After lighthouses had been built on Lake Superior at Whitefish Point and Copper Harbor, Congress appropriated $7,500 on March 3, 1849 for a lighthouse on the eastern tip of Manitou Island. During the warmer months of 1849, a sixty-foot-tall stone tower was built on the island and equipped with an array of thirteen lamps set in fourteen-inch reflectors to produce a fixed white light. Angus McLeod Smith was appointed the light’s first keeper on September 4, 1849 and served just over seven years on the island.
Everything here is in good order. The tower is, in my opinion, a good one, and is all complete, with the exception of the spindle or lamp frame in the tower, which is missing. The contractor was with me on the island, and promised to have this put up forthwith, which will make everything complete. Conduct of keeper good.In 1855, Keeper Smith received an annual salary of $400, while his wife Lydia earned $240 as his assistant.
In 1856, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in Manitou Island Lighthouse, increasing the power of its light and changing its characteristic from fixed white to a white flash every ninety seconds. Three years later, the Lighthouse Board requested $45,000 to replace the stone towers at Manitou Island, Whitefish Point, and DeTour Point, all of which were just over a decade old, with iron-pile towers. Contracts for the towers were made in 1860, and the new lighthouses were erected at the three stations in 1861.
The second Manitou Island Lighthouse stands seventy-eight feet tall and consists of four levels of iron braces around a central, cylindrical shaft that runs from the top of the first level to the watchroom, situated just below the lantern room. The braces of the first level are vertical and placed at the corners of a twenty-six-foot square, while the upper three levels slope inward. A covered walkway, situated seventeen-and-a-half feet above the ground, links the bottom of the tower’s stairwell to the second floor of the frame, keepers’ dwelling. While a third-order Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens with three flash panels was installed in the new lighthouse, the signature of the light remained a white flash every ninety seconds.
On July 24, 1873, the steamer Haze brought James and Mary Corgan to Manitou Island and took away James’ father, Charles Corgan, who had been transferred to nearby Copper Harbor Lighthouse after seven years on Manitou Island. James Corgan had served earlier as his father’s assistant on the island, after his brother Hugh drowned, so he was familiar with the station, and thanks to his entries in the station’s logbook, it is possible to capture a glimpse into his family’s life on the island. Mary Corgan, who served as her husband’s assistant, left the island on September 10, 1873 for Copper Harbor and returned roughly a month later with the couple’s first son, “nine pounds of humanity.”
In 1873, a steam fog signal was ordered for Manitou Island, and on August 14, 1874, the tug Oddfellow landed the equipment along with three men from Detroit to install it in an old engine house on the north side of the tower. The work wrapped up on September 12, and the men left the following day aboard the Dahlia to install a fog signal at Outer Island. The fog signal on Manitou Island was placed in operation for the first time on October 4, 1874, when it sounded for five-and-a-half hours.
When Keeper Corgan returned to Manitou Island on May 20, 1875 after wintering at Copper Harbor, there were ten-foot-tall icebergs outside the island’s reef, and he had to haul his boat over ice to get it ashore. The lighting of the station’s lamp that evening was the latest date on record for opening the station. During the winter, Keeper Corgan built himself a new steam launch he named Little Will, and as evidenced by the following entry in the station’s logbook, it was soon put to good use:
July 15, 1875 – Principal keeper and Asst. Corgan started at 8 p.m in Little Will with wife for Copper Harbor in anticipation of having an increase soon after arrival. When 1 ½ miles east of Horseshoe Harbor, Mrs. Corgan gave birth to a rollicking boy. James Corgan attending physician. Soon made all things lovely. I had everything comfortable aboard in way of bed, etc. etc. Sea a dead calm.
Henry Pierce replaced Corgan, and after a string of keepers, Reuben A. Hart took charge of the station in 1881. James Corgan had returned to the service in 1877 as keeper of Gull Rock Lighthouse, situated just west of Manitou Island, and in 1882, he recorded the fate of Keeper Hart at Manitou Island. Hart left Copper Harbor at 8 a.m. on May 19, 1882, passed Gull Rock about 4 p.m., and as he was approaching his station, the following occurred:
He then came about and headed for boat runway with a free sheet. Shortly afterwards he shipped a portion of sea, he immediately commenced to throw out stone which he had in for ballast, but before he got many out, another sea came and entirely engulfed him and the boat completely out of sight. This when he was not more than 500 feet away. The boat appeared again and seemed to right herself for a moment, but only for a moment, she then capsized on her beam and by this time Mr. Hart appeared and climbed onto the upper most part of the boat and divested himself of his outer clothing and motioned to his two assts. They [the assistants] standing by the boathouse door at the time. They made a pusillanimous attempt to get the LH boat out of the boat house, but Fergeson 1st Asst. refused to assist Gustafson 2nd Asst. to get her more than partially out of the house, saying they could not go to him, saying they could not handle the boat although begged by Gustafson to make an attempt to save the life of their principal. But no he would not. He allowed him to drift past and away from them imploring them by signs to come to him. He was so close that the two assts. ran out onto the rocks in an attempt to throw him a rope. They saw him over two hours afterwards when lighting the lamp still clinging to the upper most fragment of the boat and floating and drifting toward the Canadian shore. This is the account given to me by John Gustafson in the presence of Henry Fergeson on Sunday, May 21st 1 p.m.
