Passage 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 1800’s when several fishermen set up camps on the island. Then in 1837 John Jacob Astor’s 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.
The third light station to be erected in the Isle Royale area was on the south end of Passage Island, which lies some three and one-half miles off the northeast end of the big island. The station was completed enough for the light to be shown on July 1, 1882 and included the tower, dwelling and fog signal bell. The light was a guide to vessels passing through the narrow deep water passage and headed for the mining activity along the north shore of Lake Superior.
The 45-foot tower and attached dwelling are built in the "Norman Gothic" style which was duplicated on Lake Superior at Eagle Harbor (1851) and Sand Island (1881), on Lake Michigan at McGulpin’s Point (1869), White River (1875), and Squaw Island (1892). The same basic design was also used on Green Bay at Eagle Bluff and Chamber’s Island, both built in 1868. The style is distinguished by the tower which features a square base that transitions to an octagon at the second floor level, and a fancy wooden bric-brac cross feature in the dwelling’s gable ends.
The fieldstone tower is built into the corner of the one and one-half story dwelling and the spiral tower stairs also serve the dwelling. A 10-sided lantern room enclosed a Fourth Order Fresnel lens that displayed a fixed red light 44 feet above the water. A fog signal bell completed the station.
Two years later, steam operated fog whistles were installed in a new frame building that was sheathed in corrugated iron. The boilers were hand-fired with coal delivered to the island by the lighthouse tender. A tramway provided a means to haul the bags of coal up to the station.
1898 saw the fixed red light replaced by a flashing white light that required the keepers to maintain the clockwork mechanism. Further enhancement came in 1978 with the installation of a solar-powered electric lamp. The Fourth Order lens was replaced by plastic optic on 1989 and the lens was taken to be displayed at the Portage Coast Guard Station.
The station today consists of the original dwelling and tower, the steam fog signal building which has been covered with aluminum siding, and a concrete helicopter pad. The view is cluttered by an adjacent skeletal steel radio tower and solar panels, plus weather equipment and a modern fog signal attached to the red-roofed, white lantern room.
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 attheir website.
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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