Rock Harbor Light
This article was originally published in the October-December 2004 issue of Great Laker magazine.
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.
Today the Rock Harbor light looks very much like it did when completed in 1855. The tapered ruble stone tower is nearly 50 feet high, and is attached to a 1-1/2 story keeperís dwelling which is made of the same material. The dwelling and tower are whitewashed. The newly-created U.S. Lighthouse Board chose a Fourth Order Fresnel Lens to be placed in the tower.
Rock Harbor was the first light in the Isle Royale area. It was followed by Isle Royale Light (Menagerie Island) in 1879, Passage Island in 1882 and Rock of Ages Light in 1906.
The Rock Harbor Light had served for only four years when mining on the island came to an end and with it the related shipping. The station was closed and abandoned in August, 1859. However, just two years later the outbreak of the Civil War, and the increased demand for copper, caused the Lighthouse Board to consider reactivating the light, but nothing was done until 1874. During the summer of 1874, a major renovation and reactivation of the light took place. Again the light station had a short life and was closed for the last time in October, 1879.
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 itself, 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 from Hancock-Houghton, Michigan. These vessels are geared toward the backpacker, camper, kayaker crowd and do not offer much for lighthouse enthusiasts.
In 2004, 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.
2011 Photos by Eric Slough
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