To think of the suffering of that poor man drifting to his doom, with the two men he had chosen [as assistants] in plain sight to aid him in his lonely task of keeping this station and they standing idly by and see him for hours drifting hopelessly away to a death, that the Indian torture is no more cruel and hanging a relief. I repeat I cannot think of it that it don’t make my flesh creep.
Keeper Corgan rowed over to Manitou Island when he saw a signal fire burning there and, after telling him about the tragedy, the assistants asked him to telegraph the inspector and let him know that they wanted to leave the island immediately. Keeper Corgan made it to Eagle Harbor on May 22 and telegraphed Inspector Watson, who asked him to take temporary charge of Manitou Island, employ two men if assistants deserted, and find someone to help out at Gull Rock.
James Corgan returned to Manitou Island on May 24, accompanied by Dan Corgan, who would serve as an assistant, and two days later Harts’ two assistants were picked up by the barge Iron Chief. When preparing to return back to Gull Rock Lighthouse after spending the summer on temporary assignment at Manitou Island, Keeper Corgan recorded the following message in his old station’s logbook:
This is my first entry in this journal since Aug. 16, 1875 and I then little thought I should be requested to again take charge of this station even for a limited period and least of all under such sad circumstances and I earnestly hope that I nor no other person may be called upon in the long future to assume the duties here under similar circumstances. I now again commit to the incoming keepers the charge of these books and entries, in same and wish them whoever they be…health and happiness, unanimity, competency in their duties and a will to perform them when called upon, and especially if life is at stake. So that the pages of this journal will never again be used to transcribe heartless desertion of one keeper by another as in the case of Reuban Hart by his 1st and 2nd Assts. Henry Fergeson and John Gustafson on May 19, 1882 at 5 p.m.
Hart’s boat was picked up by a merchant Stmr. fifty miles NW of here over three months after his loss. The boat having been floating around in the lake and had not touched shore. It was taken to Duluth, his body was never recovered to date.
On June 30, 1913, the light’s characteristic was changed to a white flash every ten seconds, and its intensity was increased from 15,000 to 220,000 candlepower by changing the illuminant from oil to incandescent oil vapor. The following year, the fog signal was changed from a ten-inch steam whistle to a first-class air siren. As an additional aid for mariners in thick weather, a radiobeacon was established on the island on October 23, 1925. In 1928, the light’s candlepower was increased through the use of electric lighting, and in 1930, an air diaphone replaced the air siren. The diaphone was fitted with two horns, a vertical mushroom horn and a long flared horizontal horn. Alternate blasts were sounded from each, with the mushroom horn covering all directions, and the flared horn providing maximum audibility in the direction of the shipping lane.
Radiotelephones were installed at Manitou Island, Stannard Rock, Passage Island, and Rock of Ages in 1931, with Marquette Lighthouse serving as shore contact for these remote stations. The usefulness of the new equipment was demonstrated on June 28, 1934 when Keeper Herbert Mills noticed that a fishing boat had become stranded on rocks during a hard blow and radioed Marquette for help. A Coast Guard vessel was dispatched and had freed the fishing boat five-and-a-half hours after the call was placed.
The present concrete fog signal building on Manitou Island was built in 1938 to replace the old buildings which had been damaged by severe ice and storm conditions. In March of that year, fishermen on Lake Superior reported that one of the walls of the old power house was so damaged that they could see the machinery inside. The public works administration funded the construction of the new fog signal building.
Under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, Manitou Island Lighthouse was offered to eligible government entities and non-profit organizations in 2002. Two years later, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton announced that Manitou Island Lighthouse would be awarded to Keweenaw Land Trust. In March 2009, Keweenaw Land Trust was awarded $8,716 for Manitou Island Lighthouse from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program, which is administered by the State Historic Preservation Office and funded by proceeds from the sale of the “Save our Lights” license plate. Manitou Island’s ninety-three-acre lighthouse preserve is open to the public for rock collecting, kayaking, bird watching, and viewing the historic structures.