Guardians of the Light
The Isle Royale archipelago, consisting of more than 450 islands, has many shallow, rocky reefs and was historically in the path of major shipping lanes. This made the island a natural place for lighthouses, especially when copper mining was at its peak during the mid to late 1800s. Yet, even the presence of lighthouses has not always been enough to keep ships from courting disaster. Ten major shipwrecks ring the island, and numerous other small boats rest in park waters.
Although all lighthouses today are unmanned, they were once home to the keepers of the lights. The keepers were tasked with alerting ships to danger, and rescuing survivors of shipwrecks. For many, it was a lonely job in a remote setting, facing endless days of fog and tumultuous weather. Most served only during the navigation season, around the end of April through mid-November, and spent their winters on the mainland. The keepers were a hardy breed, guardians of the lights, often making the difference between life and death for those crossing Lake Superior. In honor of these brave keepers and the lighthouses they safeguarded, all four Isle Royale Lighthouses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rock Harbor Lighthouse
The oldest lighthouse in the park, this protector of the Rock Harbor channel is the most viewed and most visited.
Isle Royale Lighthouses are symbols of survival-and occasionally, literally the very means of survival. On a foggy day in 1933, the George M. Cox ended its maiden voyage by striking a reef close to the Rock of Ages Light. Keeper John Soldenski took his boat out to the wreck, then towed the lifeboats to the rocky outcropping where the lighthouse is located. The lighthouse became a makeshift hotel, in which about 120 survivors of the wreck took turns spending the night alternating between huddling on the tower's spiral staircase and shivering outside.
Sometimes, it was the keepers' families who struggled for survival. In 1883, toward the end of the navigation season, Passage Island Light Keeper W. Dermant took his boat to Port Arthur to pick up supplies. When the Lake froze, he was unable to return until spring. His wife and three children were left to fend for themselves through the winter by fishing and hunting snowshoe hares. Dermant left his duties shortly after the rescue of his family.
Supply channels for those keepers during the early years of operation were undependable. During one tough season, a crew of four lighthouse keepers at Rock of Ages Light was down to one last can of tomatoes before they were taken off the island for the winter. Now that's a close call!
Last updated: October 7, 2020