Did you think lighthouse keepers stayed and worked at the lighthouses all year long?
So did I, until I found out that this was not the case for lighthouse keepers on the Great Lakes. Unlike other bodies of water around the world, the Great Lakes become so covered with ice that maritime transportation is discontinued for the winter months.
From around November until March, shipping on the Great Lakes is at a standstill until the water warms up. Like animals going back to the barn, ships return to their shipyards in the fall and stay for the duration of the winter. And with no shipping, there’s no need for navigational aids like lighthouses, so the lights stayed dark during that time. Consequently, most Great Lakes lighthouse keepers on island lights and offshore lights left their stations.
One notable exception was Chauncy Fitzmorris who insisted on staying at the West Sister Island in Lake Erie to take care of his farm animals. His wife went to their home on the mainland, while Chauncey spent the winter alone on the island. He almost died one year when a bull gored him. Two weeks later, someone at the closest point on the mainland noticed the red distress signal and sent a rescue party just in time to get the keeper to a hospital. As a rule, Chauncey’s first trip to the mainland when the ice started to melt was recorded every year by the Port Clinton, Ohio, newspaper as a sign of spring!
But where did the other lightkeepers go? According to Great Lakes lighthouse historian Terry Pepper, the general understanding was that most of the keepers had family homes somewhere else where they could spend the winter. Some keepers found winter employment while others simply did maintenance on their homes and others found work as loggers, carpenters or handymen.
Some keepers did stay at their lighthouses on the mainland, although the lighthouses were quite remote. For example, the keepers at Au Sable Point Lighthouse on Lake Superior stayed throughout the year, but were quite isolated with no road to the light station until 1928. The nearest civilization was Grand Marais, which could only be reached by a 12-mile snowshoe or dogsled hike when no boats were on the lake. No doubt a trip to the grocery store would be out of the question, so it was necessary for the keepers to store up food and live off the land – fishing or hunting – to survive the brutal winters.
How are you handling this winter? Are you looking forward to warmer weather like I am, or have you gone farther south to avoid the cold? Or maybe you enjoy the winter months. One thing for certain, winter will be here every year.
“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” Gen. 8:22