Most of us have read about ships that have floundered in the past during Lake Superior storms in November and December. Seldom however are there mentions about the dangers faced by lighthouse keepers in the pre-helicopter days when they had to return in rough waters to the mainland at the end of navigation season. Some lost their lives braving the elements, like keeper William Sherlock from Michipicoten Island’s East Lighthouse, and even the few who overwintered at their remote island stations had some challenging experiences.
One of those overwintering stories involved the sons of the first keeper of Slate Island Lighthouse, built in 1903 on Patterson Island, one of the Slate Islands archipelago in north Lake Superior, south of the town of Terrace Bay. Perched on a cliff, the lighthouse rises 224 feet above the lake, making it the most elevated lighthouse on the Great Lakes. (In July 2011, a 51-foot replica of the lighthouse was built in the town of Terrace Bay.)
Slates’ first keeper was Peter King (served 1903-1913) and he lived on the island with his wife and three sons. At the time, keepers had to find their own transport on Lake Superior back to the mainland after the close of shipping season. Overwintering one year, the Kings planned to restock their winter supplies by walking 13 miles (21 km) on the frozen lake to Jackfish village (abandoned, now a ghost town). As the story goes, one year there was still open water when two of the sons rowed out for supplies, and on their way back, stayed the night on a small nearby island. The next morning, it was a shock to find the lake waters had frozen. To get back to the lighthouse, one chopped ice while the other rowed. Another time the brothers by luck missed a potential tragedy while walking home on the frozen ice from Jackfish and noticed ‘stars’ appearing in the ice where they had just stepped—that next morning, the ice had disappeared and it was all open water. The ‘stars’ had been the ice cracking underneath their feet.
By the time that John “Jack” Bryson (served 30 years from 1948-1978) was the keeper at Slate Island Lighthouse, the Canadian government was supplying boat transportation for the keepers to and from the lighthouses—but that could still present problems. In mid-December in the early 1950s, the Bryson family had a harrowing experience returning to Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay). After the tug James Whalen picked them up at the end of shipping season, the lake became so stormy and dangerous that the tug was forced to stop at Trowbridge Island for two days before it was safe to continue. And then when they finally arrived in Port Arthur, the ice on the tug was so thick that it had to be chopped off the cabin door before the Brysons could exit.
By the way, at the Slate Island Lighthouse, it’s reputed that the ghost of its former keeper Charles D. Lockwood (served from 1918-1928) walks around the old keeper’s house. As the story goes, he died while at the lighthouse and his wife kept his body on ice in a shed until fall when he could be transported back to the mainland for burial. Coincidentally (or not), the story is eerily similar to the well-known tale about the death of keeper Thomas Lampier at St. Ignace Lighthouse (“Lighthouse of Doom”) on Lake Superior’s Talbot Island. But there’s an additional strange mysterious twist to the Lockwood ghost story. A registered death certificate in Port Arthur by Dr. Dunn has been found, listing retired lighthouse keeper Charles Douglas Lockwood as a bachelor, dying of illness on September 21, 1932 at his home on 229 Manitou Street in Port Arthur, and buried at Riverside Cemetery. Seems he didn’t die on the island. Strange indeed.
So, what happened if at the closing of navigation season, the government transport boat failed to pick up the keepers at their island stations? Well, in December 1926 that’s exactly the dilemma faced by the head keeper and his three assistants at Rock of Ages Lighthouse (about 3.5 miles west of Isle Royale). With no pickup and short of food, fuel and tobacco for over a week, the four men abandoned their lighthouse and took their chances in an open boat to Pigeon Point.
“We just decided to get out while the getting was good,” assistant keeper Robert Morrill said in a newspaper article in the The Evening Star, Washington, DC (December 21). “The tender was due December 12 when we were to stop our light and go home for the winter. We ran the light and fog horn until noon of the 17th, when we left a note on the door and took to the launch.”
Later to get assistance, the assistant keeper Robert Morrill braved alone the ice-jammed Lake Superior in a borrowed fisherman’s skiff to Hat Point, hiked miles through waist-deep snow to Mineral Center where he hitched a ride to Duluth, and arrived on December 20. The other three men were later rescued from Pigeon Point by the fishing steamer Winyah (the former luxury yacht Dungeness owned by the Carnegies).
Editor’s Note: Elle Andra-Warner’s new book “Lighthouses of Lake Superior’s North Shore, the Historic Beacons of Minnesota, Isle Royale, and Ontario” is available from booksellers or at northernwilds.com