Of Ships and Tales of Yore

Wednesday was Staple Removal Day! In the hospital my surgeon had been brusque and distant. He would sweep into my room with his entourage, fire off a few questions and sweep back out again. One on one, he was charming and funny and ready to answer any and all questions. He really did use a staple remover of sorts. I was so beguiled I left my purse in the examining room and had to circle back hours later when I finally noticed it missing.

The Marquette Maritime Museum is housed in the former water works building. The full tour includes the Marquette Harbor Light Station as well. Until fairly recently the Coast Guard was responsible for the water works and the light station. In 2016, the 150th anniversary of the light house, the Coast Guard formally deeded the light station to the museum.

Our tour led us across a parking area to the lighthouse. On our way we passed the former coast guard barracks house and a second house constructed in the 1940’s when the former coast guard commandant could stand bunking with his men no more.

The lighthouse is perched on a hill with a commanding view of harbors on both sides. To the right is the Marquette harbor and the town. To the left in the distance is Presque Isle and closer in a beach with intrepid surfers enjoying the rough waters.

The light house is still an active light house, but, of course, no one lives there anymore. It does, however, have its own ghost—during renovation an overnight visitor left her small footprints on a newly painted floor. There were no recorded deaths of a young girl in the structure, but subsequent visitors report seeing the apparition of a young girl staring out a second floor window.

That’s not the only local ghost story. A woman was staying in the Coast Guard Quarters as a guest. She woke up from a nap and as she lay there she became aware of a man standing next to her bed. He was dressed oddly and sternly ordered her to “lock the door” and disappeared. Still half asleep, but terrified the woman stumbled to the front door and threw the lock. Some time later there was a huge banging at the front door and someone tried to break it in. The police came and took a deranged derelict from town into custody. As the shaken woman told her story, she happened to see an old photo of a former Coast Guard Commander hanging on the wall. “That’s the man! That’s the man who told me to lock the door!”

In 1983 the Coast Guard decided to demolish the fog signal building at the tip of the lighthouse. They blew that fog signal building to smithereens, without a permit, and bricks rained down as far as main street in town. Broken fragments of bricks are still strewn around the grounds. Understandably, the town was pretty upset and a settlement was brokered between the Coast Guard and the town. The initiators of the explosive incident were shipped off to parts unknown.

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Explosive is an adjective which works equally well in describing the color of the light house. At one point it was a softer red and one brick is left in the former color. This new red certainly is a zippy color and the light house is visible for miles because of it.

 

 

The museum has an excellent collection of shipwreck information and memorabilia.

This includes our old friend, the Edmund Fitzgerald. One new scrap of information was the intimation that perhaps the Edmund Fitzgerald was doomed from the start. Named for the president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, owner of the ship, apparently it took three tries for Mrs. Fitzgerald to break the champagne bottle on its bow during the launch. Subsequently, the ship made such a racket sliding into the water that one bystander had a heart attack and died. Forbidding omens indeed.

The museum has several Fresnel lenses from lighthouses on display. The most famous and largest of the lenses came from the Stannard Rock Light House. This light house was known as the loneliest spot on earth as the closest shore was 24 miles away. Perched high on blocks of stone, it was a formidable structure. Boats were raised or lowered from the rough seas on to the light house foundation, a dangerous exercise on its own. The light house keepers were in residence from March to December during shipping season and woe to anyone falling ill or in need of supplies. It could be weeks until a boat could reach them.

It wasn’t until after WWII that the lighthouse was electrified. Several years later a huge explosion of propane and gas destroyed much of the structure killing one man and stranding three others for days until rescue. In 1962 the Coast Guard dis-assembled the huge 2nd order, 12 bulls-eyed Fresnel lens and automated the light. The lens was packed away in six crates, mis-labeled and disappeared for thirty years until it was finally discovered in New London, CT at a Coast Guard warehouse. It now sits in all its glory at the Marquette Maritime Museum.

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Our Airstream Angel

After five weeks of travel, it was time to leave Florida. Our next stop was in Mississippi and our drive would take us west through Mobile and a corner of Alabama and north through eastern Mississippi to Hattiesburg. If Florida is a state unto itself, we would now truly be in the Deep South.

It is pretty much impossible to drive through Florida and any of these southern states and not think about religion. Churches seem to outnumber other buildings and maybe even people in many places. Every road side in town and in rural areas is dotted with small buildings offering many varieties of faith: Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Methodist and churches with colorful names and no apparent affiliation other than the belief in a god, sin and redemption.

Our own religious experience occurred on the outskirts of Mobile. We were back on Interstate 10—the major artery leading westward. Trucks, cars and rv’s streamed westward and eastward in unending lines of transit. As always Fifth Wheels and Class A’s dominated the rv traffic. Every once in a while a Class B or Class C would appear, but they were the minority. Of course, there was almost never another Airstream to be seen. In fact, in our entire trip I think we had only seen fewer than a handful. Once in Florida we passed one going the other way on a two lane highway and we both flashed our lights and waved in happy recognition.

We were motoring along feeling pretty happy and calm. The tall buildings of the city of Mobile were ahead of us. The highway was elevated at this point and we had a grand view. We anticipated the adrenalin surge of urban traffic. Our calm was shattered in an instant with a sign announcing the Bankhead Tunnel and warning any vehicles with hazardous materials to detour immediately. Frost panic ensued. Hazardous materials? That meant us, right? Those two tanks of propane in the prow of our trailer were potential explosive devices. We knew we weren’t supposed to go into the tunnel, but we hadn’t a clue what we should do as an alternative. I grabbed my phone jabbing the Google app in a furious attempt to get some direction.

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Just then our angel appeared. After thousands of miles with barely a sighting of another Airstream, merging upward on the ramp to our right was a glorious silver bullet. Her aluminum shell gleamed in the sunlight. She steamed along and smoothly entered the highway just ahead of us. “Jim, that’s our Airstream Angel and she’s come to lead us around the tunnel!”

 

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We followed our Angel as she took a right onto Route 90 paralleling the Mobile River and then left across the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge. Mobile sped by to our left and was soon behind us. Just as we finished crossing the bridge, the Angel took a left hand exit and headed north on Route 43. She was gone in an instant, but she had led us to salvation.