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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Day Two in Paradise

We wanted to give Dakota an opportunity to rest up a bit after yesterday’s hike. Even though he didn’t seem over-stressed by the hike, one month post-surgery, he needed to come back slowly.

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The solution was a delightful day exploring the eastern peninsula of the UP in a graceful loop from Paradise to Whitefish Point, back south and then east to Sault Ste Marie and back to the park.

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We were really excited to visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The Shipwreck Museum is co-located with the Whitefish Point Lighthouse Tower. The later is the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior. The shipwreck museum does a fantastic job of documenting the fury of Lake Superior, which really should be classified as a sea, and the thousands of wrecks resting at the bottom of its depths.

Happily, the collection of buildings comprising the complex are all dog-friendly. While we strolled the exhibits in the museum, Dakota lounged in my arms. Of course, the star of the museum is the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, but there were plenty of other breathtaking wrecks to discover. You can bet Gordon Lightfoot’s song runs throughout the exhibits and was an earworm for me as well.

The exhibits were really well curated and gave an unwavering portrait both of the importance of the shipping pathway around Whitefish Point and the tremendous dangers presented. Lake Superior is unforgiving and only the essential economics of shipping cargo, mostly iron ore, around that treacherous point could overcome any trepidation sailors might have felt.

Thousands of wrecks lie below the surface of Lake Superior and this was a theme we would encounter throughout our travels through the UP.

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After the museum, we wandered over to another building to watch the 15-minute movie, The Mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald, chronicling both the story of its sinking as well as the effort to raise its bell. This was no mean feat as the Edmund Fitzgerald had come to rest over 500 feet below the surface of the water. The original bell is on display at the shipwreck museum and was replaced in situ with a duplicate bell featuring the names of all who perished on that terrible night.

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Equally compelling was the awesomely restored Lighthouse Keepers Quarters. Life tending a lighthouse was not easy. In addition to keeping the enormous lights in good working order, fueled with trimmed wicks, lighthouse keepers lived in semi-isolation. They needed to grow their own food and be very self-sufficient. This looked to be a comparatively comfortable living quarters, but one could easily imagine how difficult life could be in the winter as the lake threw storm after storm against its coasts. With fifteen feet of snow the norm, this was a tough life in the UP.

We opted not to climb the tower, but walked out onto the deck by the beach. The beach was inviting and off the coast we could see an enormous freighter off the shore. That freighter would accompany us all day as we made our way towards Sault Ste Marie and the Soo Locks.

We had gotten to the museum right when it opened which was a good thing. By the time we left, the parking lot was packed. We retraced our path down past Paradise and took a left on to the 33-mile scenic Curley Lewis Memorial Highway.

The highway ran along the coast of Lake Superior sometimes close by and at other times separated from the water by trees and houses. On the left were woods with more remote cabins often grouped in small settlements. Partway along the drive we found the Point Iroquois Lighthouse Tower. At 155 years old, this is one of the oldest lighthouses on Lake Superior.

Dakota remained in the car as we toured the grounds. One exhibit featured the lighthouse keeper’s quarters as it was in the 1950’s. Pretty grim actually.

We did climb the tower to enjoy the view and there was that freighter again inexorably heading to the locks in Ste Sault Marie.

Tummies were rumbling as we reached Brimley and passed a driveway leading to a gravel parking lot and signed “Pickles.” Dimly, I remembered the school teacher from Newberry telling some fellow passengers about a little known gem of a restaurant on the scenic highway to Sault Ste Marie.

We pulled in and Pickles was indeed quite a hidden gem. We sat on the deck overlooking Lake Superior and had marvelous meals. I enjoyed beautifully spiced White Fish tacos and Jim had a fried Lake Perch basket.

After seeing so many beautiful miles of coastline, lighthouses and other curiosities, Sault Ste Marie was an abrupt change of pace. The land around the city was flat and unattractive. That isn’t totally fair, it was clearly agricultural and, therefore, very different from what we had previously seen in the UP. The town was pretty unattractive as well crammed with tourist trap shops and sidewalks packed with tourists.

We made our way to the famous Soo Locks. We stood at the gates to the park and inspected the crowds watching the locks. We were un-enthused and the park was not dog-friendly and that was as far as we wanted to take it.

We drove around Sault Ste Marie a bit just to confirm our first impressions and then headed back out of town south on I-75 and then M-28 back to Paradise. It was clear that this far eastern outpost of the UP was agricultural flat land and we were ready to immerse ourselves in the forests further west. We arrived back at our Airstream tired, but having had a really excellent tour of this part of the UP. We had done our tourist bit and tomorrow we had great plans to kayak the Tahquamenon River.