Thunder Bay Island Light
This article originally appeared in Great Laker magazine.
Automated and abandoned in 1983. Neglected and deteriorating. Unseen except by commercial marine traffic and a few deep water fishermen, Thunder Bay Island Light Station is getting a new lease on life. This remote station located some 13 miles off shore from Alpena Michigan, in Lake Huron, has attracted a small, but dedicated, group of preservationists intent on saving the history of the 213-acre island.
"Thereís an extremely valuable piece of our history out there that needs to be preserved", explains Sue Skibbe, President of the Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse Preservation Society (THILPS). Dave Skibbe quickly adds that "the island is where Alpena was started as a fishing village". "The first store in Alpena County was located on the island."
When a US Lifesaving Service station was established on the island in 1876, the Thunder Bay Island community consisted of 21 different government structures. It was home to both a light station complex and a lifesaving service station. Only a few structures remain, but most are candidates for preservation and restoration. There is a lot of local history on this island.
The need for a light at this critical point along the Lake Huron shoreline was recognized early in the 1800ís by the sailors who were following the shoreline as they headed toward the Straits of Mackinac after crossing Saginaw Bay. Thunder Bay Island was a turning point and sailing too close to the shoreline was sure disaster.
These were the days of "iron men and wooden ships" and navigation was by magnetic compass and pocket watch. Most of these small early schooners followed the shoreline and an island can be difficult to see against the background of the mainland. The limestone shoal extending several miles into the lake was an underwater hazard that caught many an early navigator.
An abundance of ship wrecks surround the island giving testament to the need for the presence of both services. In the early days of Great Lakes maritime travel many sailors found themselves stranded in the area. As recently as 1966, the German freighter Nordmeer found herself stranded on the shoal that extends out from the island group. Only a small section remains above water as the ice and waves have removed most of the above deck structures. The site is a favorite of sport divers.
Even today, the island continues to collect the wrecks of misguided mariners. The remains of a 52-foot yacht, which crashed ashore in 1994, lie close to the abandoned hull of a large sailboat that was wrecked during a storm in 1988. It is easy to understand why Thunder Bay Island is located in the center of the newly designated Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve.
The project included a conical rubble stone tower and detached keeperís dwelling made of the same material. Apparently the construction was not of the best material, and the selected location was too close to the fury of Lake Huron storms. Records indicate that the tower was rebuilt at considerable expense to the contractor, a matter that was not resolved for many years.
Traffic increased in the region, around the time that the first Soo Lock opened in 1854, and the lighthouse alone was not adequate to prevent all wrecks. Fog sometimes made the diminutive light impossible to see. Congress saw fit to appropriate $2,500 for a fog signal as part of the station. The device installed was a bell signal that was located east of the light tower and closer to the waterís edge. It was put into operation in 1855.
The minimum 40-foot height of the tower and the use of inefficient oil lamps and reflectors served until 1857. About this time the U. S. Lighthouse Establishment was beginning to install the new Fresnel lens in the nationís lighthouses, and improvements were scheduled for the Thunder Bay Island station. The tower was raised with a 10-feet addition and the exterior was given a layer of light tan brick. The original lower section was conical and the upper extension was built in a circular manner. This makes it easy to see where the addition joined the original portion.
The reconstructed tower received a Fourth Order Fresnel lens which was placed inside a new 10-sided cast iron lantern room. The lens was the product of Sautter of Paris and the six bulls-eye panels were rotated by a clock-work mechanism. The focal plane of the new tower and lens was 59 feet above the level of Lake Huron.
By 1866, the original rubble stone dwelling had deteriorated to the point of replacement. Two years later the dwelling was torn down and replaced by a two-story, 43 by 28 foot dwelling made of the same tan brick used in the 1857 tower project. The new dwelling was connected to the tower by an enclosed passageway.
Further improvements were made to the station in 1870 when a wood frame building fog signal building was constructed several hundred yards south of the tower and dwelling. The new building was covered inside and out with iron plates. Inside the building were two locomotive-type, coal-fired boilers that provided steam for a pair of steam-operated whistles. The steam whistles were then state-of-the-art and were audible over a greater distance than any fog bell.
