The lighthouse at Devil's Island

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Devil's Island is the northernmost point in Wisconsin, but it might as well be at the end of the world. The South end looks onto the other Apostle Islands—a conglomerate of 21 heavily wooded islands in Lake Superior. The North end of Devil's Island looks out into infinity. For all you can tell, there's nothing past the horizon but a waterfall off the edge of a flat Earth.

It's an eerie feeling, for somebody who grew up landlocked. And it gets only creepier when you set foot on Devil's Island and find that the temperature has gone up at least 15 degrees from what it was out on the lake. Add to that the echoed thud and slurp of water pounding the hollowed-out sandstone caves that line the island's coast, and you've got a romantically spooky experience.

I visited Devil's Island last month, largely to see its lighthouse—a 19th-century paean to riveted steel, topped with a vintage Fresnel lens made of crystal and brass. The result is delightful and, dare I say it, more than a little steampunky.

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I'll be honest, part of what makes Devil's Island such a great place to visit is the smugness of knowing that not many other people make it there. The island does have a dock, but it's shallow—too shallow for most sailboats—and there's not really any great places to anchor. Tour barges just circle around it to get everybody a good look at the caves. I made it there, along with my husband, because we rented a sailboat with some friends and took turns hanging out on the boat while the other couple paddled a dinghy to shore.

The natural landing is made from the same sandstone as the caves and the rest of the island. Sandstone on nearby islands in the Apostle chain was quarried out and hauled away to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. Devil's Island never had a quarry, though—its sandstone was too brittle.

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In the days before radar, the island was home to both a lighthouse and a steam-powered foghorn. The latter burned through 1000s of pounds of coal when it was in operation, all of which was brought by boat to the natural landing, and then pushed in hand-carts along this stretch of train track.

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For most of the 20th century, the lighthouse and foghorn required several keepers to operate. Their families lived with them through the summer months, but the keepers stayed longer, often through a good chunk of November. At times, that meant the water between Devil's Island and the mainland froze before they could get home, forcing a days' long trek back to the nearest town.

But, as the lighthouse was fully automated in the late 70s, you're probably wondering whose laundry that is on the line. Turns out, Devil's Island is staffed by volunteer tour guides in the summer months. When I visited, a couple of retired science teachers were spending a month there, leading people like me up the lighthouse a couple times a day and reveling in woodsy solitude the rest. If this volunteer opportunity sounds like the perfect way to write a novel ... well, I called it first. Back off.

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This photo was taken either in, or before, 1901, when the Fresnel lens arrived from France, and the temporary lighthouse—the big white one you see on the right—was torn down. The main lighthouse is on the left, just behind the ridge-line of one of the keeper's cottages.

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The buttressing was added on about 13 years later, after keepers finally complained enough about the tower swaying in the wind. The additional structure solved that problem, but, up on the catwalk at the top of the lighthouse, you can still see grip bars attached to the exterior. Those were there to keep the keepers from falling off in a strong gale.

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Behold, the Fresnel lens. (The "s" is silent. Just FYI. So you don't sound like an idiot. Like I did at first.) The last original lens left in the Apostle Islands, this thing was a miracle of science when it was first installed. Earlier lighthouses were only visible maybe 15 miles from shore, on a good, clear night, which was, typically, not when you were really worried about needing them. Fresnel lenses were invented in the early 19th century, and were still a big deal 100 years later, thanks to their ability to make the life-saving glow of a lighthouse visible more than 20 miles away, without a lot of extra weight load on the tower structure.

Every ridge you see is an individual piece of cut and polished crystal, shipped over from France as part of a modular kit, and mounted into a brass frame using the same kind of caulk that fixed windows into double-hung frames. The ridges are angled so that they reflect and concentrate the scattered, multi-directional light from the central oil-fueled fire into powerful, directional beams. Chipping, smudges and stray crap of all sorts could alter the prisms' powers, so keepers had to be careful to not touch the crystal and wore special lint-free smocks over their regular clothes.

Today, Fresnel lenses show up in traffic lights, solar power concentrators and retina identification cameras. They're also apparently good fun for destructive purposes, as well.

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There's still a light at Devil's Island, but it's powered by LEDs now. Compared to the Fresnel lens standing a foot away, it's a little underwhelming.

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    1. Yeesh. *headdesk at self* Fixed. Sorry about that. I even had my secondary sources sitting right in front of me and, for some reason, my brain was registering “Frensel” and not “Fresnel”. It likes to do that sometimes.

      Also, Anon: I’m itching to go back, myself. We had to spend our first couple days of a four-day being observed/trained by a licensed captain, so we had to back to the marina at night and didn’t get far from shore until the third day. But we did get to Oak Island and Raspberry Island, and spent two nights sleeping on the boat at anchor, which was a marvelous experience in itself.

