BAYFIELD, Wis. (AP) — Beginning in 1857, lighthouses began shining across the Apostle Islands, guides for sailors and fishermen and witnesses to shipwrecks and rescues, to family life and presidential visits.
But advances in technology overtook the lights. Automation eliminated the need for keepers, and their island homes were locked up and largely left to the ravages of time and nature.
Now the National Park Service has embarked on a $3.5 million project to turn back the clock and restore light stations on five islands. The goal is to preserve the historic structures for the next 100 years, the Duluth News Tribune reported.
“Manmade things weren’t made to last,” said Ken Kontny, a quality-control representative with KBK Services of Ashland, while showing a visitor the 157-year-old Michigan Island Lighthouse. “This one had all sorts of problems,” including mold, rot, water damage and bats.
This is the second lighthouse restoration project Kontny has been involved with in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He worked on the restoration of Raspberry Island Light Station in 2005-07.
“They are interesting projects,” he said. “There is a lot of history here. You get a feeling for what the people went through.”
The national lakeshore contains eight lights on six islands. It is the largest number of lighthouses found in any unit of the National Park System.
“People come here from all over the place to see the lighthouses because there are so many in a concentrated area,” Apostle Islands Cruises manager Dan Boucher said. “They are a big draw. The biggest comments passengers give are on the views of the lighthouses.”
The national lakeshore annually attracts more than 175,000 visitors to the area, who contribute more than $20 million in tourism spending, said David M. Eades, executive director of the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau.
“There is a reason that the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau has branded itself as ‘Bayfield and the Apostle Islands,’ “ he said. “The Apostle Islands are simply a part of who we are.”
According to the Park Service, this is the biggest historic preservation project ever in the lakeshore. Despite the scale of the project, the Park Service couldn’t do everything it would have liked. Planning teams found two to three times more work than the budget allowed. The most pressing needs were tackled first.
“Everything that is being done definitely needed to be done,” said Jeff Ashton, construction manager representative for the project.
Much of the work is being done on Michigan Island, where the first lighthouse was mistakenly built in 1856 (It was supposed to be on Long Island). A 112-foot-tall metal tower was added in 1929.
Work underway or planned for Michigan includes repairs to the dock; work on the windows, plaster and iron columns in the new tower; and reroofing of the old light, keeper’s and assistant keepers quarters and power house. The original lighthouse — long closed to the public because of mold and hazardous materials — will be cleaned and receive refinished floors, doors, trim and plaster. Plans are to open it as a small museum next year.
“It’s pretty impressive, the amount of work that has been done in a short time,” Jeremy Erickson, a Park Service research technician, said on a recent visit to Michigan Island. Roofers were busy atop the keeper’s house while painters set up scaffolding by the original lighthouse.
Other work on the island includes restoration of the old tramway that keepers used to move supplies. New ballast and ties were installed. On this morning, Erickson and Park Service archeology technician Lane Johnson would photograph and measure 10 old ties workers found beneath the tramway.
In addition to the work on the buildings, sawyers will clear four acres of woods to restore the views that lighthouse keepers would recognize.
Trees are not only coming down on Michigan Island. Crews have already replanted an orchard of apple trees to replicate what early keepers had.
Three acres of encroaching woods also are coming down on Devils Island. On Tuesday, Erickson and Johnson moved from Michigan to Devils, where they spent time cutting and stacking some of the trees and brush slated for removal.
“We are restoring what the original grounds looked like,” Johnson said.
A big part of the project on Devils Island is repairs to the foundation of the 82-foot-tall light tower.
“The concrete is over 100 years old and crumbling,” Park Service cultural resources specialist Dave Cooper said.
To repair the foundation, workers installed a temporary system of stabilizing cables and large turnbuckles to hold the tower plumb while 16 micro piles — metal bars — were driven around the tower’s base 11-15 feet into the rock. New concrete will be poured later. The work should last 100 years, Ashton said.
This isn’t Ashton’s first project with historic buildings.
“It’s great fun. The problem-solving is unique to every one,” he said.
Other work on Devils Island includes repairs to the keeper’s and assistant keeper’s quarters and fog signal building.
In addition to Michigan and Devils, workers will repair lights on Outer, Long and Sand islands. On Outer Island, workers will reroof, repoint, repaint and repair the lighthouse as well as repair the roof and foundation of the fog signal building.
On Long Island, the La Pointe light will receive major repairs to its concrete footings and minor repairs to the metal tower.
Sand Island light will receive a new metal roof and gutter repairs. Plans to repair and refinish floors, repair plaster and repaint the interior, improve ventilation and partially restore the original station grounds need to wait until more money becomes available.
Each of the Apostles’ lighthouses represent a certain era in their long history. Sand Island light represents the era around 1905, when the ship Sevona sought shelter in a fall storm. She ran aground and broke in two on Sand Island Shoal, just east of the lighthouse. The crew and passengers at the stern took to lifeboats and ultimately reached safety. Seven others were trapped on the bow without a boat. They tried making a raft. None reached shore alive.
Keeper Emanuel Lueck heard the Sevona’s distress signals, “but for fog and heavy rains we were unable to see or tell where the steamer was, only knew she was NE of station,” he wrote.
Outer Island light represents the period of 1900-30. In the September 1905 storm that claimed the Sevona, the Pretori foundered northeast of the light. Keeper John Irvine helped five men who reached shore in a small boat. Five others drowned.
The previously restored Raspberry Island light (the flagship of the islands’ lights, Cooper said) represents the 1920s. Michigan will represent the 1930s.
President Coolidge and his wife visited the Devils Island light in 1928. The last Apostle Island light to be automated — in 1978 — the light represents the years leading up to that, when Coast Guard personnel staffed it and maintained the islands’ lights.
Coordinating all the work and different companies involved is a big logistical effort, Cooper said, complicated by the worksites’ location on islands.
The World War II landing craft Outer Island is helping haul supplies, beginning last year when material was brought to Michigan Island.
But forget something on the mainland and it may be a day — longer if the weather worsens — before it can be delivered. And equipment and building materials often have to be man-hauled some distance from landing to building sites.
During the work the lighthouses are closed to the public. The park hopes to finish the work this year — both to save money and to minimize visitor inconvenience.
“It’s a great project,” Cooper said. “It’s a great privilege to be working on a big part of our history and to be fixing these buildings up for the public. People love them.”