Outer Island Light

Outer Island Light
Outer Island Light

Standing on a high bluff at the most remote point of the Apostle Islands chain, the Outer Island lighthouse was built in 1874 to guide ships past the archipelago to the rapidly growing ports of Duluth and Superior.

The handsome brick tower stands ninety feet high, with a design that reflects the Italianate architectural style popular in the 1860s and 70s. Inside the tower, a cast iron staircase spirals up to the "watch room," where keepers serviced the lamp and kept vigil over the beacon. The watchroom is encircled by an outside walkway and topped by the lantern room. The hooded, arched windows and the decorated brackets supporting the watchroom walkway show an attention to architectural detail not seen before in the Apostle Islands.

Sited to cast its beam far across the open lake, the Outer Island light had a large, "third-order" Fresnel lens with a central band of six glass prism bull's-eye panels. These bull's-eyes concentrated the light into six brilliant beams. Rotation of the lens on a clockwork mechanism powered by weights caused the beams to sweep the horizon, making the light appear to flash.

The light station on Outer Island is exposed to the full force of Lake Superior. In its first year of operation, the station dock washed away. Waves eroded the clay banks until they collapsed, destroying the fog signal building at their base. Fierce northeast gales caused the tower to sway so dramatically that keeper O.K. Hall feared the clockwork mechanism would break.

Outer Island Light Station circa 1910
Outer Island Light Station circa 1910

The original fog signal building was replaced by a structure at the top of the cliff in 1875. This move caused the keepers many headaches, as the new location made it difficult to ensure an adequate water supply for the steam-powered whistle. In 1878, a third fog signal building, virtually identical to the second, was built at clifftop, adjacent to its twin. These two buildings were renovated and combined into a single structure in 1900, assuming the form that we see today.

Outer Island is remote. Elna Olson, whose father, Otto, was a keeper on Outer from 1905 to 1914, wrote,

"Father went to Bayfield once a month for provisions, mail and newspapers. In between times the folks had no idea of what was happening in the world - no telephone, and this was before radio was invented. Most of the provisions were canned foods, refrigeration hadn't been invented then, and we had no electricity anyway."

The station changed with improvements in technology. In 1925, the steam fog whistle was converted to an air diaphone run by air compressors and diesel engines. The light was electrified in the late 1930s, allowing it to operate automatically through the winter. The Fresnel lens was removed when the station was fully automated in 1961. Today, solar panels attached to the walkway supply the energy to keep the light burning.


Visiting the Lighthouse
Outer Island is the most remote of the six Apostle Islands light stations, and visiting it can be a challenge. The island is not served by scheduled cruises, although the Apostle Islands Cruise Service provides special trips in September as part of their lighthouse celebration activities. Only the most experienced private boaters and sea kayakers should consider attempting a trip to this lighthouse, due to the great distance and exposed location. Even when lake conditions permit approach, the exposed location of the dock often makes landing impossible.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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Bayfield, WI 54814


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