The Shining Beacon of Raspberry Island: A Lighthouse's Storied Past
Updated: Jan 9
Stranded and alone on an island, a lighthouse keeper faced his worst fears until a heroic rescue revealed the need for an assistant at the Raspberry Island Lighthouse. Follow the journey of this historical beacon and its transformation from a small, two-bedroom house to the beloved 'Showplace of the Apostle Islands.
Raspberry Island Lighthouse is located in the Apostle Islands, a group of 22 islands off the Bayfield Peninsula in Wisconsin. The island received its name due to its proximity to the Raspberry River and Raspberry Bay. The lighthouse was built in 1862 to help guide ships through the West Channel of the Apostle Islands. Prior to its construction, lighthouses had already been built on Michigan Island and Long Island to assist vessels navigating through the South Channel. The Raspberry Island Lighthouse was funded by a $6,000 appropriation from Congress on March 3, 1859.
The Raspberry Island Lighthouse was completed in 1862 and featured a two-story rectangular dwelling with a square tower in the center of its roof. The tower's fifth-order fixed lens was first used to guide ships on July 20, 1863, during the Civil War, with Andrew Cramer as the lighthouse keeper. However, Cramer was later removed from his position in October of that year due to his hiring of another person to run the lighthouse while he lived on Madeline Island. William Herbert took over as keeper a few weeks later.
In 1867, the characteristic of the Raspberry Island Lighthouse's light was changed from a fixed white light to one that featured white flashes every 90 seconds. This was achieved through the installation of three flash panels mounted on a cast iron frame that rotated around the lens. The clockwork mechanism responsible for producing the flashes needed to be wound up every four hours by the keeper. In 1880, the light's illuminant was switched from lard oil to kerosene. A detached brick oil house for storing the kerosene was not built until 1901.
In September 1887, J.C. Thompson, the captain of the steamer Horace A. Tuttle, notified the Secretary of the Treasury that the Raspberry Island Lighthouse had been out on the night of September 13. This was a serious issue as the lighthouse was "important because it is the leading light between Duluth, Bayfield, and Ashland." Keeper Francis Jacker was at risk of being dismissed due to the outage, but he had a valid reason for the light going out.
On the morning of September 13, a strong westerly gale blew in, leading Keeper Jacker to move the lighthouse's sailboat to a safer location near the eastern end of the island. However, the poor condition of the boatways prevented him from bringing the boat into the boathouse. In the darkness, Jacker sailed past the end of the island and was unable to return, eventually drifting to Oak Island where the boat was severely damaged. The storm persisted until the 16th, when Jacker was rescued by a passing Native American after being stranded on the desolate island without food, fire, or proper clothing for nearly three days.
Although the light was out on the night of September 13, Keeper Jacker's family arrived for a visit on the 14th and operated the light for the next two nights until his return. This incident led lighthouse officials to reinstate the position of assistant keeper, which had previously been abolished at Raspberry Island in 1882.
Returning to the mainland at the end of the navigation season could be dangerous for the keepers of Raspberry Island Lighthouse. This was exemplified by an incident on December 3, 1896, when John Eddy and John D. McMartin set out from the island in a sailboat and were driven aground by the wind and ice floes. They spent four days on the lake and uninhabited islands before finally reaching the main shore, 15 miles away. During this time, Eddy suffered frostbite on his hands and feet, and McMartin's ears were frozen. The two men survived by baking flour and water in a wash basin on one of the islands in a fish shanty.
In response to requests from the masters and pilots of vessels navigating Lake Superior for the installation of a fog signal on Raspberry Island, the Lighthouse Board asked J.C. Wilson and Lansing H. Beach, inspector and engineer of the eleventh lighthouse district respectively, to provide their opinions on the matter. Their response, dated January 29, 1902, is as follows.
A large amount of shipping currently makes use of the passage between Raspberry Island and the mainland of Wisconsin on Lake Superior, and this traffic is continually increasing. In the opinion of the Lighthouse Board, the installation of a fog signal at the Raspberry Island Lighthouse would greatly aid navigation in these waters.
In 1902, materials for a fog signal building were purchased, and a contract for boilers and related machinery for a steam fog whistle was awarded to Optenberg and Sonneman of Sheboygan, Wisconsin for $2,807. To prepare for the construction of the fog signal in 1903, a tramway was installed on Raspberry Island in 1902 to transport materials and coal from the landing wharf to the top of the 40-foot bluff on which the station is located.
The lighthouse tender Amaranth arrived at Raspberry Island on June 4, 1903 with the boilers and a work crew. A brick building with a hipped roof was built to house the steam whistle, and on September 3, 1903, Keeper Charles Hendrickson recorded the following in the station's log:
“Received order from the office of the Inspector, that the fog signal at this station shall sound during thick and foggy weather, after Sept. 1st, 1903, blasts of 3 seconds’ duration, separated by silent intervals of 17 seconds. The boilers have been tested and whistle timed today.”
