Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2018

John Woods - A Great Lakes Lighthouse Keeper

By Timothy Harrison


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Lighthouse keeper John Woods with his son Earl at ...

Although John Woods had witnessed many changes in lighthouse keeping since he started his 42-year light keeping career on April 1, 1898 as the 2nd assistant keeper at the Duluth North and South Breakwater Lighthouses, little could he have imagined that the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Lighthouse, where he would finish his career in 1940, would now be declared excess property by the government.

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Eleanor Woods, wife of keeper John Woods, at the ...

Born in Alpena, Michigan, John Woods always loved the water, and he started his maritime career as a surfman with the U.S. Life Saving Service, but changed careers in 1898 when he joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service in Duluth, Minnesota.

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The original Grand Marais Lighthouse in Grand ...

December 13, 1902 was his first day on the job as the new head keeper of the Grand Marais Lighthouse in Grand Marais Harbor on Lake Superior in Grand Marais, Minnesota He would serve here for almost 19 years.

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Above right, John Woods with his wife Eleanor and ...

However, that first day on the job at Grand Marais may have been his most memorable. He recalled, “I had just rowed out with my gear and gotten fairly settled when a nor’easter which had been brewing began to roll in at full roar. It was a wooden tower then and every sea that hit caused a concussion which set the trap door in the floor to fly up and bang down. Through the night I rationed a scuttle of coal to keep a pot-bellied stove going. Morning brought better weather and a fisherman rowed out to bring me ashore.”

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Right, two of the children of lighthouse keeper ...

After his son Russell, age 24, drowned in a boating accident, John Woods and his wife Eleanor had trouble overcoming their grief, something that continued to linger on. So, keeper Woods applied for a transfer to another lighthouse, as far away from Grand Marais as possible.

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The Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Outer ...
Photo by: Lori Harvey

When he left Minnesota’s Grand Marais Lighthouse to become the keeper of the Grosse Isle Lighthouse on Lake Erie in Michigan, the local community of Grand Marais, Minnesota gave him and his wife a surprise party hosted by Mrs. Belle Sterling at the Sterling Hotel. The Cook County News-Herald reported that the hotel was “prettily decorated with flags” and the lighthouse couple was presented gifts from the people of Grand Marais in a luncheon that was emceed by Dr. F. B. Hicks.

The newspaper reported, “Although it was a happy occasion, a little sadness permeated the gathering and the recipients of the beautiful presents were so affected that it was hard to respond, which they did after a few moments. Mrs. Woods thanked all the people and then keeper Woods said that he could not express appreciation if he had the entire vocabulary of a Webster Dictionary.”

The couple was given a silver coffee service that consisted of a coffee pot, sugar bowl, and creamer. Mrs. Woods was given a silver cake tray, and then keeper John Woods was presented with a gold ring with the Masonic emblem for a setting.

When John Woods arrived at the Grosse Isle North Channel Lighthouse in 1921, he replaced lighthouse keeper James T. Story who had been transferred to the Windmill Point Lighthouse. With the completion of the automation of the Grosse Isle Lights, John Woods and his wife longed to go back to Minnesota. They did not want to go back to Grand Marais, but at that time there were no lighthouse keeper job openings in Minnesota. However, he was able to get close, and in 1924 he accepted the keeper position at the Superior Entry Lighthouse, which is also known as Wisconsin Point Lighthouse, in Superior, Wisconsin, where he would serve for the next ten years.

In 1934, John Woods became the keeper of the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Lighthouse where he had started his lighthouse career in 1898, and he served there until his retirement on August 15, 1940 when he retired.

In an interview after his retirement, he recalled his career with reporter Lloyd V. Gustafson by saying, “It was fascinating; sometimes rough, but a job that young men will find to their liking.” In his retirement, John Woods enjoyed gardening and home crafts. He died in 1951 and is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery in Duluth, Minnesota.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 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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