Whitefish Point Lighthouse

Aug/19/2011 2 Malia Lane
Michigan

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum was the main attraction for me in going to Whitefish Point, but once I got there and saw the complex included the oldest active light on Lake Superior, Whitefish Point Lighthouse, I was definitely not going to miss it.

The light was first lit in 1849, although the present tower was constructed later in 1861.  As traffic on Superior increased, they converted the residence from a single family dwelling into a duplex that provided separate housing for two keepers and their families.

Marty, the lady who runs the short movie at the Shipwreck Theater, told me that at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln saw this area as a “funnel for disaster” because both upbound and downbound traffic on Lake Superior had to pass here.  Lincoln knew he needed safe passage to the Upper Peninsula for its critical natural resources of lumber, minerals and iron ore.  The Upper Peninsula was known then as the “engine for Michigan” – Marty remarked that it was  interesting that later Michigan also became the engine for America’s car industry.

I really am glad I had the chance to talk with Marty because I always enjoy hearing the perspectives and insights of people who work in these national treasures.  She emphasized how special this area and all this fresh water around us are – not only to our own country, but that the Great Lakes represent 20% of all of the world’s fresh water, with lake Superior representing 10% of that ratio.  She called this water “blue gold.”

Marty also strongly recommended touring the lighthouse keeper’s house, which she said is kept meticulously “period correct” reflecting the life of the lightkeeper and his family at the turn of the century, circa 1890-1920.

I was glad to follow that recommendation and loved having the opportunity to catch a glimpse into the life of the lightkeeper.  Although his main duty was to keep the light and fog signal in top working condition at all times, he also had to maintain the station buildings and grounds, make repairs and paint.

Here we’re peeking in on Robert Carlson, who was the keeper of the light from 1903-1931.  He also assisted in the rescue of many people on these shores.

No matter how critical their services, lightkeepers’ wages were low even for the period and did not increase much over the years.  In 1861, they received $600 per year and there is no record of any increase in pay until 1916, when they got a whopping $36 per year raise!

Mrs. Carlson is portrayed in the heart of the home – the kitchen was the most used room due to its warmth.  A child who grew up in this lighthouse wrote, “We cooked on a wood and coal stove, and polished it once a week. For washing, you pumped water from the hand pump in the kitchen and scrubbed your clothes in a metal tub – you got a bath in the same tub on Saturday night.”

Allrighty then – that really sounds like a fun time!  And all I have to do is dump my black/grey water tanks and some people think I’m “roughing it???”

The glimpses they provided into the lives of the children who were raised here in such isolation was very interesting and thought provoking.  The young girl pictured above in “Child of the Light Station” is Bertha Rollo, who arrived here in 1910 at the age of two weeks.  She was the only child here until her brother was born in 1917.  She said books and exploring nature were her only refuges.  She wrote the description above about cooking and bathing.

I got a kick out of the depiction of the little boy raptly listening to the Victrola – the precurser of earphones and  iPods!  🙂

And can you imagine skating with those wooden contraptions???

But that typewriter brought back memories – hard to believe I can remember learning to type on a manual typewriter as a teenager.  I remember “carriage returns” – Lord, do I feel old that I can relate to using something in this picture!

This dresser and chest were my favorite pieces of furniture.  The handles on the dresser are grape clusters and the wood is so ornate.  I wondered how many stories that chest could tell of the trips it took.  The two chairs are made out of some exotic wood and were exotically beautiful.

Leaving the living quarters and venturing upward into the tower…

This opening and these stairs seemed smaller and more treacherous than the other lighthouses I’ve seen so far in Michigan.

But once again, the view from the top makes any climb worth it!


Here’s a view of the observation deck as seen from the top of the lighthouse tower.

Another view of people walking along the shoreline searching for agates.

It was a very windy day when I was trying to decide whether to visit Whitefish Point or go to the Tahquamenon Upper Falls.  I had posted to Facebook that I figured I’d do the falls since I didn’t like the wind.  But Rod, a friend I had met while camping at Hoeft State Park, emailed me to say “Go to the Point – it’s cool to see how rough Lake Superior gets!”  I’m so glad I took that advice.  While I was almost literally “blown away” by the wind, I was mostly blown away emotionally by how gorgeous and powerful Lake Superior was that day.  So glad I didn’t miss it!

I also stopped in at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory that’s part of this complex.  It was “established in 1979 to document the distribution and abundance of birds in the Great Lakes Region, with emphasis on migrating birds.”  But unfortunately not much was happing during the timeframe I was here, but I got to talking with the lady at the counter and she said they get as many “rock hounds” here as they do birders due to the abundance of agates and just plain old beautiful rocks in the area.

She told me about a “test” for a true agate that Karen Brzys, the “Agate Lady” – told her about – if you place it in front of an LED flashlight, the light must shine through.

Here’s her demonstration and the one “true” agate I found that day.  It’s hard to see in this picture because my LED flashlight was not as strong, but I could see the light shine through, so I consider it a “real” find no matter what!

And the entire complex at Whitefish Point is really interesting, so if you’re anywhere near this area, make sure to plan a day trip here!

  • Glenda Alexander

    Love the lighthouse and the museum pieces!  That steel tower makes it different from any lighthouses that I’ve seen.  I’m glad to learn how to distinguish real agates from other rocks.  

  • So glad you’re enjoying touring the lighthouses with me, Glenda!  We’ll have lots to catch up on when I get back to Austin!