On motion of Representative John S. Chipman of Michigan, the Committee of Commerce was instructed on January 13, 1846 to look into the expediency of erecting lighthouses at Whitefish Point and two other locations on Lake Superior. Congress provided $5,000 for Whitefish Point Lighthouse on March 3, 1847, and the following month 115.5 acres at the point were reserved for that purpose.
The lighthouse ended up costing much more than $5,000, and in early 1849, Ebenezer Warner petitioned Congress for additional remuneration, which resulted in his being awarded $3,298 on March 3rd of that year.
Isolated Whitefish Point Lighthouse had a hard time retaining keepers. The first eight keepers all resigned, and only one of them served more than four years at the station.
In 1850, District Superintendent Henry B. Miller recommended that a fence be constructed around the lighthouse property “to keep the cattle of the Indians away from the buildings.” A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room in 1857, but just two years later, the Lighthouse Board requested funds for a new lighthouse.
A contract for an iron-pile lighthouse for Whitefish Point was entered into in 1860, and this tower was finished in the spring of 1861, along with similar ones built at Manitou Island on Lake Superior and Detour Point on Lake Huron. The new lighthouse stands seventy-eight feet tall and consists of four levels of bracing around a central, cylindrical shaft that runs from the top of the first level to the watchroom, situated just below the lantern room. The braces of the first level are vertical and placed at the corners of a twenty-six-foot square, while the upper three levels slope inward. The second floor of the keepers’ dwelling attaches to the tower via a covered passage. A spiral staircase inside the central shaft provides access to the decagonal watchroom and lantern room, each of which are encircled by a gallery.
A fog signal for Whitefish Point was requested as early as 1863, but it was in 1870 that its need was first clearly explained in the Lighthouse Board’s annual report:
This is one of the most important lights on the lakes, owing to the point upon which it is placed being projected well into the lake, with deep water close to it. Vessels bound either up or down the lake run for this light, and in foggy weather without an efficient fog signal both delay and risk are encountered.
A ten-inch steam whistle was established roughly 900 feet northeast of the lighthouse in 1872, and a duplicate fog whistle was added in 1876. The whistle originally had a characteristic of an eight-second blast, ten seconds silence, two-second blast, and forty-seconds of silence in each minute, but on June 1, 1887, it was changed to a five-second blast, thirteen seconds silence, two-second blast, and forty-seconds of silence.
The characteristic of the light at Whitefish Point was changed on June 15, 1893 from fixed white to fixed white varied every twenty seconds by a red flash, through the installation of flash panels that revolved around the lens. A circular iron oil house was added to the station in 1893, and the color of the tower was changed from brown to white in 1895 in order to serve as a more prominent daymark.
Starting in 1894, a second assistant keeper was added to the station to help with the extra workload introduced by a flashing light and steam fog signal. The original stone keeper’s dwelling had been retained, but in 1895 the dwelling attached to the tower was expanded into a duplex with six rooms for the head keeper and first assistant. A two-story, sixteen by twenty-four foot, three-room dwelling was also built just east of the duplex for the second assistant keeper.
At the opening of navigation in 1896, the characteristic of the light was changed to a white flash every five seconds. On October 12, 1900, the light’s characteristic was changed to a white flash every ten seconds and then to a white light that was alternately on one second and off one second on April 22, 1918. The intensity of the light was increased on September 5, 1913 by changing the illuminant from oil to incandescent oil vapor.
A new larger frame fog signal building, measuring twenty-two by forty feet, was erected in 1896, and the two old fog signal houses were converted into a shop and storehouse. A three-foot-square, brick chimney replaced the iron smokestacks atop the fog signal building in 1905.
The important role Whitefish Point played for mariners navigating Lake Superior was made even more apparent when on August 15, 1912 a submarine fog signal was established 2,187 yards north of the point in 180 feet of water. To keep ships from fouling the cable that actuated the bell, a sparbuoy was positioned to mark the bell. On June 6, 1925, the bell was replaced by a submarine oscillator, which was more distinctive and had a greater range.
The station’s fog signal was changed to an air diaphone on August 15, 1925, and on October 13, 1925 a radiobeacon commenced operation on the point. It is likely that no other station had as many aids to navigation as Whitefish Point did during 1926, but some of this redundancy was eliminated on July 15, 1927, when the submarine oscillator was discontinued.
