Shimmering on the horizon about 12 miles north of Marquette, Granite Island is a windswept, desolate outcrop of rock raising about 60 feet above the surface of Lake Superior. Looking something like an overturned boat or the conning tower of a modern day submarine, the Ojibwe Indians aptly named the island Na-Be-Quon (canoe with a hump). By the end of the Civil War, the Island had become a serious threat to the numerous sail and steam ships serving the expanding iron ore mines and bustling town of Marquette. Recognizing the peril, in 1865 Congress approved funds for a lighthouse on the Island, and the following year the state of Michigan condemned the property and seized it by right of eminent domain. Construction began in 1868, and the lighthouse became operational in 1869 with the arrival of its first two keepers.
In 1999, NMU alum and chair of the NMU Board of Trustees, Scott Holman, purchased
Granite Island from the U.S. Coast Guard and began a long and expensive process of renovation. This past summer, he loaned the Central Upper Peninsula and NMU Archives photocopies of the Granite Island Lighthouse Keeper’s Log Books maintained by the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The original log books are part of the historical records of the U.S. Coast Guard and document lighthouse operations from 1901 to 1937. The keeper or assistant keeper made daily entries concerning maritime events, work around the lighthouse, and special visits. They would also note weather conditions and report on the visibility of the signal light during periods of poor inclement weather.
The Keeper’s Log Books offer a partial glimpse into the rugged, isolated, and largely
mundane life of the Granite Island Lighthouse keeper and his assistant. Entries are mainly colorless iterations of the same general work activities, such as scrubbing floors or chopping wood, punctuated from time-to- time with accounts of sudden activity, drama, or horror. John Wheatley was the longest serving Granite Island Lighthouse keeper, retiring at the age of 83 after 30 years (1885-1915) in the company of his assistant keeper, annoying seagulls, and wild rhubarb. In 1898, the long suffering Wheatley lost his son to a sudden gale that overturned the young man’s small sail boat in transit to the Island from Marquette. Five years later, the assistant Keeper, John McMartin, launched the station’s boat on a routine supply run to Marquette. As McMartin rounded the southern tip of the island, Wheatley watched helplessly as rough seas smashed the boat into the jagged rocks, drowning McMartin. His body was never found. Despitethe horror of the incident, Wheatley’s laconic prose for October 2, 1903, departs little insubstance or emotion from all his previous prosaic entries about daily life on the rock.
Regardless of Wheatley’s stoic powers of observation, the Keeper’s Log Books actually
document the most active and expansive period in the history of the Granite Island Lighthouse. Over the next thirty years, the Coast Guard constructed, among many other improvements, a new seawall; rebuilt the boathouse and relocated it to a more sheltered spot; and built steel boat ways on the north side of the island. In October 1901, a work crew arrived to build a new boat house and lay walkways around the island. Rough weather and seas made boat landings and work often hazardous, as Wheatley’s log entry about the crew’s arrival notes rough weather that included “changeable wind” and “rain squalls.”
Below are some examples of the Keeper’s log book entries.
Transcription: At 8 AM Mr. J. McMartin went to boat houses got boat and started to sail it round to south side of island by [circling] [preparatory] to going to Marquette. Fierce wind from NE. Sea caught boat and dashed it against front of rocks; boat smashed to [pieces] and Mr. J. McMartin was drowned. Nothing was seen of body.
Entry for October 3, 1903, documenting the arrival of a work crew to begin construction of a boathouse and walkway around the island. Note the arrival of the steamer USS Amaranth. This steamer continued to service the island well into the 1930s.
Entry for July 25, 1926, noting an unusual social visit by a family from Marquette.
The Archives has created digital copies of the Granite Island Lighthouse Keeper’s Log Books and plans to make them available online as soon as possible. In the meantime, NMU alumni and the general public are welcome to visit the Archives anytime during our open hours, or contact the University Archivist, Marcus Robyns, for more information about the collection.
(This post was written by the Archivist, Marcus Robyns).