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Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse & Saving Station

Posted on April 13th, 2021
Lighthouses are a major part of Alpena’s history with shipping and logging industries, today for #ThrowbackThursday, the spotlight is on Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse.

Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse was built in 1832 on Thunder Bay Island, about ten miles east of Alpena, Michigan. Congress appointed $5,000 for the construction of the building. The lighthouse was constructed on the island not only to help guide mariners, but it also marked the spot of the nearby limestone reef, that juts out about a mile from the tip of North Point. Most of the ship accidents in the Thunder Bay region were due to the reef. Boat traffic was very heavy during the spring, summer, and fall months, and back then, the ships didn’t have very good navigational systems as we do now. Due to the lack of technology, there was a large abundance of shipwrecks, especially in the Thunder Bay region. Thunder Bay is home to roughly 200 shipwrecks and is often referred to as “Shipwreck Alley.” A lifesaving station was also built on the island.

A contract was authorized for the construction of a lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling only, at the price of $3,422. A twelve-man construction crew arrived on the island in July 1831 to start the project. Not everything went smoothly. Back-to-back storms swept through in the month of September, and the high waves knocked parts of the buildings down. Similar situations were reported in December. In this instance, the phrase “third times a charm” stood true. The buildings were finally completed in October of 1832. This original lighthouse was made of stone with a base of twenty-one feet in diameter and was forty feet tall.  A Lewis lamp array was the first style of lamp that operated the Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse.

Photo Courtesy: Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library.

In July 1833, Jesse Muncey was the first appointed lighthouse keeper. Lighthouse season would start in the spring season until December, which was the same as boat season. Lighthouse keeper J.J. Malden took over in 1845. Malden worked hard on the island and fixed many lighthouse repairs himself.

In 1852, the first Lighthouse Board was formed and declared that improvements needed to be made to the island lighthouse. They had the tower increased by ten feet (making it a total of fifty feet tall), and a new fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed. This was also the year fog horns were first introduced to the Great Lakes coast.

In 1868, the upgraded dwelling was built attached to the lighthouse tower. It was a two-story building and 2,400 square feet. Sixteen years later, a connecting 1,220 ft. storm house was built.

The Secretary of Commerce to the U.S. Navy Station issued an order for radio station buildings to be constructed between the fog signal and lighthouse tower. In 1926, a radio beacon and antenna were installed on the island. It was 235 ft. and had a signal that was synchronized with the fog horn signal. The Navy’s involvement with the lighthouse ended in 1930.

The Life Saving Station

William A. Newall, the governor of New Jersey created The Newell Act, which was passed by Congress in 1848. This initiated the construction of life-saving stations along the United States’ coastal lines.

Thunder Bay Island’s life-saving station was built in 1876, and Captain Isaac Matthews was the first in command. He took the position on September 7th the same year. His career on Thunder Bay Island only lasted a year and he was removed from his position due to disagreements with his supervisors. Matthews was replaced by John D. Persons from Toledo, Ohio. Persons joined the rescue team on January 7, 1978. It is said that about 1,000 lives were saved from the life-saving crew that was operated under Persons’ command. He served until his retirement in 1912.

Thunder Bay Island Life Saving Station. Photo Courtesy: Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library.

The station was designed by architect, J.L. Parkinson, and was a late 19th-century American “stick style.” It was a two-story building with a look-out tower as the third floor. The station had its own kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms where the crew slept. Several years later, another lookout tower was constructed on the southeast side of the island, since the location had better views of the lake. The total cost to build the station was roughly $5,000.

The lifesaving crew alternated turns on being look-out. The job was around the clock and split into four-hour shifts. When the men were not busy saving lives, their days were consumed by boat drills. The crew’s main duty was to rescue people if a boat was in distress, assisting ships with engine trouble, and searching for missing vessels. Other jobs included transporting fuel tanks and other equipment, re-lighting gas buoys, towing ships into the harbor, etc.

Thunder Bay Island received its first lifesaving boat in November 1876. It was built in New York by Stephen Roberts. The original lifesaving vessel design was created by Captain J.H. Merryman. It was over twenty-six feet long and was made of wood, and was self-righting and self-bailing with a twenty-one-inch draft. This specific boat was damaged due to a rough storm in 1890, and its remains were hauled off into the woods. Pieces of it still remain on the island today. A new lifeboat was then brought to the island. Not too long after, powered boats replaced wood oar-driven boats.

In 1982, the Weather Bureau installed a telephone service on the island, which made communication and navigation much easier between Alpena and the neighboring islands.

Coast Guard

After John Persons retired from his position as Captain of the Thunder Bay Island Saving Station, the building changed hands to the Coast Guard. John H. Oles was the first captain to operate it in 1915, and then Robert Hodge took over the position a year later.

A new Coast Guard building was constructed in 1930. On many occasions, the Coast Guard Captain’s family would visit in the summer and stay in the old life-saving station. Thunder Bay Island was an ideal summer getaway. The visits were extra special for the kids because they were able to make friends and play with the lighthouse keeper’s children.

In 1980, the Coast Guard station was deactivated and the lighthouse was automated. Today, access to the island is limited to the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and members of the Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society. Depending on the weather and wave status, sometimes visitors will get to view the Thunder Bay Lighthouse when aboard the Lady Michigan, glass-bottom boat.

 

Information from “Lanterns & Lifeboats: A history of Thunder Bay Island” written by Stephen D. Tongue.

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