Tuesday Tour: Guiding light in autumn

It won’t come to you as a surprise.

If you’ve been a reader of Mama’s Empty Nest for very long, you are probably quite aware that autumn is my very favorite season of all.

Oh, I like winter enough when it snows and is frosty outside. Spring rates as my second favorite season because finally color bursts forth across the landscape. Summer? Blech. I only tolerate those months of the year when it’s not hot and humid and that doesn’t happen very often in my neck of the woods.

Since Papa and I entered the empty nest stage of life well over a decade ago when our last offspring headed off to college life, we’ve enjoyed taking vacations in the fall. And now that we’re retired, traveling during that season suits us even more. The weather is usually very pleasant and sightseeing spots are far less crowded.

Our trip to Michigan last year was no different except that we encountered much colder weather than we expected. But even though we had to find a retailer to purchase winter hats and gloves to stay warm, we relished in our sightseeing – especially all of the lighthouses we visited in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

We spent a day enjoying snow flurries while touring that area with our trusty lighthouse map/guide specifically to find a couple of lighthouses. Our day trip ended in Sault Ste. Marie shivering in rapidly falling temperatures at sunset to watch a ship proceed through the locks there, which is one of the most heavily used commercial shipping canals in the world.

Prior to that though, we traveled along the shoreline of the deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior, to Point Iroquois Light 20 miles west of Sault Ste. Marie.

The area known as Point Iroquois was named by the Ojibwa for the Iroquois war party who invaded the area in an attempt to dominate the fur trade but were defeated in a massacre in 1662. The name used by the Ojibwa in their native language meant “place of Iroquois bones.”

After French explorers arrived in the area, the point became a notable landmark, especially once Sault Ste. Marie was established as a settlement. By the mid 1800’s, copper and iron ore were discovered in the area resulting in the need for a passage for ore-carrying vessels to safely travel and the “Soo Locks” was built.

Because of the increased volume of water traffic leaving and approaching the locks and the very hazardous weather conditions in the area, the addition of lighthouses along Lake Superior became apparent. 

Construction of Point Iroquois Light Station, which would serve to guide ships through a narrow channel between shallow sand bars and shoals off the point and rocky reefs on the Canadian side of Whitefish Bay, commenced in 1854 and was completed the next year. The light was emitted for the first time in September 1857.

The original lighthouse consisted of a cylindrical 45-foot wooden tower with a detached one-and-a-half story stone dwelling for the keeper’s quarters. Years later, both structures were in poor condition, so construction began on a new 65-foot brick tower and eight-room keeper’s home in 1870, which still stand today.

When a fog signal was added to the station, another keeper was required, so an addition to the keeper’s home was added in 1905 to provide more living space.

After 107 years of service, Point Iroquois Lighthouse became deactivated in 1963 when it was replaced by the automated Gros Cap Point Light in Canada. The lantern room’s Fresnel lens was removed, shipped to Washington, DC’s Smithsonian Institute, and the lighthouse property deemed excess. In 1965, the U.S. Forest Service assumed responsibility for the property.

Ten years later, the light station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and during the 1980’s, Bay Mills-Brimley Historical Research Society joined the forest service in restoring the lighthouse and creating a museum and gift shop in the keeper’s dwelling.

Despite the navigational light and fog horn aid Point Iroquois provided in its many years of service, occasionally ships still wrecked in the passage. Such an event occurred in 1919 during a November lake storm.

The steamer Myron sunk in the freezing lake and 16 of the crew lost their lives. The light keeper at the time found their bodies washed ashore and had to transport them to a nearby town undertaker. Reportedly, the undertaker paid $10 apiece for “floaters.”

Treacherous winter weather also took its toll when the keeper and assistant took a team of horses out on the ice to either fish or gather ice blocks to store in the ice house.

On more than one occasion, horses broke through the ice because of soft spots where warm springs bubbled up. During one such episode, the horses became so frightened that they thrashed around and unfortunately sank into the icy lake to their deaths.

Those are just some of the stories about the light keepers and their families visitors learn about when viewing exhibits at this light station’s museum.

The lantern room is open to the public and you can climb the 72 steps of the circular iron stairway to reach it. Papa and I accomplished that and were rewarded with an amazing view of Lake Superior, particularly beautiful in autumn.

