Thunder Bay Island Light
By Dave Wobser

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.

Maritime Hazard
Thunder Bay Island is one of three islands that are, in fact, high spots on a solid limestone shoal that extends into Lake Huron from North Point. North Point is the peninsula of land that forms the northern limit of Thunder Bay, the protected harbor that is home to the city of Alpena.

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.

Island Settlers
Local historian and THILPS board member Steve Tongue tells that the island was the site of the first settlement in the area. Squatters came to the Federally-owned island attracted by the abundant fishing is the surrounding waters. By 1845, one hundred and sixty people were living on the island operating thirty-one fishing boats. A cooperage (barrel maker) was established and as many as 12,000 barrels of fish were harvested annually and shipped out in barrels. The first store in Alpena County was opened on the island in 1845. The squatters were eventually forced to leave the island and moved to nearby Sugar Island where they continued to thrive for many years.

Congress responded to requests for a navigation aid in January, 1831, and construction proceeded during the summer months. At this time there were only two other lighthouses on the shore of Lake Huron. One light was at Fort Gratiot at the head of the St. Clair River, and the other was on Bois Blanc Island near the Straits of Mackinac.

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.

USLSS Station
Despite the new fog signal and higher tower with a Fresnel lens, the shoal around the island continued to collect misguided mariners. In 1876 the US Life Saving Service established a station on the west side of the island. The same month saw Life Saving Stations opened at Point Aux Barques, Sturgeon Bay, Hammond Bay and Tawas Point. The lookout tower was situated on the lake side of the island not far from the fog signal building.

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.

Station Today
Not much remains of the 21 structures that once were distributed across the island. The tan brick keeperís dwelling, attached tower, and fog signal building are being weather-proofed by a small crew of THILPS volunteers. A brick oil storage building remains as solid as the day it was built. Little evidence remains of the two assistant keeperís dwellings and a barn that are shown in a 1932 aerial view. These were most likely added about the same time as the fog signal whistles were installed.

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.

Rock Carvings
The vast outcropping of relatively flat limestone on the Lake Huron side of the island has been the scene of a number of rock carvings over the years. Bits of island history are recorded in the rock. One of the more distinct says "W. J. McCulley, April 2, 1831, Age 23". Another more elaborate carving was done by "A. Baecka, Detroit, 1909". Other carvings were done by surfmen or light keepers assigned to the island. One lists the members of the USLSS team in 1879.

Island Work Crew
Four local men gather on Wednesdays during the summer, weather permitting, and make the 12 mile trip to the island to do what they can to preserve the remaining structures. The island work crew consists of local residents Bill Riggs and Don Beem. Riggs is the THILPS building and grounds chair and organizes the work plan for the island restoration. The two men are retired workers from the Detroit-area Kensington Park District. Herb Palmer, a Detroit native and retired Federal employee provides the boat to transport the crew to the island. Palmer is also responsible for the groupís government relations.

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.

Current Work
The greatest present concern is a series of large cracks in the concrete stucco that was placed over the brick tower. It appears that the actions of the Coast Guard when the station was automated have been the cause of the cracking.

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.

On-Shore Crew
In addition to the small group that is working to stabilize the island buildings, there is another group of Ďshore-basedí volunteers that seek out new members, publish a newsletter, organize fund raising activities and provide other support so vital to an all-volunteer organization. THILPS Secretary Paula Glennie works with Janice Weisz to publish the Thunder Bay Beacon, the organizationís newsletter. Dick Hunter and Gordon Burke are charged with fund raising and group activities.

Island Future
The goals of THILPS have been stated as:
(1) To make emergency repair to prevent further deterioration;
(2) Clean up the buildings and clear trails to access the properties for historic restoration;
(3) Pursue local ownership of a portion of the island;
(4) Conduct historical research of the original building plans; and
(5) Initiate repairs based on a professional assessment of existing conditions and historical research.

Grant funds from Walmart Corporation, The Community Foundation of Northeast Michigan and the Besser Foundation have helped the organization get off the ground and progressing toward their goals. THILPS has recently received a lease from the Coast Guard through the year 2027. This should assure that restoration and improvements will be available to the public.

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
Membership in the Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society can be had for a little as $20.00 per person or $30.00 per family. Members receive the Thunder Bay Beacon, the organizations newsletter that contains announcements of meeting and activities. Periodically the Beacon will contain historical information and updates on the work being done on the island.

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

Click on images to enlarge

Photograph by Wayne Sapulski - 1999

Thunder Bay Island - 1932

2009 view from Lake Huron
by Capt. Ted Greenwald

Location: Thunder Bay Island off Alpena, Mi
Date Built: 1831
Active: Yes

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