Remote lighthouse tours raise funding
July 8, 2015
COPPER HARBOR - The highest point on isolated Gull Rock is only about 12 feet above Lake Superior's water level, according to Peter Annin, and the entire rock has the land area of about half a football field. But that rock has supported a working lighthouse since 1867, one that was manned by a lighthouse keeper for the first half-century of its existence. It wasn't an easy job, said Annin, executive director of the Gull Rock Lightkeepers historic preservation group, especially when the storms came and waves upwards of 20 feet broke across the rock.
"In the log, lighthouse keepers write about being scared when waves came right up to the lighthouse door," Annin said.
On each of the next three Saturdays, July 11, 18 and 25, people will have a chance to see some of that unique maritime history for themselves, when the Isle Royale Queen IV will be making special sunset cruises to view Gull Rock and neighboring Manitou Island, which has its own historic light station.
All profits from the cruises will go to the Lightkeepers for their work to preserve the Gull Rock Lighthouse, and to the Keweenaw Land Trust for its rehab work on the Manitou Island Light Station.
The two organizations each took over ownership of their respective lighthouses in 2004 under a federal government disposal program, and have been working to preserve them ever since. Both lighthouses have continued to guide mariners away from rocky shores, with solar-powered, Coast Guard-maintained lights mounted in the original light towers.
Restoration workers still face many of the same challenges as the resident lightkeepers who manned the lighthouses in the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Evan McDonald, executive director of the Keweenaw Land Trust. Just getting to the lights, which are close to each other but about three miles off the barren tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, is the first hurdle. "It's not an easy journey to make," McDonald said. "They had more primitive vessels, would have to have provisions for weeks if not months."
Sometimes, said Annin, the waves were too rough for ships to even drop off supplies at Gull Rock. Instead, they'd leave them at Manitou for the Gull Rock lightkeeper to fetch when weather was better.
Building the Gull Rock lighthouse under those conditions was a "remarkable feat of engineering," Annin said, noting that the original construction foreman drowned on the job moving supplies to the island.
He said his group understands that challenge well. They've chosen not to maintain a dock on Gull Rock, due to the beating one would take, and have been using Zodiac inflatable boats, a military landing craft leased from Isle Royale National Park, and other creative solutions to get building supplies on the rock.
Over the past decade, Annin said, the Lightkeepers have replaced most of the sub-floors of the lighthouse, fixed the roof, stabilized the foundation of the outside privy and installed temporary windows. They're currently looking for rare recycled Cream City brick to renovate the exterior.
Next door at Manitou, McDonald said KLT is currently working to rebuild the island's historic crib-style dock, a project he said should begin this month and needs to be finished by the end of summer under the terms of a grant helping fund the project.
"It's the only public access point where you can tie up a vessel," McDonald said. "It had been in bad shape, and last winter did a number. Fortunately we had a grant, but (the cost is) more than we anticipated."
McDonald said the dock will serve the entire 1,000-acre island - mostly Department of Natural Resources property - as well as KLT's 93 acres on the eastern end of the island. Annin said both his and McDonald's groups have been able to leverage privately raised funds with grants from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program, which has offered $2 in grant funds for each $1 raised privately.
Both groups will provide guides to explain the history of the lighthouses during the tours. Annin said Lightkeepers board member Jeremiah Mason, descendent of one of the original Gull Rock keepers and archivist at Keweenaw National Historic Park, will be on hand July 11. Annin will be on board himself July 18, when 40 touring members of the U.S. Lighthouse Society are expected aboard.
McDonald said he'd be on two of the tours himself, and is trying to recruit a geohistorian to explain some of the geology and natural history of the area.
He credited Isle Royale Queen Captain Ben Kilpela with coming up with the idea for the cruises, and Annin for the offer to include KLT in the project.
The three-hour cruises will depart from the Queen IV dock in Copper Harbor at 7:30 p.m. on each Saturday. The cost is $40 for adults and $15 for youth under 15 years old. Reservations are not required, but are recommended. To save a spot, call the Queen offices at 289-4437.
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