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Michigan Island (Old), WI  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Volunteer keeper program offered.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.   

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Michigan Island (Old) Lighthouse

In the early 1850s, before the opening of the Soo Locks, the village of La Pointe on Madeline Island was the primary port on western Lake Superior. Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse to mark the way to the fur trading settlement of La Pointe in 1853, and it was decided to place the navigational aid on nearby Long Island. However, when workmen arrived in 1856 to construct the lighthouse, Abraham Smolk, a local representative of the Lighthouse Board, directed them to Michigan Island.

Lighthouse in 1913 before addition of dormers
Photograph courtesy National Archives
The Milwaukee Firm of Sweet, Ransom, and Smith was hired to build the lighthouse under a $4,500 contract, which called for a sixty-five-foot rubblestone tower connected to a keeper’s dwelling. The work was completed by October 1856, and the light commenced operation the following year. District Inspector Lorenzo Sitgreaves rejected the lighthouse because it was “not built in conformity to the terms of the contract,” and ordered the contractors to build a second lighthouse at the originally designated location on Long Island. The contractors protested the extra work but reluctantly built the frame LaPointe Lighthouse on Long Island in 1857.

Michigan Island Lighthouse was discontinued in 1858 with the establishment of LaPointe Lighthouse, but in 1867, the Lighthouse Board reported “it seems to be desirable to re-establish it,” and requested $6,000 to renovate and relight the abandoned station. Congress provided the requisite amount on July 20, 1868, and the light from a third-and-a-half-order Fresnel lens was put in operation on September 15, 1869. As all the doors and windows of the old lighthouse had been carried off, the required repairs “amounted to but little less than rebuilding it.”

Roswell H. Pendergrast was hired as keeper at an annual salary of $560. He and his wife Helen planted over 1,000 trees and shrubs to determine which would thrive on the island. The couple developed an extensive orchard, with an emphasis on apple trees, and in 1872 they sold more than $3,000 in nursery stock. After five years as keeper, Pendergrast resigned in 1874, moved to the mainland, and opened a nursery. The successfulness of Pendergrast’s orchard is evidenced by the following article from November 5, 1870:

The Superior Times reports: Mr. R. H. Pendergast, the proprietor of a nursery on Michigan Island in Lake Superior, 15 miles east of Bayfield, is in town this week delivering and selling fruit trees and shrub trees to our citizens. Mr. P. started a nursery on the island about two years ago, and has been quite successful with the cultivation of the various kinds of fruit trees and shrub there.

On May 5, 1889, a bolt of lightning struck the lighthouse, flowed down through the metal stairway, and then scattered at the foot of the stairs without causing serious injury to the lighthouse or its inhabitants. A brick oil house was built seventy-five feet west of the dwelling in 1895 to contain the volatile kerosene then used for the light.

In 1893, Robert Carlson, who had been serving as an assistant keeper at Outer Island, was appointed head keeper at Michigan Island. Anna Maria Carlson accompanied her husband to the island along with the couple’s one-year-old daughter. Twin boys were born to the couple in May 1894, and the Carlsons decided to spend the next winter on the island, rather than go ashore, which was customary for keepers in the Apostle Islands. Keeper Carlson’s brother, who was serving as his assistant, remained on the island as well, and early one morning the two keepers took their dogs and went out fishing on the ice.

Original Michigan Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society
“I was always afraid to be alone on the island,” remembered Anna. “A city-bred girl, the stark loneliness of it was appalling. As soon as they left the house I ran about and locked all the doors and windows. Yet there was nobody on the island but myself, and the children.”

Anna kept herself occupied with housework and looking after her children, and then, after preparing an early supper for the men, she sat down to wait. “Women who wait in brightly lighted cities with people all around within call of the voice have no conception what it is to sit and wait for your man on a deserted island, with snow and ice everywhere and no light but the stars. I watched the sun go down across the water, waited until its sickly yellowish light had disappeared and the stars came out. I kept stoking the fires, for I knew the men would be cold when they came in.”

Anna sat by the fire all night and by morning was nearly hysterical, but she knew she had to stay strong for her children. Though she had never milked the cow before, she set out for the barn to procure milk for the children. After assessing the situation, she realized she could never milk the cow in the stall like her husband did, so she got an axe, chopped a hole through the side of the stall, and then reached through and squeezed the milk into a small tin cup.

