Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2018

Henrik G. Olsen

Hired as a Laborer – Became Keeper

By Timothy Harrison

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Lighthouse keeper Henrik G. Olsen (April 17, 1890 ...

As visitors today tour Michigan’s beautifully restored Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, they will see a number of artifacts on display that were once owned by Henrik G. Olsen, a man who started his lighthouse career as a laborer at the lighthouse in 1908, but later, in 1933, he became its 1st assistant keeper, and then in 1941, became its head keeper.

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The 1851 Waugoshance Lighthouse in the Straits of ...

Among those items on display that were once owned by keeper Henrik G. Olsen, that were used at the lighthouse when he was stationed there from 1933 to 1952, are a radio, a typewriter that he used to type lighthouse reports, a table, and a kitchen cabinet. But perhaps more importantly, visitors will see his lighthouse keeper’s uniform. All the items were donated to the museum at the lighthouse by his son Ray Olsen in 2002.

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Michigan’s White Shoal Lighthouse in the west ...

Ray Olsen recalled at the time that being a lighthouse keeper was a never ending job, and even he was required to pitch in to help his Dad. “Every five hours you had to wind the clock and before I went to bed I would climb the stairs and wind the clock.”

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Michigan’s White Shoal Lighthouse as it appeared ...

Henrik G. Olsen was born in Norway on April 17, 1890, and in 1902 at the age of 12, he immigrated to the United States. His family lived in a tar paper shack on a small farm; his father, Johan, worked in a saw mill. When Henrik was 14 years old, his father pulled him out of school to work in the saw mill to help support the family. Little could he have dreamed that someday he would be a lighthouse keeper.

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Vintage image of the 1874 Little Sable Point ...

It all started when Henrik Olsen, at the age of 18, was hired, along with his brother Barney, to walk and deliver a cow from Aloha, Michigan to the town of Cheboygan. In Cheboygan he met a man who asked him if he wanted a job as a laborer with the United States Lighthouse Service for a project at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in nearby Mackinaw City. Henrik figured that it was better than working in a saw mill and delivering cows for a living!

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Head keeper Wallace S. Hall (l) and 1st assistant ...

However, Henrik Olsen’s stint at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse did not last long. After a few weeks, on April 24, 1908 he was sent out to work on a project at Waugoshance Lighthouse, seven miles out into Lake Michigan from the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. And, he didn’t know how to swim! Apparently they liked him out there, and on May 17, 1910 he was promoted from laborer to 2nd assistant keeper. But the job did not last long. The lighthouse was closed in August of 1910 when it was replaced by the White Shoal Lighthouse located two miles away. However, his experience at Waugoshance Lighthouse gained him the position on August 5, 1910 as a 3rd assistant keeper at White Shoal Lighthouse. There, on November 14, 1910, he was promoted to 2nd assistant keeper, a position he held until April 1, 1922.

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Head keeper Wallace S. Hall (l) and 1st assistant ...

Other than having to sit out some violent storms, Henrik Olsen’s 12 year stint at White Shoal Lighthouse was mostly uneventful. The days were spent doing general maintenance and polishing the brass. Spare time was spent reading and fishing. The keepers got their news from passing freighters that would toss bundles of newspapers overboard, and that the keepers would row out to retrieve. It was several weeks after Congress declared war on April 6, 1917 that they even knew that the United States had entered World War I. There were four keepers at White Shoal Lighthouse and they worked three men on and one man off.

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Sadly, the keeper’s home at Little Sable Point ...

In the late fall months as Lake Michigan began to freeze over, the White Shoal Lighthouse would be closed for the winter months and the men went ashore. One winter Henrik Olsen got a job working for the Ford Motor Company.

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The keeper’s house of the former Racine Harbor ...

In April of 1922, he secured the position of 1st assistant keeper at Little Point Sable Lighthouse, which is also known as Little Sable Point Lighthouse. This was a land based lighthouse and much more conducive to family life for a keeper. For a while, Henrik Olsen was stationed with Wallace S. Hall, who was the head keeper there from 1922 to 1923, and the two became close friends. The two of them worked in shifts of 12 hours on and 12 hours off.

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The Racine Breakwater Lighthouse in Racine. ...

Henrik Olsen’s scariest experience at Little Point Sable occurred when he and keeper Hall white-washed the 107 foot tower using a block & tackle and a board. It was quite an experience, one that would never pass OSHA regulations today.

