Destination: Round Island Lighthouse

Round Island is part of Hiawatha National Forest, is entirely uninhabited, and really doesn’t have any tourism to speak of.  Occasionally someone will take a kayak across the channel, or we’ll see a bonfire on the beach, but for the most part it’s pretty forlorn, the lighthouse locked up tight, nobody around.  One day a year the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, together with Boy Scout Troop 323 of Freeland, Michigan, open it up for tours.  The tour itself is free, but if you don’t have your own way across transportation from Mackinac costs $15.  First they put seven people into a smallish fishing boat, then they transferred us into two inflatable Zodiac rafts.  I wish I’d been wearing lighter pants, I was siting right in the bow and my jeans didn’t get dry the whole time I was there.

Nobody really took care of it from the time it was decommissioned in 1958 until a storm swept away a whole corner of the building in 1972, and people started to realize they might lose it forever.  They kept it from collapsing then but the interior is still in desperate need of reconstruction.  Holes in the walls, holes in the floors, but it’s a beautiful building.  Boy Scouts throughout the building talked about the history all the way up.  The first floor housed the two massive compressors that created steam to run the foghorn, the second and third floors were living quarters for the keeper, his assistant, and their families.  Some of the bedrooms had the foghorn right outside the windows – I’m sure that was fun to sleep through.  On the fourth floor there’s just a ladder up into the lantern room, and from there a tiny hatch opening out onto the deck.

While I was there a woman named Gertie came to the island.  She’s 90 years old, and her father was once the lighthouse keeper.  She spent a handful of summers living here as a girl, and sat for a long time telling us about carrying water up from the lake, the things her sisters found walking the beach, and making whatever fun you could in such a lonely place.  We moved into what had once been her bedroom, and while she spoke a floorboard broke out from under her daughter’s foot.

Going inside Round Island Light is a rare opportunity, and one that I passed up too many times.  I probably spend three hours wandering through it and listening to Gertie’s stories.  It would be nice to see it restored someday, but the money and effort involved with such an undertaking may be too much.  In the meantime we’ll just have to love it as a beautiful ruin.

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3 thoughts on “Destination: Round Island Lighthouse

  1. Round Island captivates me, but I can find no historical info on it. Why is it uninhabited? I mean, I realize that it’s now part of a Hiawatha Nat’l Forest, but why? What caused it to become abandoned when it used to contain commerce activity?

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    • Aside from an alleged Native burial site and the lighthouse, Round Island has never really seen any human activity. Even when Gertie was there as a little girl she and her sisters were forbidden from leaving the yard of the lighthouse. The light was abandoned when the automated Round Island Passage Light was installed. Mackinac Island was selected as the site for Fort Mackinac because it has high bluffs overlooking a natural harbor, and the fort brought in the town, so my guess is that Round Island has just been largely ignored rather than actively avoided.

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