On the third day alone with the children, Anna couldn’t stand being in the small dwelling any longer. She left the twins in the care of her daughter, donned her hat and gloves, and went down to the shore and stared out at the white expanse. Hours later, she returned home, fell to the floor, and screamed at the top of her voice until overcome with exhaustion. She slept little that third night.

During the fourth day, Anna was startled to hear her husband’s voice calling, “I’m all right Anna. Don’t be afraid.” The ice on which the two keepers had been fishing broke away from the main pack and started drifting away from Michigan Island. The men could have easily drifted out into Lake Superior and succumbed to exposure, but the current carried them south instead to Madeline Island, where they broke into a fishing shanty, made a small meal, and spent some time making an old boat seaworthy. When he finally made it back to Michigan Island, Keeper Carlson called out to his wife before entering the dwelling for he feared she and their children might be dead. Though unaccustomed to the experiences forced upon her at the lighthouse, Anna learned an important lesson that she later shared with people: “A woman can learn to do anything if she sets her mind to it.”

The Carlsons left Michigan Island in 1898, but they spent the next thirty-plus years looking after Marquette Lighthouse and Whitefish Point Lighthouse.

Hexagonal tower at Schooner Ledge before being transferred to Michigan Island
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In its annual report for 1908, the Lake Carriers’ Association wrote the following on Michigan Island Lighthouse.
A number of wrecks have occurred in this vicinity in recent years, some of them exceedingly disastrous ones, owing to the fact that the light at present on this island cannot be seen by vessels approaching from the eastward, and a lighthouse on the easterly end of this island is extremely important to vessels navigating Lake Superior. A survey of the locality was made during the past season by the Lighthouse Engineer, Major Charles Keller, and a report has been submitted to the Lighthouse Board, recommending the establishment of a third order light and fog signal at the northeast end of Michigan Island and the abandonment of the present Michigan Island light.

In 1910, the Lighthouse Board requested $100,000 for a new light and fog signal on Michigan Island. This request was repeated annually until 1918, when it was slightly modified to call for elevating the present light, adding a fog signal, and establishing an automated acetylene light on Gull Island. The new plan would reportedly serve as a better guide to vessels and cost just $85,000. The Board petitioned repeatedly for this plan until 1928, when funds were finally appropriated. By this time, radiobeacons were being established in lieu of fog signals, so the plan was modified to call for the erection of a radiobeacon.

Ed Lane, who had been serving as head keeper since 1902, recorded in his logs that a crew headed by Mr. Bellamy arrived in the spring of 1928 to survey the island for a new tower and a tram leading to the bluff top from the station’s dock. To test the appropriateness of the proposed site for the new tower, the men floated helium balloons to the appropriate height and then examined their visibility from the water.

During 1928 and 1929, a two-story, six-room, brick dwelling was completed, a two-story, frame workshop/assistant keeper’s dwelling was built, the dwelling in the old lighthouse was renovated, a powerhouse was added, and a 112-foot iron tower, which had served at Schooner Ledge on the Delaware River from 1880 to 1918, was erected on the island. The extra dwelling space was needed as a second assistant keeper was added to the station in 1929.

On October 29, 1929, the Fresnel lens was transferred from the old lighthouse to the new tower. “Started up new tower at sunset,” wrote Keeper Lane. “Everything in good shape but station looked odd, the old tower being dark for the first time in navigation in 72 years. NEW TOWER IN COMMISSION TONIGHT.” Generators in the powerhouse provided electricity for the radiobeacon and a 24,000 candlepower electric bulb in the lens, the first electric light to be used in an Apostle Island’s lighthouse. The tower on Gull Island commenced operation on September 30, and the radiobeacon was activated at 11 p.m. on November 3. The total cost for the improvements was $61,041.

In 1916, Keeper Lane took note of a lynx that was prowling about the station. One day, the animal was bold enough to sneak right up to the dwelling’s back door. Lane picked up a club to fend off the lynx, but before he could strike, it sprang at him. A short fight ensued, but Lane was finally able to free himself and reach the dwelling, where he seized a gun and shot the lynx through the head. Lane received six dollars from the county clerk’s office for the lynx pelt.