We peeked into the assistant light keeper’s apartment which has been restored to reflect how it looked during the 1950’s. We thoroughly delighted in a short walk along a wooded boardwalk path to a cobblestone beach where we gained different perspectives of the lighthouse amid the fall foliage. 

Currently during this pandemic, the Point Iroquois Lighthouse is closed. However, visitors can still stroll the boardwalk and grounds there.

I sincerely hope my readers are finding the stories of all of these lighthouses I highlight on my Tuesday Tour posts as fascinating as I am. Each lighthouse has a different story to tell just as each has a purpose for existing.

And isn’t that just like us as human beings? We each have a story, we each have a purpose, and sometimes, our purpose is to tell our stories to help someone else.

Just like a guiding lighthouse.

“ …what he told himself on those sea-soaked nights…Others joined in and it was discovered that every light had a story-no, every light was a story. And the flashes themselves were the stories going out over the waves, as markers and guides and comfort and warning.” ~ Jeanette Winterson in  Lighthousekeeping

©mamasemptynest.wordpress.com 2020

Tuesday Tour: Whitefish Point Lighthouse

Today is November 10th – a day of remembrance at the lighthouse featured in my Tuesday Tour.

Last year, Papa and I traveled to Michigan and visited various sites around two of the Great Lakes there. On a downright cold and blustery October day, we located the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior.

Whitefish Point Light is considered to be the most important such structure on this Great Lake because all ships either entering or departing Lake Superior pass by this lighthouse.

Its location in Whitefish Bay on the southern shore of the lake is considered a treacherous spot earning it the nickname, “Graveyard of the Great Lakes.” Out of 550 known significant shipwrecks lying on the lake’s bottom, around 200 are in the Whitefish Point area, more than any other part of Lake Superior.

Thirty-some years before the placement of this lighthouse, a 60-foot trading ship named Invincible became the first known ship to sail on Lake Superior and it sunk in fierce winds and overwhelming waves.

The need for a lighthouse here became very apparent in the following years as ship traffic increased. Whitefish Point Light first became illuminated in 1849, marking the end of an 80-mile stretch of lake shoreline known as Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast and the entrance to Whitefish Bay. A four-room, one-and-a-half story stone keeper’s dwelling was attached to the 42-foot stone tower in this isolated location and retaining keepers there was difficult.

Constantly barraged by wind and weather by 1861, Whitefish Point Light was replaced by an 80-foot tall steel cylinder, supported by skeletal steel framework and designed to reduce the stress of high winds.  Fog signals were added and by 1894, a second assistant keeper was necessary to continue guiding mariners through turbulent waters there.  

The sheer force and duration of violent storms on Lake Superior have been compared to that of a hurricane. When sudden and treacherous winds build up over the deep lake’s many miles of open water, massive waves, often coming from several different directions, slam into ships with great intensity.

One such storm occurred in 1905 and is noted as the worst ever on the Great Lakes. During a combination of snow, wind, freezing cold, and violent waves, the temperature plunged to 12°F below zero. The after storm tally was 30 shipwrecks with some vessels actually thrown out of the lake’s water.

The U.S. Lighthouse Service operated this light station from 1849 until the U.S. Coast Guard instituted a Lifeboat Rescue Station there in 1923. Several changes transpired in the following years and in 1930, both the fog signal and a radio beacon signal were synchronized to help mariners determine their distance from Whitefish Point and guide them safely through the area.

The Lighthouse Service united with the Coast Guard in 1939; the lifeboat station was closed in the early 1950’s, and all Coast Guard personnel removed in 1970 after the light house became automated. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

But the Whitefish Point Lighthouse was still very much needed. It has guided vessels for over 170 years, and continues to do so, except for one horrendously stormy night.  

It was November 10, 1975 – 45 years ago today – when the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald struggled against extremely hazardous weather conditions as it attempted to make its way towards Whitefish Bay.

An assortment of failures accompanied this fated vessel. Its radar system had been damaged and the tempestuous lake was taking its toll. The ship’s captain, who was a 44-year veteran sailor, reported: “We are taking heavy seas over our decks; it’s the worst sea I’ve ever been in.”

And then the unthinkable happened. The automated radio beacon at Whitefish Point suddenly switched off providing no guiding light and the raging storm overtook the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Around 7:15 that night, the 729-foot ore freighter and a crew of 29 souls perished into the deep, cold lake.  The wreck lies offshore about 15 miles northwest of this lighthouse.

