Digest>Archives> July 1998

One of Superior's Little Known Lights

By Donald L. Nelson

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Granite Island Lighthouse as it appears today.
Photo by: Bob & Sandra Shanklin

Other than to boaters, Granite Island and its lighthouse are little known, even to many people who lived in Marquette (Michigan) some 12 miles along the shoreline to the south. The island is a granite outcropping of about 2 1/2 acres that rises almost vertically from the bottom to a height of 60 feet above average lake level.

When first explored by the white man about 1830, they found it almost impossible to get onto because of the jagged rocky cliffs and the lake surge even on calm days. They found strawberries, currants and raspberries growing from the cracks. In later years, a wealth of rhubarb and a tree or two flourished, brought out probably by early lightkeepers. Local Indians of early times had no reason or desire to go there. They called it Na-Be-Quon (canoe with hump). Later mariners said it resembled a sail boat from a distance.

When Marquette began to flourish around 1840 upon discovery of iron ore and with the copper discovery on the Keweenaw, vessel traffic increased along the shoreline. Vessels coming from Sault Ste. Marie made stops at Marquette, then on to Portage Entry on the Keweenaw or to L'Anse/Baraga lumber ports. Two areas of anxiety and major concern to vessel captains were Granite Island and the Huron Islands. There was no question or debate that lighthouses would have to be built on both islands.

The usual proceedings to procure the properties from the State of Michigan were taken. West Huron Island was procured in 1866, but Granite Island had to be condemned that same year to get title. Construction plans were already available as they were the same as many lighthouses built in the 1866-69 era on the upper lakes.

In the spring of 1868, construction began at both sites. Identical structures were built of hard granite taken from the Huron Islands, and they were completed that same year. Window dormers were added in later years through the roof into the second floors. Huron Island was lit on October 20, 1868, but Granite Island waited until the spring of 1869. Huron received a 3 1/2 order Fresnel lens and Granite a 4th order. Both sites were recommended for fog signals. Huron received a steam whistle system in 1881 as it was to be a first-class station of more importance.

Getting on and off the island was a constant problem. The lighthouse tender, Haze, (or steam barge as they were mostly called) transported materials from the Hurons and the Detroit Depot to the site. A level area was blasted from the highest part of the island at 60 feet to receive the dwelling. Lifting-davits for the sailboat were installed, as there were no docking facilities available. Upon completion, Granite Island received two keepers in the spring of 1869 and the station was entered in the Light List as operational.

The two keepers assigned here would find it boring but constantly adventurous getting on and off. The 12 1/2 mile trip to Marquette for supplies and shore time would have to be made alone. Sea gulls had made this desolate rock their home for many years and they were not about to relinquish this time-honored ownership to anyone. The keepers soon learned to live in harmony with their feathered companions.

The complaints about fog by mariners continued, and in 1879 the fog bell was removed from Thunder Bay Island on Lake Huron when they received a steam system, and it was installed on Granite. It was a mechanically struck bell placed atop a tower to the rear of the lighthouse. The oil engine was enclosed in a room just below the bell. This structure remains today. By 1890, the station was listed as a fixed white 4th order light varied by a red flash every 90 seconds, visible 21 miles. This was controlled by a counterweight clock mechanism and rotating flash panel. The machinery-operated fog bell sounded 5 times a minute. I can imagine the gulls loved that. Picture all the gulls becoming air borne each time the bell was struck.

In 1891, a new landing derrick was installed to facilitate landing of supplies. In 1905, a new concrete block oil house was built. Only the basics of necessary equipment was ever placed at this station. One can only imagine the lifestyle that existed for the two keepers (no families) at this station. Harmony was extremely necessary as there was much lonely free time. Launching the station boat was only done when of necessity. Any fishing would be done from the rocks. Gardening non-existent. However it has been said that the berries and planted rhubarb had been used in recipes never known by man before or after.

In 1902, a boat landing was rebuilt on the north side along with a new boat house, trestle and winch. There was also a landing area on the south side. James Wheatley was the longest-serving keeper at Granite, serving from, 1885 to 1915, retiring at the age of 83. Thirty years of his life were spent here. His son William was drowned in a squall in 1898 on his way in a small sail boat to visit his father. In the fall of 1903, Wheatley's assistant John McMartin launched the station boat to go to Marquette. Wheatley watched in horror as a wave capsized the boat and pounded McMartin against the rocks. He was helpless as McMartin disappeared and drowned.

Granite Island Lighthouse remained the same with its main problem of getting on and off, until the 1939 takeover of the Lighthouse Service by the Coast Guard. First on the agenda of the Coast Guard was to evaluate all lighthouses as to their importance. Granite, it was determined, was a prime candidate for automation. Vessels no longer travelled anywhere near; so the keepers, fog bell and furnishings were removed in the fall of 1939. Acetylene tanks were placed in a steel shed by the tower to power the light and the site was returned to the waiting sea gulls.

I had the opportunity to visit Granite in 1947 when I was 15 years old on the Coast Guard 38-foot picket boat (this was the same boat lost the following year at Stannard Rock Lighthouse, but that's another story). We had to jump to the rocks as you couldn't tie up to the broken-up pier with constant wave surge. Wild rhubarb and other berries along with pesky sea gulls were everywhere. Going in the dank and musky lighthouse and tower was an experience. Cobwebs and bugs were everywhere. Years of paint had cracked and fallen from the walls and ceiling. They cleaned the lens, lamp, and lantern room, replaced the acetylene tanks and we departed. In 1983, my wife Barb and I took our boat to Granite on a calm day. Upon arriving, we circled the island and took pictures. It was obvious, as it always was, that the surging water protecting the island prevented any thoughts of getting on. The Coast Guard has given minimum stabilization to the 1868 dwelling and tower. Vandalism and theft was not a concern as anyone with thoughts of this would have more to lose than to gain. Today the light is shown from a modern lens on a steel tower in front of the dwelling powered by the sun with a solar charged battery system.

Big Bay Lighthouse was built in 1896 as a coast light on a point almost midway between Granite Island and the Huron Islands. The importance of the Big Bay Light and Fog Signal Station was short lived, just 44 years. After the 1939 Coast Guard takeover of the lighthouses, Big Bay Light also was re-evaluated and placed on the automation list. In 1940 the fog horns were silenced and then removed the following year. The station was reduced to a one-keeper caretaker job, and it was fully automated and abandoned a few years later. Huron Island Light remained fully operational until it too, fell to the automation process in 1972.

This story appeared in the July 1998 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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