lighthouse Board to remodel the existing lighthouse to accommodate three families. As a result, the old lighthouse was greatly expanded in 1906 and converted into a double dwelling with room for two families and an unmarried assistant. The head keeper occupied the first and second stories on the south side of the lighthouse, what was essentially a three-bedroom dwelling, while the first assistant had the ground floor on the north side and the second assistant three rooms in the upper floor.
Alexander McLean was appointed keeper of Raspberry Island Lighthouse in 1909, after having been in charge of nearby Devils Island Lighthouse for eleven years. In October 1913, Keeper McLean, with the help of his two assistants, loaded twenty sacks of coal in the station’s boat and transported it to Bayfield for use in his home there. He had told his assistants that he had purchased the coal from the Lighthouse Service, but when an investigation revealed that this was not the case, McLean was demoted. Otto Olson, the head keeper at Outer Island, lost his position over a similar act, but officials were more lenient with McLean due to his twenty years of service and impeccable record.
McLean could have gone to another station as a first assistant but elected to take the open position of second assistant at Raspberry Island so he could retain his garden. McLean’s annual salary was reduced to $456 from $624. In 1916, he was promoted to keeper of Huron Island Lighthouse. After three years there, he finished his service with twelve years at Two Harbors, Minnesota.
While Keeper McLean enjoyed lighthouses, his wife wasn’t so fond of them. “I hate lighthouses,” Cecelia McLean told the Detroit News upon her husband’s retirement in 1931. “They are so lonely. Going from one island to another, out in the Apostles group, isn’t much fun especially when you have to go in a small boat and maybe get caught in a storm. We left Raspberry Island in 1916, and I was glad enough to see the last of it.”
“When a woman marries a lighthouse keeper, she gives up everything else in the world. If I had my life to live over again, it would not be in lighthouse stations. …On islands, we always had to keep up two homes, as women and children have to be off the islands Oct. 15, and when you have two homes to maintain, something had to be slighted. We slighted necessities. Luxuries – we had none of them. We gave up the things we needed.”
After four years at Raspberry Island, Head Keeper Louis Wilks swapped places in 1933 with John L. Dufrain, keeper of Big Bay Lighthouse near Marquette, Michigan. Keeper Dufrain was demoted to an offshore station after his assistants reported he was inattentive to his responsibilities and intoxicated while on duty.
The final keeper at Raspberry Island was Earl Seseman. He and a coastguardsman closed down the station in October 1947, after which the fog signal was a CO2-powered bell. Seseman’s wife Thyra later recalled, “Raspberry Island was called the showplace of the Great Lakes,” due to its lovely garden and manicured grounds.
Raspberry Island Lighthouse stood vacant for roughly ten years before it was leased to Ellerbee Architects of Minneapolis, who used the station as a corporate retreat and hired a local couple to live on the island and serve as caretakers. The popularity of the island forced the company to reduce stays from two weeks to one week.
The station’s Fresnel lens was removed in 1957, and a light mounted on a pole took over the function of guiding mariners. The lens remained in Coast Guard storage for a couple of years before it was given to Bella and Leo Capser, founders of the Madeline Island Museum. The lens has been on display at the museum since around 1960.
Raspberry Island became part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, when it was established in 1970. The Park Service terminated the architectural firm’s lease on Raspberry Island in 1975. The station’s buildings were painted in 1976, and in 1982 Park Historian Kathleen Lidfors reconstructed the keepers’ gardens using photographs that were enlarged and sent to the University of Wisconsin for plant identification. Regular boat transportation to the island has been offered by the lakeshore’s concessionaire since 1981, which has made the lightstation the focal point of the lakeshore’s island interpretation program.
In 1994, the station’s flagpole had to be taken down as it was endangered by a retreating shoreline. With erosion threatening the lighthouses themselves on Raspberry Island and Outer Island, Congress appropriated nearly $2 million in 2001 to combat the problem. During 2002 - 2003, a sea wall was placed at the base of the bluff in front of the lighthouse and a drainage trench was cut along the top to prevent erosion from runoff. The slope was also graded and covered with vegetation to keep the soil in place.
A $1.3 million restoration of the lighthouse was carried out during 2005 - 2006, with the station reopening to the public in 2007. Rotten siding was replaced, a new metal roof installed, windows restored, tower railing replaced, walls plastered, hardwood floors refinished, and the chimney repointed. The south side of the lighthouse has been returned to how it appeared during the early 1920s, when Lee Benton was keeper, while the north side is used for park housing. Still part of the station today are a woodshed, head keeper’s privy, cabin, and barn/warehouse, seen left to right in this photograph. The care given to Raspberry Island Lighthouse by the Park Service has made it once again “the showplace of the Great Lakes.”