New dwelling, tower, and powerhouse in 1929
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
After World War I, the Schroeder Lumber Company purchased most of Michigan Island, outside the lighthouse reservation, and logged it between 1919 and 1923. Edna Lane Sauer, daughter of Keeper Lane and his wife, Elizabeth, remembers this period on the island. “There was one huge pine tree – partly on the (lighthouse grounds) that one lumber company wanted Dad to sell to them – they didn’t know my Dad! That tree was where the eagles always nested. When Dad would be fishing, lifting a net, the eagle would watch him and Dad would wave a nice trout then throw it in the air. Mr. Eagle never missed it.”

During the new tower’s first few years, the keepers experienced numerous issues with the diesel engines in the powerhouse, but the kinks were eventually worked out. In 1939, the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the lighthouse, and Keeper Lane retired after thirty-seven years on the island, making him the longest-serving keeper in the history of the Apostle Islands.

One year while closing the station for the season with the help of a coastguardsman, Keeper Robert Westveld was on an icy roof installing shutters when he slipped and fell two stories, breaking bones in both of his feet. Radio communication was out, and ice formed so quickly on the doors to the station’s boathouse that all the men could do is wait until someone on the mainland missed them. To ease the pain and prevent infection, Westveld packed his feet in ice and snow. Three days after the incident, Keeper Westveld’s wife ran into the captain of a supply boat at the post office and mentioned that she was starting to be concerned about her husband. The captain rushed out to Michigan Island, picked up the two men, and brought Westveld back to Bayfield where he was hospitalized for some time. The last resident keeper on Michigan Island left in 1943, and monitoring the island’s light was added to the responsibilities of the keepers on Devils Island.

Michigan Island became part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970. The Fresnel lens was removed from the tower two years later and is now on display at the park’s visitor center. A DBC-224 aerobeacon replaced the Fresnel lens, and the current optic is a solar-powered LED beacon. Just behind the original lighthouse, the station’s privy and barn remain standing.

Besides Michigan Island, there are a few other stations in the country where two lighthouses remain standing. At Point Loma, California and Fox Island, Michigan, a skeletal tower also replaced an earlier masonry tower. Though it takes some effort to get out to Michigan Island, visitors are rewarded with the opportunity to see two diverse and well-maintained lighthouses, which just happen to be the first and last major lighthouses to be established in the Apostle Islands.


  • Head: Roswell H. Pendergrast (1869 – 1870), William J. Herbert (1870), Roswell H. Pendergrast (1870 – 1874), Pliny F. Rumrill (1874 – 1883), John Pasque (1883 – 1893), Robert Carlson (1893 – 1898), Alexander McLean (1898), Charles H. Brown (1898 – 1902), Edward J. Lane (1902 – 1939), Robert E. Westveld (1939 – 1942).
  • First Assistant: Michael Souliere (1869 – 1870), William J. Herbert (1870), Joseph L. Atkinson (1870 – 1872), Helen L. Pendergrast (1872 – 1874), Matilda Rumrill (1874 – 1882), Foster L. Herron (1902 – 1908), Walter Daniels (1908 – 1910), Frank P. Schmidt (1910 – 1911), Lawrence T. Pedersen (1911 – at least 1915), Joseph G. Melancon (at least 1917 – 1922), James A. Beloungea (1922 – 1927), Leslie W. Parker (1927 – 1933), John W. Kirkendall (1933 – 1936), Robert E. Westveld (1936 – 1939).
  • Second Assistant: Carl Reiten (1929 – 1930), Lawrence E. Lane (1930 – 1931), Joseph LeBel (1931 – 1934), M. Sexton (1934), F. Wachsmuth (1934 – 1936).


  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Annual Report of the Lake Carriers' Association, various years.
  4. Light Stations of Michigan Island, Outer Island, Devils Island, Long Island, and Sand Island, Volume II, National Park Service, March 2011.
  5. “Michigan Island: The Mistake That Became a Treasure,” Jim Merkel, Lighthouse Digest, March, 1999.
  6. “Kills Lynx After Fight,” Belvidere Daily Republican, March 21, 1916.
  7. “The Story of One Keeper’s Daughter,” Jim Merkel, Lighthouse Digest, May, 2002.

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