The only equipment in addition to his present radio compass which the vessel master needs to take advantage of this new information is a watch to be used in noting the period in seconds which elapses from the time of hearing a distinctive radio signal until the sound fog signal, which was sent from the station at the same time, is heard. The radio signal is received instantly for all practical purposes and the speed of the sound signal is roughly 1 mile in five seconds. This elapsed time in seconds divided by five will give, therefore, the approximate distance of the ship away from the station in miles.One mariner approaching Whitefish Point was able to track his distance from the station up to a distance of twelve miles, with no error exceeding a quarter-mile.
In 1936, the current brick building was built just north of the lighthouse for the fog signal and radiobeacon equipment, as the shore had encroached on the previous fog signal building. In fact, a contract was awarded in 1936 for the construction of five wooden-pile groins to protect the station from further erosion.
The Coast Guard established a Lifeboat Rescue Station at Whitefish Point in 1923, but before this time, and even after, the lighthouse keepers were involved in rescues. On September 13, 1914, the fishing tug Ora Endress capsized off Whitefish Point. Despite large waves, Keeper Robert Carlson, assisted by two fishermen, rowed out and rescued the eleven men aboard and then provided food and clothing for them at the lighthouse. One of the rescued men later wrote the following regarding Keeper Carlson, “There is not one man in a thousand who would have attempted to launch a small boat in such a sea, and few men who could handle a boat at all in such a wind with the seas running high.”
Around 3 p.m. on April 10, 1933, two fishermen were carried out into Whitefish Bay, when a piece of ice broke loose from the mainland. Coastguardsmen from Whitefish Point searched for the men in their power surfboat from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. the following day, but, being hampered by ice fields, were unable to find them. After the crew returned to their station, an airplane reported the men were just southeast of Isle Parisienne in Whitefish Bay, and shortly after 5 p.m. the surfboat was launched again, with a small rowboat in tow.
Darkness fell before the Whitefish crew could reach the fishermen, and during the night, their surfboat was crushed between two ice fields and quickly filled with water. Distress signals alerted the keepers and remaining coastguardsmen on Whitefish Point that their help was needed, and Keeper Harry F. House decided to take a few coastguardsmen out in his personal motorboat at daylight. Before they set off, three of the crew from the surfboat reached the station by rowboat, leaving four men stranded on the ice.
With the assistance of the surrounding population and four of the Vermillion Coast Guard crew, my motor boat was dragged over the crushed ice on shore to the open water about one fourth of a mile away. Two members of this crew came with me, taking supplies, etc., also the skiff in tow. We left at 8 a.m., April 12, in an easterly direction. We ran exactly 1 hour, which covered 8 miles distance, when we came to the loose ice field, leaving the motor boat and one of the crew there to watch the boat. We could see the 4 men about 1 mile east of us, and they could not venture toward us, so 1 of the men and myself started into the slush ice with the rowboat. In 1 hour’s time we had gained about one fourth of a mile, then we came to heavier pieces of ice, which we could get out on and pull the boat over, then cross short spaces of open water. In 2 hours’ time we arrived at the place of ice the four men were on and the sunken motor boat tied up alongside.
We had also taken dry wood in the rowboat so as to make a fire and get warm, and we knew they would be wet, cold and hungry. The Coast Guard keeper said that there was no possible way of saving the boat and equipment, so considered it all a total loss. Before leaving for my motorboat the wind had shifted to the SE with snow squalls, opening up the ice; by making two trips finally all got in the motorboat and headed for Whitefish Point.
The two fishermen that triggered the rescue attempt were picked up by a Coast Guard crew from Sault Ste. Marie around dusk on the 11th.
The Lighthouse Service was absorbed into the Coast Guard in 1939. The Coast Guard closed its lifeboat station at Whitefish Point in 1951 and removed the remainder of its personnel from the site in 1970, following the automation of the lighthouse. In 1983, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) leased the station from the Coast Guard. The first exhibits at the site were established in 1985, and the present Shipwreck Museum Building opened in 1987.
The society, which was awarded ownership of the site in 1996, has painstakingly restored the keeper’s quarters, lighthouse, fog signal building, and oil houses associated with the Lighthouse Service and the crews quarters, surfboat house, and lookout tower associated with the Coast Guard Lifeboat Station. Visitors wanting to take in all that Whitefish Point has to offer might want to consider staying overnight in the crews quarters.
Today, Whitefish Point may best be known as the closest point in the United States to the wreck site of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a Great Lakes freighter lost on November 10, 1975. GLSHS recovered the ship’s bell on July 4, 1995, and it can know be seen at the society’s museum on the point.