Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior.
First lit in 1849, the Whitefish Point Light shares honors with the lighthouse at Copper Harbor for being the first lights on Lake Superior. It stands guard over the entrance to Whitefish Bay, sometimes the only shelter to be found for a ship trying to escape the fury of the lake, and is the oldest active light on Lake Superior.
Whitefish Point is known as the Graveyard of Ships as more vessels have been lost here than in any other part of the lake. Hundreds of vessels, including the famed Edmund Fitzgerald, lie on the bottom of the bay and the approaches. The lighthouse marks the end of an 80 mile stretch of shoreline known as Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast. This light has shined onto the big lake unfailingly for almost 150 years except for the night when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down.
Raging northwest winds, building up over 160 miles of open water, create waves of unbelievable proportions. These violent storms and wild waters erupt with a suddenness that often catch sailors unprepared. The mountainous waves strike harder and more often that any ocean wave. The waves come roaring in from two or three different directions, ricocheting off the shores and returning with even more intensity. These monstrous storms, of hurricane force and duration, strike with all the ferocity and brutality of any ocean storm.
Lake Superior's storm of 1905 in combined terms of snow, cold, wind, shipwreck, and heavy seas, is generally agreed to be the worst ever to strike the Great Lakes. In what seemed like minutes, the temperature dropped to twelve degrees below zero and a hurricane ripped the world of fresh water apart. Thirty vessels were wrecked on Superior, some were thrown out of the water.
At 4:30 pm on November 10, 1975, as the Edmund Fitzgerald struggled towards Whitefish Bay, forty-eight miles to the south, the light and the radio beacon at the remote navigational station at Whitefish Point suddenly clicked off. The Fitzgerald, already crippled by non-functioning storm damaged radar, was now without homing capability from the automated system at Whitefish. The Fitzgerald was left to fend for itself in unbelievable weather conditions.
Captain McSorley, a 44 year veteran of the sea, described it: "We are taking heavy seas over our decks; it's the worst sea I've ever been in". At approximately 7:15 P.M., November 10, 1975, the 729-foot ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew of 29 sailed into history.
Each year on November 10th, there is a Memorial Service at the Whitefish Point Light Station for the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship's bell is rung 30 times, once for each member of the crew and one time for all mariners who have been lost at sea. This service is open to the public.
The very first ship known to sail on Superior, the sixty-foot trading vessel Invincible, perished in gale-force winds and towering waves near here in 1816. Many other vessels have suffered the same fate. Some were big, well-known ships such as the Edmund Fitzgerald, and their destruction made headlines across the country. Others were smaller vessels, but every loss was tragic.
The original Whitefish Point Light Station was built in the fall of 1848 and the light was first lit early in 1849 using Winslow and Lewis lamps and reflectors. These were replaced with a Third Order Fresnel Lens in 1857.
The Whitefish Point Light Station, hard hit by the fierce Lake Superior winds and weather, was replaced in 1861 with a steel cylinder some eighty feet tall, supported by a skeletal steel framework
To many lake sailors the light is more than a navigational marker, it is a welcoming call from home. The Whitefish Point Lighthouse is a remarkably modern and functional structure. This is especially notable when you consider that it was built in 1861, the beginning of the Civil War.
The iron skeletal steel framework with a very wide base gradually narrows to support a central steel cylinder which supports the octagonal parapet and lantern room above. A red dome caps the lantern. This skeletal design was intended to take stress off the building during high winds and was also used at Manitou Island in Lake Superior.
The tower is attached to the Keepers Dwelling by a hallway on the second floor. The light rotated with a clockwork mechanism, installed in 1863, that had to be wound hourly so an assistant Keeper was hired. A fog Signal Building was added in 1875 and was a welcome addition to the Light Station. Dense fog often engulfed Whitefish Bay and the shoreline of this dangerous coast where ships turned to head towards the St. Mary's River and the locks at Sault Ste. Marie.
The Keepers Dwelling was modified in 1894 when a Second Assistant Keeper was added to the Light Station. The dwelling was remodeled again in 1910. In 1913 a 1,000 watt Alladin incandescent oil vapor lamp was installed by the Lighthouse Service.
The present brick Fog Signal Building located in front of the Tower was built in 1937.
Automated by the Coast Guard in 1971, the Light Station no longer has a resident keeper, however the light is still burning brightly guiding sailors as they sail the treacherous shores of Lake Superior. Although ships now have modern navigational devices, they still look for the welcoming beacon at Whitefish Point as they pass by on a dark night.
Appropriately, the dwelling that formerly housed the Keeper and Assistant Keeper has been fully restored with period furnishings and artifacts and is open to the public. As you walk through the dwelling you can get a glimpse of what life was like for the Keepers and their families as they kept the light burning and the fog signal going throughout those dark and stormy nights.
One of the Coast Guard Buildings now houses the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, a group of divers researching the wrecks, opened the museum in 1986. This is the only museum dedicated to shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. The surrounding buildings were once home to the Coast Guard personnel stationed at this light and responsible for its maintenance. The Shipwreck Museum contains the Bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald and there is a monument on the beach that you can visit.
The lighthouse and museum are open from May 1st until October 31st daily from 10 A.M. to 6 PM, There is an admission fee to enter the Lighthouse or the Shipwreck Museum, but there is no charge for walking on the grounds around the lighthouse, visiting the Gift Shop, and taking a stroll on the beach. Stop by if you are in the area and visit historic Whitefish Point.
Whitefish Point is approximately 70 miles from Sault St. Marie. Take Highway M-123 to Paradise. Then North on Whitefish Point Road for 11 miles. Contact the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, phone 906-635-1742 or 800-635-1742 or call the Shipwreck Museum at 906-492-3747 during the summer.
The Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve is part of Michigan's Underwater Preserve System developed for scuba divers. Lake Superior water is cold enough to preserve the shipwrecks almost as if they went down yesterday. Visibility at Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve is outstanding. Expect 30-50 feet of visibility at 100 foot depths.
Most of Whitefish Point is a state wildlife sanctuary, renowned for the variety of birds that pass through. The Michigan Audubon Society has established the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, across from the light station, where a small information room tells birders the species to be watching for as they hike along the network of trails along the point. An elaborate series of wooden walkways has been constructed to allow the visitor a chance to venture into the sanctuary area and observe wildlife. Whitefish Point is a target for migrating birds, including hawks, eagles, goshawks, geese, falcons and owls.
The sandy beach along the point is an exciting place to look for banded agates, especially after a storm or to take a walk along the sandy shoreline and enjoy the magic of Lake Superior.
Underwater Diving Preserve
Top 2 photos of Whitefish Point Lighthouse by Mark Bolen
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