Digest>Archives> January 2002

Living at the Island Lights

By Ted Gostomski


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Sand Island Lighthouse in Wisconsin.
Photo by: Michael Shedlock

Young Anna Bowen was lying contentedly on her favorite rock on Passage Island high above the clear, cold waters of Lake Superior... From here she could see all the world before her, and she imagined herself a princess, her family being the richest people in the world with ... their castle of a lighthouse. (C. Shelton-Roberts and B. Roberts, Lighthouse Families)

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Outer Island Light in Wisconsin.
Photo by: Karen Harshman

Growing up as a light keeper’s daughter on Passage Island in the early part of the 20th century, Anna Bowen lived a life others only dream of. The romanticism can fade away, though, when one learns the details of the work these families were required to do and when one catches a glimpse of the same dream and comes to know the isolation of an uninhabited island four miles off the northeastern tip of Isle Royale.

I have had the good fortune to visit many lighthouses on Lake Superior. Not just those that are established tourist destinations like Split Rock, but also those that are distant and difficult to reach, lighthouses with romantic names like Rock of Ages Light, Passage Island Light, and Outer Island Light. These places are living history, sentinels to the passage of time and hundreds of ships. They were home and “office” for many men along with their wives and children, and despite the fact that all the lighthouses are now automated and so stand empty, most are still operating, flashing out over darkened waters a warning of danger below.

This light I’ve tended for forty years will now be run by a set of gears. ...But did ever a bit of wire or gear a call for help in the darkness hear? (Edgar Guest, The Lightkeeper Wonders)

When you visit a Lake Superior lighthouse, the first thing you may notice is the weight of history that hangs over your senses. You can almost hear the laughter of a family, the shouts of men working furiously to keep the lamp lit in a storm, and the thunder of a November gale rattling the tower. So many people have walked these cold cement floors, sometimes running from the tower to their boat to go out and rescue the victims of a grounding or wreck. At other times, though, they were forced to simply watch and perhaps pace the floor, unable to lend a hand because the seas were just too rough.

In September of 1905, Emmanuel Luick, keeper of the Sand Island Light on the west end of the Apostle Islands, watched helplessly from his tower as the steamer Sevona became grounded on the Sand Island Shoal during a gale. The ship split in two, but not before the captain and his crew were able to send 17 people to shore in the lifeboats. The captain and six men then used hatch covers to fashion a raft and head for shore themselves, but the makeshift raft broke apart in the waves, and all seven men drowned. In a storm so fierce, there was nothing Luick could do to help.

I once stood in the tower on Sand Island and looked out over the lake, watching a summer storm blow in from the north. The skies were blushing with the color of the setting sun, but they slowly turned dark as the wind came up and roiled the lake’s surface from a purple flat-calm to an ominous gray that was lined in white where the water was lifting into waves. I woke early the next morning to the sound of the window shutters rattling in a howling wind and rain pouring down on the roof. I was supposed to do a bird survey that morning, so I climbed out of my sleeping bag and dressed to go outside. Not wanting to wake the others, I walked lightly down the short hallway from my room to the tower and stepped onto the circular, metal staircase. When I turned to close the door behind me, I noticed the floor below light up for just a few seconds and then go dark. Then it lit up and, again, went dark. I was taken a little off guard. I looked up and saw the stairs above me light up and then go dark. About 25 feet above my head, the rotating beacon was flashing its signal across the turbulent Lake Superior waters. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to stand there in the tower, at night, in the dark, in a howling wind, with the light blinking regularly over my shoulder, and watching as the Sevona broke apart. Then I concluded that it was probably best that I don’t have that haunted memory in my past, perhaps always questioning whether not trying to go out into the storm was the right decision.

Living at the island, living at the island, living at the island light! (Warren Nelson, from Keeper of the Light)

In his book, Haunted Lakes, Frederick Stonehouse relates the stories of those who have witnessed strange and unexplainable things around the Great Lakes including haunted lighthouses. In the summer of 1996, I spent three nights in the Outer Island Light on the east end of the Apostles, trapped by wind and rain and unable to conduct the bird surveys I was there to do. When I was dropped off at the dock on the north end of Outer, the volunteer interpreter who lives at the lighthouse during the summer went into town for his two days off. I was alone on what is regarded as “the most remote place in Wisconsin.” That night, a storm blew in. Around 9:00 PM, the skies grew dark and the faint rumble of thunder could be felt before it was heard. Wispy streaks of rain were all I could make out in the evening’s low light as I sat in the living room of the keeper’s quarters, looking through the window at the approaching storm.

A hallway at one end of the living room leads to a stairway to the second floor of the quarters, and at the end of the hall is a door that opens into the winding staircase of the light tower. As I read in the glow of my candle, I began to notice the door banging around in its frame as the wind found its way into the hall through some unknown place. It sounded as if someone was coming in from the tower. It was unnerving, and I sat perfectly still. My heart began to pound as my mind replayed the stories I have heard about haunted lighthouses. My imagination started racing.

Each summer, Big Top Chautauqua, a performing arts group with a canvas tent theatre just south of Bayfield, Wisconsin, performs a musical history of the Apostle Islands lighthouses called Keeper of the Light. One act in the show portrays a modern day National Park Service interpreter at one of the island lights who is asked by a visitor if she has ever seen any ghosts. Sitting in the glow of my candle, with the wind rattling the tower door, I try to stop myself before going too far in recalling the interpreter’s lines. It doesn’t work.

“So, if I say the name of a dead person, there is a chance - you say - that they will come ... sometime?” To play along, the interpreter calls out the names of four long-dead Apostle Islands light keepers.

“Peter! John! Emmanuel! Annie!”

As she does this, each of the four characters appear, flitting about in her face and behind her back, asking questions she can’t hear and playing jokes that give signs of their presence - dropping a broom, moving a chair, whispering a little tune across time and into the ear of the living.

“Living at the island, living at the island, living at the island light!” sings the interpreter in a slow, lilting melody. “That’s funny,” she says, “I’ve caught a cold out here before, but never a song.”

I look outside at the storm, trying to concentrate on the natural phenomena going on outside rather than the supernatural phenomena in the room. Now, I am suspicious of unknown tunes coming into my head and humming across my lips. I imagine the spirits are dancing all around me. “Living at the island, living at the island, living at the island light!” That first night’s sleep was restless.

These “encounters” with the history and spirit of the lighthouses are not something that keeps me away from them. On the contrary, they draw me in. To walk in those places and look out over the lake from a vantage point eighty feet above the water, or to sleep there and wake in the night to the glow of a light that regularly rotates through my room is to be immersed in history and, in a way, to be a part of it. The lighthouses are part of our culture, one of our attempts to “tame” the wilds of a new frontier. Yet, they were also an attempt at making a home in a hostile and sometimes forbidding place. Within those four walls, on the pages of their logs, and in the memories of those still living are stories that tell of great courage, fortitude, and loneliness. We need only listen to the voices that call across time and whisper in our ear, to look out over the expanse of water and to imagine.

This story appeared in the January 2002 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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