If you are of a certain age like me, you’ll well remember a song written, composed, and recorded in 1976 by Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot called, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It’s a long song, but you can listen to it and read the lyrics in the video below.

Every year on this date, a public memorial service is held at Whitefish Point Light in remembrance of the Edmund Fitzgerald crew. The ship’s actual bell, which was recovered from the shipwreck site in 1995, is rung 30 times, once for every crew member and once again for all sailors who have been lost at sea.

It’s fascinating to note that Lake Superior’s water is so cold it preserves shipwrecks quite well and scuba divers at the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve can enjoy 30-50 feet of visibility even at 100-foot depth.

Actually, a group of divers called the Great Lakes Shipwreck History Society researched shipwrecks in this area and consequently, opened the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on the Whitefish Point Light Station grounds in the 1980’s.

Owning the site, this society restored the keeper’s quarters, lighthouse, fog signal building, and all the structures associated with both the Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Coast Guard Lifeboat Station.

Both the lighthouse and the museum are normally open from May 1-October 31 daily, 10 a.m-6 p.m. An admission fee is charged to visit the lighthouse itself and the museum, but there is no charge to walk around the grounds, visit the gift shop, or stroll on the beach, where a memorial monument to the Edmund Fitzgerald is located.

When we visited, the wind was ferocious and the cold air quite piercing that October day, but there were visitors on the grounds and on the beach.

Today, this anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, I consider this thought – that freighter foundered and went down into that cold, deep lake and those men lost their lives in the midst of a terrible storm.

Yet they were only 15 miles from a lighthouse.

There are many of our fellow human beings drowning while they’re caught in a whirlwind of violent storms in life. Are we reaching out to them, extending a light that may rescue them from harm’s way, guiding them to a place of security and well-being? Or are we allowing them to sink into despair, fear, and anxiety?

Maybe I am a lighthouse and so are you.

“Don’t forget that maybe you are the lighthouse in someone’s storm.” ~ Unknown

©mamasemptynest.wordpress.com 2020

Tuesday Tour: Strait lights of hope

We’ve been drifting out here in a sea of gloom for many months now. Some might even be in the grips of despair. Turmoil, uncertainty, chaos, and fear swirl around us.

It’s hard not to lose hope that at some point life will resume some normalcy. But we cannot surrender to the negative. Instead we must hang on with hope and cling to the light it provides.

In my own small way, by highlighting the lighthouses Papa and I have visited during our empty nest travels, my desire is to provide a spark of light in a dark world, to transport us to places where light  prevailed to guide those in the darkness.

A year ago, Papa and I journeyed to Michigan with specific places to see in mind – one of those being Mackinac Island. On our ferry ride from the mainland into one of the Great Lakes – Lake Huron – we caught a glimpse of two lighthouses.

Located in the Round Island Channel of the Straits of Mackinac, one is named the Round Island Passage Light and the other is simply called Round Island Light. Both are distinctly different.

Because it was a direct shipping route between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, the narrow (less than a mile) passage between Round Island and Mackinac Island marking that hazardous area containing dangerous reefs became necessary.

Construction on the Round Island Light, also known as the Old Round Island Point Lighthouse, began in 1894. An interesting fact about this two-and-a-half story structure resembling an old-fashioned schoolhouse, is that a man named Frank Rounds was hired to build it. He had worked on Mackinac Island’s famous Grand Hotel, a luxurious resort that is still a popular site today.

The light emitted its first signal in May 1896 as a fixed white light, interrupted by a red flash every 20 seconds. A fog signal was added in October of that year which sounded a five-second blast each minute when needed.

By 1948 though, Round Island Light became unattended when a new tower, Round Island Passage, located just off Mackinac Island began operating. Decommissioned in the mid 1950’s, the Round Island Light became property of the Hiawatha National Forest.

A storm damaged the structure significantly in 1972 and one Mackinac Island summer resident spearheaded a campaign to save it with assistance from the Mackinac Island Historical Society, the U.S. Coast Guard, and others. Repairs were accomplished and the Round Island Lighthouse was named on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Almost 20 years later, restoration was once again needed. This time a Michigan Boy Scout troop, along with the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, stepped up to make repairs. The scouts continued to take care of the lighthouse.

In celebration of its 100th centennial in 1996, Round Island Light once again began operating as a private navigational aid, emitting two white flashes every 10 seconds. Currently, the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society works to provide restoration work for this historic landmark.

