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

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