Digest>Archives> April 2002

Gull Rock Lighthouse

By Don Nelson


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Gull Island Light in Michigan. Photo by Bob and ...
Photo by: Bob and Sandra Shanklin

Gull Rock is a very small outcropping of rock surrounded by rocky shallows, approximately 250 feet long by 100 feet wide, protruding about 12 feet above the water. It is about 2 1/2 miles east of Keweenaw Point and about 1/2 mile west of Manitou Island in an area frequented by vessels downbound that are looking for refuge. When caught in Lake Superior storms from a northerly direction, vessels race for the lee (south) side of the Keweenaw Point. The Gull Rock area in this passage was the thorn that ship captains feared.

After constant complaints, Congress appropriated $15,000 in 1866 (that’s $156,130 in today’s money) for a lighthouse to be built on this rock outcropping. Lighthouse construction crews were to be in the area in 1867 to build the Huron Island and Granite Island lighthouses. It was determined that by using the same plans, costs could be held down. Through the spring and summer of 1867, the 1 1/2 story lighthouse and tower of brick were built. An outdoor privy, crude dock and launchway, and sidewalks were also built. This was just about all that would fit on the exposed rock. The only problems were getting to the rock, and the accidental death of William Tunbridge, the construction foreman. The job was completed and the 4th order oil lamp lens was lit on November 1st in the fall of 1867.

Thomas Jackson was the first keeper with Henry Letchen as his assistant. For some reason both were removed the following spring of 1868. Stephen Cocking became keeper and would remain for nine years. Keepers would come and go, especially assistants. Interestingly, when Stephen Cocking was keeper, his assistants kept resigning. He finally got his wife, Mary, to be his assistant. They remained until 1877, when he was appointed keeper at Eagle Harbor. She then resigned. He died in 1889 while still keeper there.

James Corgan took over as keeper and as Cocking had done, he had his wife appointed assistant keeper. They remained until 1883 when he was transferred. Another keeper was John Nolan, who was assistant to Norman Guilbault in 1887 (who died that same year). John then became keeper. He had John Smith as his assistant for three years, and then was removed for some reason. John Nolan’s wife Alice became his assistant and remained there with him until 1903 when he was transferred to Eagle Harbor as keeper, and then Alice resigned.

It’s also interesting that prior to each of these keepers getting their wives to be their assistants, their previous assistant keepers either were removed or resigned. But being that Gull Rock Lighthouse was so remote and that the outcropping was so small with little to do but keep the light on and survive, the Lighthouse Bureau and the inspectors looked the other way in some instances. They wanted to hold on to those who remained on the remote stations as long as they operated an efficient station. They did whatever they could to keep them happy.

In reality, an assistant would only be needed whenever the keeper was away for a day or longer, or to be a partner in a game of cribbage or other card games. A deck or two of cards was almost required equipment at all light stations. Gull Rock would have 20 keepers and assistants over its 60 years as a manned station. The last keeper was Herbert Crittenden, who served from 1910 until its closing in 1927.

By the mid-teens and 20s, acetylene lanterns were readily available, as were light sensors for turning the light on and off. Manitou Island’s keepers could easily fill in when needed, as they did. This led to the automation of the Gull Rock Lighthouse.

Keepers moved around during their careers. As they gained seniority and moved up in rank, they put in for vacancies at more choice stations. Some resigned, some were removed, as at Gull Rock, because it was not a choice station by far, but if you stuck out a season or two, better duty would come. Many of those who did, eventually served at Manitou, Copper Harbor or Eagle Harbor. One keeper, Thomas Thompson, was keeper at Eagle Harbor from 1893 to 1903 which was a choice duty shore station. He then transferred to Gull Rock as an assistant for three years from 1903 to 1905. Makes one wonder why. It’s been said that many lighthouse keepers preferred the hermit-like lifestyle.

Being a two-keeper station, with virtually little to do other than maintain the oil lamp beacon, one can only imagine the lifestyle. It doesn’t take much to get on the nerves of each other and get into a good argument. This was common on stations with little to occupy their time, and it was a major cause of resignation and transfers.

A small boat with a sail enabled the keeper to go to Copper Harbor some 10 miles away for supplies, or to visit the Manitou Island light keepers several miles to the east. During storms, the waves wash over the rock island and at times surround the lighthouse. This is not what one would call choice duty, however one keeper remained there for 17 seasons. There was no fog signal there, so maintaining one’s sanity was a full-time job.

