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Lighthouses of Lake Superior
From the soaring bridge deck two hundred feet above the water, the view driving over the Straits of Mackinac was impressive. The five mile span permitted a 360 degree visual sweep: the glassy cobalt water below joining Lake Michigan and Lake Huron; Mackinac and Bois Blanc Islands on the right; the verdant green of the Upper Peninsula in front of us; mainland Michigan behind us and cloudless azure skies above. On this calm and sunny early fall morning the water was dotted with pleasure craft savoring the last days of an Indian summer. Winter comes early this far north.

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere – 950' longer than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and, except for boats, the only connection between lower Michigan and its Upper Peninsula.

Michigan also has more lighthouses (104) than any other state, as well as 3,200 miles of shoreline since it borders four of the five Great Lakes. We were on our way to see some of Lake Superior's lighthouses and stay at two of the best known yet well hidden lighthouse bed and breakfasts in the country. Big Bay stands on a tiny peninsula jutting out in the lake at the end of a dead end road 25 miles north of Marquette, the Upper Peninsula's largest city. Sand Hills is outside the small village of Ahmeek further north on the Keweenaw Peninsula, a large finger peninsula that extends far out into the lake.

Lake Superior has a special mystique, partly because of its fierce winter weather and sudden storms which can rival ocean storms, but also because it is the largest freshwater lake in the world by area, and holds 10% of the world's fresh water. Its surface area is 31,820 square miles, the maximum depth is 1,279 feet, and the average water temperature is 40 degrees F.

Our first stop was sixty miles north of the bridge at one of the first Lake Superior lighthouses at Whitefish Point where an excellent shipwreck museum has been established on the site of the the oldest active light on the lake. The light itself is atop a white tower on a campus of immaculately maintained white frame buildings and not open to the public. The museum features the famous 1975 sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest ore boat on the Great Lakes. The tragedy took place 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point in an area known as the "Shipwreck Coast" because it is unprotected from weather systems. The singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote a popular song about it.

The ship foundered during a November storm, encountering 30 foot waves and 80 m.p.h. winds that gusted to 96 m.p.h. No one knows the actual cause of the sinking, and the entire crew was lost. In 1995 diving crews rescued the ship's bell from the wreck, now mounted in the Museum, which also chronicles the details of that sinking. A moving film can be viewed detailing the tragedy and the recovery of relics from the wreck.

Summer and fall calms on Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes belie the severe northern winters that are legendary for their viciousness. Lake Superior, especially, can transform itself into a raging, gray roaring monster that devours ships like so many pieces of flotsam. In four hundred years 6,000 ships have been sunk in the Great Lakes, and as the toll mounted lighthouses multiplied.

Large copper and iron deposits were discovered in the Upper Peninsula during the 1840's and people flocked in to work the mines. By the 1860's immigrants were being brought in to do the work, primarily Scandinavians, Finns, Germans, Scots, Irish and Cornish, and later Italians and Eastern Europeans, many of whom stayed on after the ore rush ended.

With large ships required to supply mining operations as well as to ship out ore, lighthouses took on a special importance. Weather was only one concern. The area has jagged, rocky coastlines, sand bars and islands that are navigation hazards. The first lighthouses, at Whitefish Point and Copper Harbor, both built in 1849, were located on opposite ends of the peninsula.

We stayed overnight in the nearby remote village of Paradise at the only motel in town. The rooms were quite pleasant and overlooked the lake. We fell asleep to the rhythmic whoosh of soft waves outside our window on the sand below. In the morning we headed for Marquette.

With a population of almost 20,000 Marquette is the U.P.'s largest metropolitan area, a port city on a hill overlooking its harbor. It has been beautifully restored and has several lighthouses, one of which is open to the public. We arrived after hours and could only view the exteriors, but enjoyed exploring the city on foot. Besides seeing the interesting shops in historic buildings in the downtown area we walked through the neighborhood near our hotel, the elegantly restored Landmark Inn. There, on a bluff overlooking the harbor, we saw the grand, well preserved historic homes that once belonged to shipping and mining magnates.

Big Bay Lighthouse was our first bed and breakfast stop, twenty six miles north of Marquette. Since check-in time wasn't until 4:00 p.m. we were able to see something of the little sawmill town of Big Bay beforehand. Established in 1875, the Brunswick Lumber Company made bowling pins and hardwood flooring there until 1932, closing down because of three other sawmills that were built closer to Marquette. Ever since then the town has been dying, and what remains are a few homes and service businesses surviving primarily on lighthouse visitors and tourists who come to see the site of an infamous murder that brought the town national attention.

In 1952 the owner of the Lumberjack Tavern was shot and killed by a jealous husband, an army lieutenant who didn't like the attention paid his wife. A local attorney, John Voelker, wrote a book about the incident, called Anatomy of a Murder, under the pen name of Robert Traver. The film producer Otto Preminger became fascinated with the case and made a movie of the same name, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, and Ben Gazzarra.