  1. Went up there in 2008 with my grandma and aunt. I’m a Colorado girl, so it’s great to see such epic landscapes on a scale that doesn’t involve mountains. It’s a wonderful area–besides the islands themselves (I’d recommend kayaking)–the area includes awesome hikes near American Indian reservations along the cliffs, the town on the island up there is great and the beaches are spectacular. It’s a really great place to explore for a week, especially if you want to go camping. And one of the islands, I think, has the biggest per square mile population of bears in the US.

    Great article. I saw the lighthouse, but didn’t have the chance to go to the island and see it up close, so this is great! Next time I’m up there I am going to visit it.

  2. I’m going on a three day sailing trip through the Apostles in two weeks, this is getting me even more psyched. Sadly don’t think Devil Island is on the agenda. One day..

  3. Reminds me of the song from Clockwork Orange:

    I wanna marry a lighthouse keeper
    and keep him company

    I wanna marry a lighthouse keeper
    and live by the side of the sea

    I’d polish his lamps by the light of day
    so ships at night can find their way

    I wanna marry a lighthouse keeper
    won’t that be okay

    We’d take walks along the moonlit bay
    maybe find a treasure, too

    I’d love living in a lighthouse
    How ’bout you?

    1. Ever wonder if that’s actually a light housekeeper?

      I mean, that sure sounds nicer, who doesn’t want to live by the side of the sea with someone who keeps the house clean?

  4. I notice that the new LED light also uses a Fresnel design for its lens. Although they were a marvel when they were first used and discovered the design is still heavily in use today.

  5. Very interesting. I knew what a lighthouse lens looked like, but I never knew how that Fresnel lens worked.

    A couple of points, which if you are sailing, or learning to sail, you will know or get to know anyway… The visibility of a light, although obviously limited by its power, is determined by the curvature of the earth. The higher that light, or the higher you are (or both!) and the further it can be seen. You’ll come across tables of “lights dipping and rising” — ie when the light is just on the horizon. Know the hight of the light (from your chart) and you can look up how far away from it you are. Also not too tough (and I’m innumerate!) to program a calculator to do. Take a bearing on your light “dipping or rising”, look up its distance, and you have a fix using only one thing!

    When you stand on the beach — that horizon, which looks so infinitely distant, is about three miles away

  6. Excellent and accurate introduction to a genuine treasure. As a retired ranger and historian at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, I’ve spent a lot of time on that island and climbed that tower more times than I want to count.

    I love the place myself, but one keeper’s wife expressed a dissenting view which you might care to read here: I Hate Lighthouses.

    Just FYI, the Devils Island lighthouse will be closed to the public for the remainder of the season as it undergoes some long-needed repairs.

    Oh, and while it never occurred to me to describe the tower as “steampunky,” I have to admit that it fits admirably.

  7. If you get a thrill from rugged rocky islands where barely anyone ever sets foot you’d LOVE southeast Alaska — we’ve got thousands of them. (And they are, in fact, pretty damn cool..)

  8. Historian and geographer Bill Cronon is finishing up a book on the Apostle Islands and Chicago. Don’t miss it.

  9. Awesome – I saw this post just as I was co-ordinating a group camping trip to Madeline Island (one of the Apostles) for next weekend. We’re heading up from Minneapolis. I guess we’ll just miss DomoDomo by a week. If we have time, we’ll have to check this out too. Thanks!

  10. Great post

    I heard that Faraday was looking to find glasses with high refractive index in order to reduce the mass of single piece lighthouse optics, before Fresnel had announced his design that reduced the total volume of glass required, and made the refractive index irrelevant.

    Faraday was beaten to it by Fresnel and was left with a large collection of different glasses, which he later used to identify the ‘Faraday effect’ (electric field rotates polarisation of transmitted light)

  11. Reminds me of Marquette, MI, only less epic. For rocks and falls on this side of Superior, nothing tops Marquette!

  12. The Apostle Islands are a WI treasure.

    Cold Clear water
    Singing Sand Beaches
    Great Restaurants
    Sailing
    Sea Kyacking
    Fresh Fish
    Safe Harbors
    Norther Lights
    Ancient Culture
    Fresh Rasberries
    Original Entertainment

    Warren Nelson – Wisconson’s Poet and Song Writer performs all summer on the mainland of The Apostle Islands at the the Big Top Chautauqua

    Warren’s “Riding the Wind” Show features a song about the light houses of The Apostle Islands;

    “Keeper of the Light” by Warren Nelson

    I’m the Keeper of the Light on Michigan Island,
    the candle in the night for the steamboat trade
    with an eye on the wick and a whistle to the ships
    that are bound for the bay or runnin’ for a lee.
    We lit the lamp at sunset, afraid the clocks would break
    then anew it blew a hurricane, the tower began to shake.
    It was damp in the lamp and freezing, the oil all congealed.
    We were scrubbin’ with brine on the lantern glass to
    remove the angry sea; our dock was driven to the boulders;
    to talk, we had to shout. So splendid was Superior’s fury
    twenty-five miles out. – – – – –

    He sings about

    Sand Island Lighthouse 1881
    Raspberry Island Lighthouse 1863
    Outer Island Lighthouse 1874
    Michigan Island Lighthouse 1857
    Devils Island Lighthouse 1898

  13. Oh the winds they do blow, and the seas they do roar
    When you’re stuck on a lighthouse, ten miles from the shore.
    But you’ve heard of the Jollyrock, of that I am sure.
    Go there and your loved ones, will see you no more.

