Isle Royale (Menagerie Island) Light
This article originally appeared in Great Laker magazine in the December 2004 issue.
When lighthouse enthusiasts think of Isle Royale, the usual thoughts are of a remote island in the middle of Lake Superior, and light stations that most of us can only see in picture books. The 45 mile long, by 8 mile wide, island lies only 14 miles off the Canadian shore near the Minnesota-Canada border. By boat, the island is 22 miles from Grand Portage, Minnesota and 73 from Houghton/Hancock, Michigan, yet only about 17,000 visitors come to this National Park Service island each year.
Isle Royale area has a long history related to the mining and shipping industries that goes back as early as the 1800ís when several fishermen set up camps on the island. Then in 1837 John Jacob Astorís American Fur Company established a trading post to do business with the Native North Americans. The island was opened to mining exploration in 1843 and more than a dozen copper companies had a presence on the island within four or five years.
However, the majority of the copper mining activity was first centered on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Michigan State geologist Douglas Houghton reported a large boulder of pure copper and this started a rush to the Keweenaw by miners and speculators. Beginning in 1848, light stations were established at Copper Harbor, Whitefish Point, Manitou Island, Eagle Harbor, Ontonagon, and Eagle River, over a period of just four years.
Congressional authorization, in 1852, for the building of a lock at the Soo increased the interest in Lake Superior shipping and lobbying began for a light at Rock Harbor. The harbor is located near the south side near the east end of the island, and was the major port on the island. Finally in 1855, the first lighthouse was established at Rock Harbor on Isle Royale, to coincide with the opening of the first Soo Lock. The light served the shipping interests which were using Rock Harbor for the shipping of furs and copper, and receiving shipments of supplies for the miners and traders. Rock Harbor Light was closed for the last time in October, 1879.
Part of the demise of the Rock Harbor Light station, in 1879, was caused by the establishment of the Isle Royale Light on tiny Menagerie Island off the southeast shore of Isle Royale in 1875. The light provided a guide to vessels entering Siskiwit Bay, which was a larger harbor than Rock Harbor, and had become the primary shipping port for the reactivated copper mines located near the bay.
Isle Royale Light station, often referred to as Menagerie Island Light, was built with red sandstone brought from a quarry near Jacobsville on the Keweenaw Peninsula. A total of four buildings were erected including a 61-foot tall tapered, octagonal tower. The tower is topped by an octagonal iron lantern room which is surrounded by a cast iron gallery. A Fourth Order Fresnel Lens was installed in the lantern room, and the tower was whitewashed and the lantern and gallery were painted black. The contrasting colors provided an efficient day mark.
Keepers were provided with a two-story sandstone dwelling that is connected to the adjacent tower by a short covered walkway. Other buildings included a brick privy and a wooden shed. A concrete oil storage building was not added until 1906. By 1910, the copper mines on Isle Royale had ceased operations and in 1913 the light was automated with an acetylene lighting system. The acetylene system was changed to a battery system in 1941, and finally a solar powered system was installed in 1993. The Fresnel lens has been removed and replaced with a modern plastic lens. Today, the buildings remain in a fairly good condition.
Getting there, some pundit once said is half the fun. In the case of Isle Royale the lighthouse photographer has several choices. None of them are a perfect answer.
Rock Harbor Light is the only lighthouse actually located on Isle Royale, but you cannot walk to it. The National Park Service maintains a nice museum in the light station and you can climb the tower. If you stay at the Rock Harbor Lodge, the lodge offers boat trips to Rock Harbor Light ,the nearby Edison Fishery and to Passage Island, aboard the M/V Sandy.
Two passenger vessels, M/V Voyageur II and M/V Wenonah, make the trip from Grand Portage, Minnesota to Windigo Harbor. The Wenonah offers day trips to Windigo Harbor that pass by the Rock of Ages light. The Voyageur II makes trips to Windigo Harbor and Rock Harbor, but requires an overnight stay on the island. For more information about either of these vessels, write to Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Line Inc., 1507 N. First Street, Superior, WI, 54880, or on-line at www.Grand-Isle-Royale.com.
The Isle Royale Queen runs to the island out of Copper Harbor, Michigan, and the National Park service operates the Ranger III out of Hancock-Houghton, Michigan. These vessels are geared toward the backpacker, camper, kayaker crowd and do not offer much for lighthouse enthusiasts.
Recently, the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association ran a special two-day trip aboard the Keweenaw Star out of Houghton. The cruise was designed for lighthouse photography, and provided close-up views of all four Isle Royale lighthouses. There is a possibility this trip will be repeated in the future, by the Keweenaw Star, so more lighthouse fans will have a chance to see these remote stations.
To learn more about Isle Royale National Park, write to 800 East Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, MI 49931-1895, or on the web at www.nps.gov.isro.
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