With the improvements in marine navigation, the station was discontinued in 1951. Very little evidence of the USLSS station remains except the base for the lookout tower and a few walkways in the area formerly occupied by buildings.
More improvements were made to the island is 1884 when a tramway was constructed from the boat landing on the protected west side of the island to the fog signal building. Light keepers had to welcome this change which meant that tons coal for the fog signal could be transported on a tram cart instead of by hand. The tramway was later extended to the dwelling to carry supplies for the keeper.
The history of the station tells a story of the ever changing water level of Lake Huron. In 1838, the water was lapping at the base of the tower and wooden cribs were built to protect the structure. Again in 1889 a fierce storm swept across the island and carried away anything that was not permanently attached. However, the water levels must have receded within a few years as it became necessary to extend the launch ways for the stationís boathouse and the tramway from the supply dock. The low water levels in 2003 leave the tramway ending well short of the water and the boathouse is unusable due to shallow water.
The present red brick fog signal building was built in 1906 to replace the original wood-frame building. The same steam whistle signals were installed in the new building. The steam whistles were replaced in 1921 with the new Type-C diaphones horns. The fog signals were upgraded again in 1932 with Type-F diaphones. Today the red brick fog signal building remains, but all of the machinery was removed when the station was automated in 1983.
Concrete stucco was applied to the whole tower and painted white in 1938. The white tower with a red lantern room became the standard Coast Guard day mark color.
A rare tramway cart, used by light keepers to move goods and materials from the dock to the station, was known to exist on the island for a number of years. However, the cart disappeared before THILPS became involved with the preservation. Fortunately, board members have recently been able to locate and purchased two similar carts. These may be displayed in the future.
A former Coast Guard boathouse remains on the east side of the island, but may be deteriorated beyond restoration. The Coast Guard maintains a modern optic in the tower and power is provided by a set of solar panels located adjacent to the tower.
Island Work Crew
The fourth member of the group is Dave Skibbe, an auto mechanics teacher at Alpena High School and Alpena Community College. Dave and Sue also operate an art supply and framing store in downtown Alpena. Occasionally other volunteers will join the work group, but more volunteers are urgently needed.
At the time of automation, the Coast Guard sealed up the passageway door from the dwelling to the tower and a window in the passageway. A heavy, steel outside door, with no vent, was installed in the passageway. The result is that the tower receives no ventilation and moisture often appears on the interior of the lantern room windows. With the regular freeze-thaw cycles that are normal in the Michigan climate the moisture has found its way between the stucco and brick causing huge cracks and loosening of the stucco.
THILPS has applied for and received a matching-funds grant for $82,500 that needs to be matched with $27,500 in local funds. The grant funds will be used to repair the tower cracks and tuck point the dwelling. The matching funds have been raised and the group is working to amend the grant to permit an engineering evaluation of the tower stucco. The study would determine if it would be more cost effective to remove the stucco and repair the underlying tan brick surface, or repair the existing stucco surface.
The stucco repair was completed during the 2004 season.
Long range plans include public access to this historic island, which once was a Sunday picnic destination for local steam boat adventurers. Alpena historian Steve Tongue has collected local history information that tells of 1890ís excursions in Mackinac sailboats from the Churchill Hotel to the island. A magazine article from 1882 describes baseball games between mainland teams and "the station team".
Most of the island is a National Wildlife Refuge and is a nesting ground for many local and migratory birds. Wildflowers abound over most of the islandís surface. As the Coast Guard continues with their "excessing" program of lighthouses, it is expected that ownership is likely to be transferred to the US Fish & Wildlife Service. An agreement is being discussed with the wildlife office to establish public access without damage to the birds or wild flowers.
You Can Help
If you can wield a paintbrush, operate a lawn mower, or do other household-type repair and maintenance chores, contact THILPS and volunteer to join the island work crew.
This group deserves your help in preserving a significant piece of lighthouse and local history. For more information contact THILPS at PO Box 212, Alpena, MI 49707, or via the internet at http://www.thunderbayislandsociety.org
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