Maintenance was minimal here and once the lantern was serviced and the lens cleaned in the morning, there was virtually nothing to do but plan the day’s meals. One could only walk a few feet from the front door to the water or feed the gulls. There was just nothing to occupy their time or minds. Stannard Rock would be choice duty. In fact three of Gull Rock’s keepers did get to serve at Stannard. Duty at Gull Rock was as lonely and boring as you could get. In my opinion it’s worse than prison unless you were in solitary confinement.

Six vessels ran onto the rocky shoals surrounding Gull Rock. They were the Spokane (October 28, 1907), E.N. Saunders (May 30, 1910), L.C. Waldo (November 8, 1913), Taurus (November 27, 1918), Samuel Mather (October 19, 1923), Charles C. West (September 7, 1926). All were salvaged and removed to sail another day. Obviously they didn’t see the lighthouse or its beacon. In fact no mention is made of either. In low visibility it would have been unlikely. This brings on the question of why a fog signal was never put there. Being that going between Gull Rock and Keweenaw Point was mainly used as a short-cut for vessels to find safety on the lee side of the point during northerly storms, it wasn’t a normal traffic route. There is no way of knowing how many were safely guided by the Gull Rock Light or even if a fog signal would have helped those who didn’t. But it does raise the question. My thinking has always been that if an area frequented by low visibility rates a light beacon, why not a fog signal?

One has to wonder why a lighthouse of this design was built here. No where else on the lake is such a structure exposed to what this one is, low and close to the water, and open to the full force of any northerly storm across Lake Superior. Most would be elevated on a concrete crib well above the lake and of a different design. They sure didn’t have the keepers in mind. How this lighthouse has remained intact since 1867 suffering the full blunt of Lake Superior storms challenges one’s imagination. The lighthouse, privy and some sidewalks still remain today, over 130 years after they were built—defying mother nature. They sure knew how to build them back then. Today it can be viewed going by boat from Copper Harbor or Lac La Belle. It is off limits to actually visit, and you risk crashing on the jagged rocks even in the best of weather.

In 1927, after 60 years, the light was automated and maintained by the Manitou Island keepers. Today, the modern plastic lens is solar powered and the dwelling has received stabilization, been painted white, and the roof has been repaired.

Life on Gull Rock

Let’s imagine living on this remote, confined lighthouse in those early years. It was operational only from about late April until early December. The keepers would arrive either by tender or small sailboat from Copper Harbor. After off-loading food and personal items, the first order of the day was inspecting the station for any winter damage and getting heat in the dwelling. The cold and dampness required almost constant operation of the coal stove. Coal was stored in the basement. It was supplied by tenders and hauled ashore in gunny sacks. A door in the basement below the kitchen, in the back, accessed the outside, and stairs in the kitchen enabled inside access. Next order of the day would be preparing the lens and lantern for lighting.

The tower was four levels high with circular stairs accessed from the outside and from the upstairs and first floor. Oil storage and lantern/lens supplies were usually kept in the watch room or the tower, the bulk of the oil being in the basement. There was never electricity here. Heating and cooking was with coal, and lighting by oil lamps.

Inside, the kitchen was the largest room. It was located in the rear and was the only heat source area. Also downstairs was a watch room and a small living room. The only thing upstairs were two bedrooms. On the whole, it was very small but livable for two keepers for that time.

Probably the most important thing on the station that the keepers had in mind was the sailboat and the crude dock that required constant attention. This was their only access and contact with the outside world. It was only about ten miles to Copper Harbor, an easy round trip on a decent day by sailboat. Surely any excuse to go there was used—supplies, food, mail, or anything else. A short trip to the Manitou Lighthouse I’m sure was taken often. Records of this travel were required in the daily journal, but who would know if an entry was somehow forgotten.

The outside privy was in the back, near the water’s edge for logical reasons. Water was hauled by buckets from the lake for the keeper’s use. Whitewashing (painting) the interior and exterior was practically a yearly duty. Whitewash, as it was called, was best. It was much better than paint because it allowed the walls to breathe. The downside was that it had to be applied often. No problem, as it kept the keepers busy.

Surely, they fished often and it was on the menu regularly. There was no method to keep food, meat, etc. cold other than the basement, so the daily menu was basic and very plain. The clothing they wore was really whatever they wanted, and typical for anyone at that time. Uniforms weren’t required until 1884, but even after that they were only worn during inspection or at a station that was exposed to the public.

Beyond this and what daily chores they had, they had lots of time for boredom to set in. Whoever had the night watch usually remained in the downstairs watch room, which also had a bed. Checking periodically to see that the lamp was burning properly and making journal entries was all they had to do besides reading and letter-writing. This is how life most likely was on Gull Rock, and was typical on many early remote lighthouses. Could any of us today live this way? It was a different time.

This story appeared in the April 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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