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The castle-looking Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse ...
Photo by: Jack Ryan

Life at Little Point Sable was simple. There was no electricity, no phone, no bathroom - just an outhouse. Although there was a pump for water in the kitchen, baths were often taken in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. Henrik Olsen and Wallace Hall built a nearly two-mile long road of planks to and from the lighthouse, but it was often covered over by blowing and shifting sand.

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The U.S. Lighthouse Service Exhibit at the 1933 ...

In January of 1924, Henrik Olsen’s wife travelled by sleigh from the lighthouse to the town of Meers and then to Heart where she boarded a train to Muskegon, Michigan to await the birth of their son, Raymond, who was born in March of 1924. Henrik had to walk nearly two miles to a phone to call his wife to find inquire how she was doing, and he was told that he was the father to a new bouncing baby boy. When son Raymond, was one year old Henrik Olsen secured a transfer to Racine, Wisconsin and in April of 1925 the family’s furniture was loaded onto the lighthouse tender and the family drove to Wisconsin arriving before their furniture.

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An aerial view of Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse ...

With Henrik being the 1st assistant keeper in Racine, his family was required to live on the second floor of the keeper’s house, which at one time, had the lantern atop a tower attached to the keeper’s house but had been decapitated when it was replaced by another tower built nearby. Most of their furniture had to be hoisted up to and through a second story window.

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It is believed that Henrik Olsen was the first ...

Being on the rough and tumble Racine waterfront, there were no other families living near them. Most of the area was somewhat seedy, and Henrik Olsen’s son Raymond had to walk through that area on his way to school. Raymond recalled that there were drunks, bums, and dogs running loose in the area. The coal yard was near the lighthouse, and their home always had a layer of coal dust that settled on everything and required constant cleaning. During intense storms, waves would splash up and over the structure, causing great anxiety for the keeper’s family.

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This wintertime photo of Old Mackinac Point ...
Photo by: Mike McKinney

Finally, in July of 1933, Henrik Olsen was able to secure the job as 1st assistant keeper at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse where he had first secured a job with the U.S. Lighthouse Service some 26 years earlier.

Again their furniture was transported on a lighthouse tender from Wisconsin to Michigan. Even the family’s pet canary went by way of the lighthouse tender! But the family made the long drive from Wisconsin down through Illinois, through Indiana, and then up the coast of Michigan to Mackinaw City. Along the way, keeper Olsen stopped to visit every lighthouse along the coast. But the highlight of their trip was a two night stay in Chicago to visit and tour the Century of Progress International Exposition, which was more commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Here they witnessed the latest wonders in rail travel, automobiles, architecture, and early robots. But, more importantly, they visited the U.S. Lighthouse Service exhibit at the World’s Fair that included a model of the U.S. Lighthouse Service lighthouse tender Sumac that had been hand crafted at Michigan’s Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse by his good friend lighthouse keeper Wallace S. Hall who he had previously worked with at Little Point Sable Lighthouse.

Life was much better for the family at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse than at Henrik Olsen’s previous assignment in Racine, Wisconsin. The lighthouse was located by a State Park. Two trains, loaded with tourists from Chicago and two trains from Detroit arrived daily in Mackinaw City, and there were always people wandering around the lighthouse grounds. Oftentimes it was Ray Olsen’s job to stand at the base of the tower to greet and regulate the number of tourists who would be allowed to climb to the top.

The winter months were much different than the other times of the year, and visitors to the lighthouse would become almost nil. The winter months always saw lots of snow and lots of snow drifts. Although the light in the lantern was turned off when the lake froze over, there were always plenty of chores to do. One November it snowed for two weeks straight, and they simply gave up trying to shovel the blowing and drifting snow.

In 1939 when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service, the Coast Guard decided that it would take four and sometimes five men to do the job that a keeper and one assistant previously did, something that made no sense to Henrik Olsen. The keepers often gave tours of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, a practice that stopped when World War II broke out.

On February 16, 1941, Henrik Olsen was appointed head keeper, a position he would hold until his retirement in November of 1952. When Henrik G. Olsen retired in November of 1952, he had served 43 years, 9 months, and 5 days of dedicated lighthouse service for the benefit of others in and for his adopted country. He retired to a home in Royal Oak, Michigan where he passed away on May 17, 1970.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 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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