Lighthouses of the Apostles

Dark clouds show a storm front moving over a large lake with a small forested island in the distance.
Summer storm front over Sand and York Islands

NPS Photo/M. Carlson

Navigating Great Water

The Ojibwe called the big lake Gitchigumi, or, “Great Water,” in deference to the lake they believed had the power to provide ample harvests of fish or to cast a storm upon them capable of destroying entire villages. It was believed a great sea monster lurked underneath the surface, a sort of lynx-like creature known as Mishi Peshu which represented the raw power, mystery, and most importantly, the innate danger that came from challenging the sacred waters. The beast demanded respect and like the lake itself, was not to be taunted or provoked. Only the bravest, or perhaps the most insane warriors set out in their canoe without first paying homage to the lake’s Great Spirit.

Mariners who sail these waters continue to respect the weather of Lake Superior. Gale-force winds known as the “Witches of November” blowing in excess of 100 miles per hour can develop into storms strong enough to produce tornadoes as far away as Virginia. Great Lakes mariners faced a plethora of reasons their ships might sink to the bottom of the lake. As commerce and passenger service increased on Lake Superior, ship captains were required to keep one eye on the weather while maintaining a sharp lookout for ships that passed too closely. They knew nautical maps could be inaccurate and fail to indicate the presence of shallow water shoals which caused them to run aground. Ship captains were also aware of the ever-present possibility that a minor mechanical issue could quickly transform into something much worse. Every mile traveled on Lake Superior’s surface required intense focus and high levels of meteorological awareness from the sailors, and maps and compasses were sometimes not enough to ensure safe passage from one port to another. Even on the calmest of days, it was not uncommon to greet the sunrise with calm skies and light winds, only to be praying for one’s life by nightfall.

A black and white photo of a small sailboat with two sails up from mid 1900s on a large lake.
Even the smallest vessels use lighthouses for navigational aid.

NPS Photo

Theodore Karamanski, author of Great Lakes Navigation and Navigational Aids Historical Context Study, wrote “Nothing better symbolizes the drama of American history than a lighthouse on a storm-washed shore.” It is lighthouses, Karamanski believes, which have played a vital and irreplaceable role in American history. By 2013, more than 400 lighthouses stood upon the international shores of the five Great Lakes with more than 262 structures located on the American side. From the earliest days of Great Lakes shipping to the present, sailors of all skill levels have had to be concerned with delivering cargo and passengers safely from one port to another on the big lake. Before the advent of lighthouses, mariners sailing Lake Superior’s waters relied on simple, crudely drawn maps or simple celestial navigation as a means of conducting a safe journey from one port to another.

Soon after the War of 1812, when competition for the fur trade intensified between French, British, and American traders, ships ranging in size from two-masted schooners to large, fast-sailing sloops plied the waters of Lake Superior. By the mid-1800s, huge “lake freighters” carrying several tons of goods and numerous passengers added to the increasingly-crowded flow of traffic on the lake. While ship captains felt confident in their ability to steer clear of other ships, they knew the one element they had no control over was the weather. For that, they needed assistance in the form of land-based navigational aids that would guide them through the darkest nights and the worst cases of inclement weather.

The Lighthouse Act of 1789 provided government funds for the construction of lighthouses at numerous locations nationwide. By 1843, five towers illuminated Lake Superior waters with the number of lighthouses increasing to 34 by the end of the decade. Ships heavily laden with iron ore had to skirt the rocky shoals of the Apostle Islands on their way from ports like Ashland and Superior Point before heading into the deeper waters of Lake Superior. It was still possible, however, that ships would encounter bad weather despite the number of lighthouses lining the lake’s coast. Ships continued to strand on shoals of founder in heavy seas, some sinking to the bottom with passengers, crews, and cargoes still aboard.

“Storms were the greatest threat to shipping. The power of the wind and waves magnified exponentially the dangers imposed by navigating on Lake Superior. In fair weather, a schooner or steamer could manage without harbors of refuge, make port without the aid of pier lights and even overcome grounding on hidden shoals. In heavy seas, these issues became lethal.” No single season was favored over the other, although the winter months usually produced the most severe weather conditions. From late spring to early fall, shores quickly became shrouded in blinding mist and fog.


Lighthouses of the Apostle Islands

"Within the boundaries of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is the largest and finest single collection of lighthouses in the country."

- F. Ross Holland, Jr., Great American Lighthouses, 1994

Old Michigan Light

Old Michigan Island Lighthouse

Built 1856
Placed in service 1857
Abandoned 1858
Re-lit 1869
Retired 1929
Guided tours available


First Lighthouse on Long Island

Old LaPointe Lighthouse, Long Island

Built 1858
Retired 1897
Served as housing until abandoned in 1940
Foundation ruins still visible


Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Built 1862
Placed in service 1863
Enlarged 1906
Automated 1947
Light moved outside building 1957
Guided tours available


Outer Island Light Station

Outer Island Lighthouse

Built 1874
Automated 1961
Temporarily closed to public access due to construction activity


Sand Island Lighthouse

Sand Island Lighthouse

Built 1881
Automated 1921
Light moved to steel tower c.1933
Light moved back to lighthouse 1985
Still in service, guided tours available


Devils Island Lighthouse

Devils Island Light Tower

Temporary tower built 1891
Permanent tower built 1898
Permanent tower placed in service 1901
External braces added 1914
Automated 1978
Lens removed 1989
Lens replaced 1992
Still in service


LaPointe Light Tower

New LaPointe Light Tower, Long Island

Built 1897
Automated 1964
Still in service, not open to public


Chequamegon Point Light Tower

Chequamegon Point Light Tower, Long Island

Built 1897
Retired and moved 1987
Preserved, not open to public


New Michigan Island Light Tower

New Michigan Island Light Tower

Built in Pennsylvania 1880
Dismantled 1918
Re-erected on Michigan Island 1929
Automated 1943
Still in service, guided tours available


A white lighthouse with a red roof stands on a break wall on a frozen lake.
Ashland Harbor Breakwater Light

NPS Photo/N. Howk

Ashland Harbor Breakwater Lighthouse

Built 1915
Automated 1962
Still in Service

Last updated: September 24, 2021

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