Parts of the film were shot on location in Big Bay, renamed Thunder Bay for the movie. We had lunch at the Thunder Bay Inn, where some scenes were shot, and ate hamburgers later at the Lumberjack Tavern, scene of the murder. Both places have framed collages of yellowing newspaper articles covering both the real murder and the filming. Checking into the Landmark Inn in Marquette the day before we learned the cast were guests there all during filming, and the Marquette County courthouse there had also been used in the film.

Big Bay Lighthouse, built of red brick in 1896, has been owned by Linda and Jeff Gamble since 1987, although it had been remodeled into a bed and breakfast when they acquired it. At check-in everyone is told to assemble in the living room at 5:00 p.m., where Linda relates the history of the lighthouse.

As with many lighthouses that had resident keepers, Big Bay was built as a duplex so the head keeper and his family could occupy one side, and the assistant keeper the other. When it was remodeled the walls separating the quarters were removed, converting it to one 14 room home with 7 guest rooms.

Keepers were required to keep detailed logs, and the Gambles have pulled several excerpts from the logs of record and compiled them in a notebook for guests to peruse, along with details of the construction of the lighthouse and other historical details. It was interesting to read the keeper's entrees which included complaints about his assistant's lack of attention to his job and the man's eventual replacement.

There is a complicated set formula for how high a light must be when a lighthouse is constructed since it must be seen from a certain number of miles at sea. Big Bay could be seen from 18 miles out. Each lighthouse has its own signal so that when seen from the water it can be identified and the ship's position established. These signals are published in a thick book entitled "Light List, U.S. and Canada Great Lakes".

From Big Bay we headed to the Keweenaw Peninsula and some spectacular views of the rocky shoreline from Brockway Mountain Drive off Route 26, the highest highway between the Rockies and the Alleghenies. Ahmeek and the Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn were nearby.

The imposing, boxy yellow brick lighthouse, nicknamed by locals "castle on the lake" is owned by Mary and Bill Frabotta, whose hospitality is unsurpassed. Mary's guests will testify that she serves the best breakfast in Michigan – or at least the Upper Peninsula. As a recipe winner of 44 county prizes you can be sure everything but the sausage is homemade, and by 9:30 a.m. when she serves, the fragrances wafting through her lighthouse home are enough to wake even the soundest sleeper.

If you've ever had a lighthouse fantasy this is the place to hear about a dream come true. Sand Hills was the last lighthouse to be built on Lake Superior, in 1917. In 1958 it was decommissioned and left derelict. Mary and Bill eventually bought it and lived in a small fog cottage on the property while restoring the lighthouse to it's original grandeur. In 1992 they opened it as a bed and breakfast. They provide a detailed history and tour of the property, including the lighthouse tower.

Finishing our tour at the north end of the peninsula, we visited the publicly owned Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, about ten miles from Sand Hills, purchased by the Keweenaw County Historical Society for the establishment of a museum. Particularly interesting were personal stories on display at Eagle Harbor, including that of Keeper Bird who, in 1874 was finally re-assigned there after begging to be relieved from Gull Rock Lighthouse because of the hardship of the post.

Gull Rock Lighthouse, two miles off the tip of the peninsula, was for sale for $1.00 up until a few years ago. It has since been acquired by the Gull Rock Lightkeepers, who plan to restore it and keep it as a national treasure. Its name accurately describes the topography: a rocky protuberance inhabited by gulls and barely large enough to allow construction of any kind. In winter stormy seas crash over the rocks although the lighthouse itself sustains only the force of the wind. It stands forlorn, its windows broken, floors sagging and decayed, but if you happen to have a few million dollars to restore it, the Government Services Administration will sell it to you.

Copper Harbor Lighthouse, a short distance from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, belongs to the state park system and can only be approached by a twenty minute boat ride from the Municipal Pier. The architecture seems right out of New England, with its pale brick and dark shutters. An interpreter guide is on the premises to answer questions, and that lighthouse is also a museum. Boats leave every hour during the summer, but reduce their schedule to several trips a day after Labor Day.

Except for White Fish Point, which is still owned and operated by the Coast Guard, all light towers we visited are accessible to the public.
About the Author
nancyj lives on an island off the coast of Washington State, and travels when she can tear herself away from her island paradise. She has published travel articles in several prominent newspapers and is currently at work on a novel.
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Comments
Oct 29th 2010, by jeremyL:
Storms are unpredictable. These kinds of forces are scary and we need to be prepared for every little detail according to the weather forecast and we need to be alert. Even houses of ours which we thought was strong enough would end up falling down. The Good Lakes region is having a storm front move from northeast through the Dakotas. Chicago may have one of the worst storm seasons ever due to this. The Windy City has been lashed with wind and rain already. Winds more than 50 miles per hour already have begun hitting suburbs of Chicago, according to MSNBC. The storm in Chicago has already grounded flights at O'Hare Airport, and all flights are temporarily barred from takeoff. There are power outages from this. Wisconsin is seeing lots of this. This Chicago winter storm is almost one of the most powerful on record in more than 70 years. Severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings are in impact for almost the entire Midwest, from Arkansas to Illinois.


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