    Oh, don’t go to the Jollyrock, whatever you do.
    I wouldn’t go near it if I was you.

    So away from the Jollyrock I advise you to race.
    It’s utterly appalling and not at all nace.
    For nasty things happen there, it’s such a disgrace.
    Cause people get killed there all over the place!

    Oh, don’t go to the Jollyrock, whatever you do.
    I wouldn’t go near it, if I was you.

    Oh, the next verse is censored because it’s too horrible even to talk about!

    Well blood will run cold, and your heart fill with dread.
    For the Jollyrock is plagued with the souls of the dead!
    If you stay there one night, you’ll go clean off your head.
    And no time at all, you will probably catch mumps.

  14. Looks like a pretty cool place. I had no idea that the “s” was silent in fresnel. This reminds me of the Jimmy Buffett book, A Salty Piece of Land.

  15. Outer Island is the most remote of the Apostle Islands, and therefore Wisconsin. Sand Island lighthouse is gothic and unique

  16. Reminds me of Alistair McLeod’s short story “Island”, one of the most haunting and affecting stories I have ever read.

  17. Agree with Anon #24. Excellent writing, nice photo annotations. I was immersed and transported… you’ve made my Sunday :) Thank you!

  18. The aforementioned Warren Nelson got nabbed for sexual harassment last year.. and this is after decades of practicing it and NOT being prosecuted.

    But.. the islands are great beyond words. I’ve kayaked to several and camped. It’s a cold powerful lake. Many may not know, but there use to be several more islands, they are slowly becoming eroded away, at one point in the future they shall not longer exist without ongoing human intervention.

  19. Never been to the “real” America, only to Huston and San Fransisco for a few weeks. But This seems like a place I’d like. What really hit me was the comment about growing up in a landlocked piece of land. I honestly didn’t know what this meant until a couple of years ago both literally and experience wise ;) It was when I traveled inland to Hungary and Austria and I started to feel really claustrophobic. I don’t think I could live without the coast within a few miles :P I’ve lived with the sea so close all my life that the real inland have started to seem real strange, I’m so use to lighthouses and foghorns (there almost if not completely gone now. Read “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury :) )

    Anyway If felt a an eerie familiarity to the pictures posted, never felt more at home than at sea with the water running through the pebbles and ocean reaching at the horizon :D

    1. You would find it weird. I lived on the east coast when I was young and my first visit to the great lakes gave me a very unsettled feeling. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to put my finger on the cause.

      There is no salt smell or tang to the air.

      You stare at a body of water so vast it might as well be the ocean … and yet it is not and it informs you of this is a very subtle but unnerving way.

      1. Gee, that’s funny…I grew up around the Great Lakes, and my first experience of the ocean was: “Blecccch! This sucks! What the hell is with all the salt!! This so-called ‘water’…you can’t drink it, and you’ve got to take a shower after taking a swim, and it is no good at all for washing your clothes!”

        I guess it all depends on what you’re used to.

        1. Funny! I agree. I grew up swimming in Lake Michigan and after swimming in the ocean for the first time, it was weird to have to take a shower AFTER you went swimming.

  20. “The North end of Devil’s Island looks out into infinity. For all you can tell, there’s nothing past the horizon but a waterfall off the edge of a flat Earth.”

    That’s basically how most Americans think of Canada, isn’t it?

  21. Maggie,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting post. I spent much of my life in and around all of the Apostle Islands and they hold many fun secrets. I have a special place in my heart for Devil’s Island as it is sometimes difficult to get to and there is a bit of danger from weather that has to be calculated into any trip to that island. I have a picture of my 5 year old self inside the Fresnel lens at Devil’s Island. I LOVE the Apostle Islands. They hold many secrets and would be a great place to set a novel. All that said, Shhhh! It’s a secret!

    BTW, if ever in Bayfield, find the 900 foot flood sluiceway built by the Army corp of engineers after the flood of 1942. That flood destroyed businesses and unearthed coffins on main street. The sluiceway wasn’t built until around 12 years later and a second flood, but bring a flashlight or 3 and enjoy the twists and turns of adventure!

    =Viktor=
    From Island X

  22. Back in the 80s a company was making plastic Fresnel lenses about the size of a notebook. You could hold them over books or photos for magnification. An old woodcarver I knew (his work once appeared in Ripley’s) was losing his eyesight and was very very interested when I showed him one. They can still be had for $1.60.

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