The added responsibilities brought about by the steam whistle led to the appointment of a second assistant keeper and the need for additional living space on Raspberry Island. In 1905, Charles Keller, engineer for the eleventh lighthouse district, requested that the existing lighthouse be remodeled to accommodate three families. As a result, the old lighthouse was significantly expanded in 1906 and converted into a double dwelling that could accommodate two families and an unmarried assistant. The head keeper occupied the first and second stories on the south side of the lighthouse, which contained a three-bedroom dwelling, while the first assistant had the ground floor on the north side and the second assistant had three rooms on the upper floor.
Alexander McLean was appointed keeper of Raspberry Island Lighthouse in 1909, after having been in charge of nearby Devils Island Lighthouse for eleven years. In October 1913, Keeper McLean and his two assistants loaded twenty sacks of coal in the station's boat and transported it to Bayfield for use in his home there. However, an investigation revealed that McLean had not actually purchased the coal from the Lighthouse Service, and as a result, he was demoted. Otto Olson, the head keeper at Outer Island, also lost his position over a similar incident, but officials were more lenient with McLean due to his twenty years of service and impeccable record.
Instead of going to another station as a first assistant, McLean chose to take the open position of second assistant at Raspberry Island so he could retain his garden. His annual salary was reduced to $456 from $624. In 1916, he was promoted to keeper of Huron Island Lighthouse. After three years there, he finished his service with twelve years at Two Harbors, Minnesota.
While Keeper McLean enjoyed lighthouses, his wife did not share his enthusiasm. "I hate lighthouses," Cecelia McLean told the Detroit News upon her husband's retirement in 1931. "They are so lonely. Going from one island to another, out in the Apostles group, isn't much fun especially when you have to go in a small boat and maybe get caught in a storm. We left Raspberry Island in 1916, and I was glad enough to see the last of it."
"When a woman marries a lighthouse keeper, she gives up everything else in the world. If I had my life to live over again, it would not be in lighthouse stations.…On islands, we always had to keep up two homes, as women and children have to be off the islands Oct. 15, and when you have two homes to maintain, something had to be slighted. We slighted necessities. Luxuries – we had none of them. We gave up the things we needed.”
In 1933, Louis Wilks, the head keeper at Raspberry Island, was replaced by John L. Dufrain, who had previously been the keeper at Big Bay Lighthouse in Marquette, Michigan. Dufrain had been demoted to an offshore station after his assistants reported that he was neglecting his duties and was intoxicated while on duty.
In 1932, the steam whistle at Raspberry Island was replaced with a type F diaphone fog signal, which was powered by compressed air from an oil engine. The lighthouse was electrified in 1941 and its light pattern was changed to three seconds of light followed by two seconds of darkness.
Earl Seseman was the final keeper at Raspberry Island. He and a coastguardsman closed down the station in October 1947, and the fog signal was then powered by CO2 and sounded as a bell. Seseman's wife Thyra later remembered that Raspberry Island was known as "the showplace of the Great Lakes" because of its well-maintained gardens and grounds.
In 1970, Raspberry Island became part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. In 1975, the architectural firm's lease on the island was terminated by the Park Service, and the buildings were painted in 1976. In 1982, the keepers' gardens were reconstructed by Park Historian Kathleen Lidfors, using photographs that were sent to the University of Wisconsin for plant identification. Regular boat transportation to the island has been offered by the lakeshore's concessionaire since 1981, making the lightstation the focus of the lakeshore's island interpretation program.
In 1994, the station's flagpole had to be removed due to erosion. In response, Congress allocated almost $2 million in 2001 to address erosion threatening the lighthouses on Raspberry and Outer Islands. From 2002 to 2003, a sea wall was built at the base of the bluff in front of the lighthouse, a drainage trench was cut along the top to prevent erosion from runoff, and the slope was graded and covered with vegetation to keep the soil in place. From 2005 to 2006, the lighthouse underwent a $1.3 million restoration and was reopened to the public in 2007. The restoration included replacing rotten siding, installing a new metal roof, restoring windows, replacing the tower railing, plastering walls, refinishing hardwood floors, and repointing the chimney. The south side of the lighthouse has been restored to its appearance during the early 1920s, when Lee Benton was keeper, while the north side is used for park housing.
The station still includes a woodshed, head keeper's privy, cabin, and barn/warehouse, which can be seen from left to right in a photograph. The attention given to Raspberry Island Lighthouse by the Park Service has restored it to its former status as "the showplace of the Great Lakes."