Just 1000 feet off Mackinac Island, construction commenced on a distinctly different beacon called Round Island Passage Light after World War 2 and it began operating in 1948. Instead of resident keepers, however, U.S. Coast Guard personnel manning the station on Mackinac Island remotely controlled the lighthouse by using a submarine channel from onshore.

A distinguishing feature of the 120 foot tower is ornamental – bronze Native American heads, commemorating the Great Lakes regional tribes who lived in that area and considered Mackinac Island a sacred place.

This automated and unmanned lighthouse was deemed unnecessary by 2013 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places the same year.

After touring Mackinac Island and the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (more of those lighthouses to come in future posts), we crossed the famous Mackinac Bridge into Mackinaw City and managed to visit two more area lighthouses.

Just off the south side of the huge suspension bridge we stopped at Mackinaw Point which marks the junction of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

There we found the Old Mackinac Point Light Station, completed in 1889 to mark the narrowest section of the Straits of Mackinac, and operated from 1890 until 1957.

The station consisted of a cylindrical brick tower and lighthouse keeper’s two-story dwelling, which actually was two separate houses under one roof joined by an access lobby. The keeper’s dwelling was also constructed of brick with limestone trim and a bright red, tin roof.

By 1957, the Mackinac Bridge was completed and since lights on the suspension structure were very adequate to mark the straits in this area, Old Mackinac Point Light Station was no longer needed as an active navigational aid.

Purchased by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 1960, the station became a part of Michilmackinac State Park, was restored and opened 12 years later as a point of interest in Michilmackinac Maritime Park.  But time, money, and dwindling public attendance caused the light station to close in 1990.

Again fundraisers came to a lighthouse’s rescue when enough money was raised to restore and reopen Old Mackinac Point to the public just six years later. Interestingly enough, one of the key leaders in the fundraising campaign was a gentleman named Jim Belisle and he was the great-grandson of the man who built the station.

When we visited there, the grounds were open, but the light station itself was closed. However, it remains quite the sightseeing spot since climbing the tower provides a spectacular view of the Straits of Mackinac. Currently the lighthouse is closed and according to its website, a tentative reopening is scheduled for the 2021 season in May.

Using our trusty lighthouse map and guide, we located another nearby lighthouse that was constructed to serve as a navigational aid through the Straits of Mackinac. Located about three miles west of Fort Michilimackinac, another historic spot worthy of visiting, McGulpin Point Light is noted for being the oldest surviving lighthouse in the Straits of Mackinac.

Operation at this light house began in 1869 but only continued until 1906 in McGulpin Point. The point itself was named for a British army officer named John McGulpin who once served at nearby Fort Michilmackinac.

Standing over 700 feet from the shore of Lake Michigan, one might wonder how this light truly served as a navigational aid for sailors passing between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan because this lighthouse is now surrounded by dense trees.

But if you climb to the top of the tower which is situated on a hill, you’ll see a sprawling view of the straits. The tower, which is only 40 feet tall, is set diagonally into a corner of a one-and-a-half-story keeper’s dwelling, which now houses a gift shop.

McGulpin Point was almost decommissioned as an aid to navigation in 1889 because construction had begun on Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and confusing discussion ensued about having two lighthouses so near to one another. However, it was determined that both lights would “best serve” lake navigation in that area.

But by 1906, McGulpin Point’s operation was terminated and the property sold. Nearly 100 years later, the property owners at the time placed the lighthouse and adjoining land for sale. It didn’t sell until 2009 when Emmet County Commissioners purchased it and prepared it for public view.

In May of that year, McGulpin Point Lighthouse was re-lit in a ceremony that included Native American drummers and an invocation by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians tribal chairman, Frank Ettawageshik, according to Lighthousefriends.com.

Navigating in the darkness through treacherous waters, whether it be along the coasts of a Great Lake or a great ocean, is dangerous. That’s why lighthouses existed – to offer a beacon of hope for safety.

Perhaps envisioning or simply viewing photos of lighthouses offers us a symbol of hope during this challenging time in our world. I can only hope.

“At some time, often when we least expect it, we all have to face overwhelming challenges. When the unthinkable happens, the lighthouse is hope. Once we find it, we must cling to it with absolute determination. When we have hope, we discover powers within ourselves we may have never known- the power to make sacrifices, to endure, to heal, and to love. Once we choose hope, everything is possible.” ~ Christopher Reeve

©2020 mamasemptynest.wordpress.com