1867: $18,000 are
granted by Congress for the construction of the lighthouse
on South Fox Island. Nov. 1, 1867, the light, equipped
with a flashing red 4th order Fresnel lens, is lit by
first lighthouse keeper, Henry J. Roe. The keeper's
salary is $150.00 per quarter.
The height of the
tower from the base to the focal plane of the lantern
is 39 feet. The revolving red light is 68 feet above
1880: To keep drifting
sand and snow out, Keeper Willis Warner builds a board
fence around the light station, 320 ft long and 5 ft
1890: New landing
docks are built, consisting of sunk cribs. The old boat
house is moved closer to the docks.
1892: Keeper Louis
Bourisseau builds about 600 running feet of wooden walkways,
2 ft wide, connecting the buildings.
1895: After five
years of delaying the project, a fog signal building,
consisting of wooden frames covered with planks and
corrugated iron outside and smooth sheet iron inside,
is erected and a 10 inch steam whistle fog signal is
put in operation. A brick oil house is built with a
capacity of 360 gallons of kerosene for the new lantern
that replaces the old lard oil lantern.
1897: A new boat
house is built.
1898: A well for
supplying the fog signal is dug and a pump house is
built over it. New wooden walkways were built to connect
the new boat house and the well house to the existing
walkways. A new dock including a derrick are built next
to the new boat house. A wood frame assistant keepers
dwelling (five rooms for two keepers) is built southeast
of the lighthouse.
This must have been a foggy
year: According to the annual report of the Lighthouse
Board, the fog signal was in operation some 581 hours
(in normal years 250 - 350 hours) and consumed about
42 cords of wood and 43 tons of coal.
1900: A steam launch
replaces the open sailing skiff that had served as the
station's official craft.
1905: A second well
is sunk east-northeast of the one dug in 1898.
1906: A post office
is built at the Plank farm on the southeastern side
of South Fox.
1907: The District
Inspector's survey of the light station states that
the light is fixed red, varied by red flash every two
1910: The wooden
assistant keepers dwelling is replaced with a red brick
building. Its design is very similar to the one of the
keepers dwelling on North Manitou Island. It has indoor
plumbing, quite a luxury in those days. Roughly the
same time the yellow bricks of the tower are painted
white. (Some sources say they were coated with white
bricks as an additional protection from the elements.)
1911: The island's
post office is closed. Mail is delivered only once or
twice a month.
1915: Deer are introduced
on the island.
1916: The intensity
of the light is increased.
1920s: Farming on
the island is abandoned.
1929: The light is
changed from oil vapor to electricity, provided by generators.
The steam fog signal is replaced with an air diaphone
signal, in certain sources called a "typhon signal."
1933: The light tower
on Sapelo Island, Georgia, a square pyramidal cast iron
skeletal tower of the 'Sanibel' class,
erected in 1905, is disassembled and the components
are shipped to South Fox Island.
1934: Workers from
Northport reassemble the skeletal tower from Sapelo
Island on the southern tip of South Fox Island, southwest
of the old lighthouse, closer to the shoreline.
1939: The US Lighthouse
Service becomes part of the US Coast Guard.
1958: The light station
is converted to an automatic light. Allen Pearson Cain,
the last lightkeeper of South Fox, leaves the island.
1959: The last crew
leaves the light station. The equipment of the lantern
room including the 4th order Fresnel lens of the old
(1867) tower is moved to Old Presque Ile Light on Lake
Huron to replace the vandalized lantern of that light
1962: The Michigan
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) introduces more
deer to island.
1968: The automatic
light system is shut down. Electronic navigation has
rendered it obsolete.
1971: The U.S. Department
of Interior transfers the southernmost 115 acres to
the DNR for public park and recreation "in perpetuity."
1978: A report by
the DNR Waterways Division states the agency's goals
for the site:
"Waterways Division acquired
this property with the idea of developing it in the
future as a harbor of refuge. Such a facility would
accommodate the boater with a rustic and historical
surrounding. The historical significance of the island
could be used to advantage with tours through the buildings
and area... The deed of the property charged us with
certain responsibilities. One is to protect an ancient
gravesite from desecration... The property was obtained
from the U.S. Government for public purposes... Our
biggest problem at this time is to provide minimum maintenance
to the property in order to preserve and protect it
until a harbor is developed."
of refuge project was later dropped, but the rest of
the goals actually still apply.
1980: The U.S. Department
of Interior transfers the lighthouse and grounds to
the State of Michigan.
1984: A first clean-up
of the light station site, initiated by the Traverse
Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) Youth
Employment and organized and supervised by Bradley Boese,
is done by 10 members of the Michigan Youth Corp. Click here to read Brad's excellent report,
taken from the now defunct Web site of the Fox Island
Education Association by Cathy Allchin.
1994: David V. Johnson
purchases North Fox Island after another party proposed
building a $100 million, 642-unit luxury housing project
on the island. "I couldn't stand by and watch North
Fox Island be destroyed," Johnson told the TC Record-Eagle.
1995: The Natural
Resources Commission announces it is considering the
acquisition of North Fox in a trade with Johnson, who
also owns two thirds of South Fox. Johnson has proposed
trading the entire 832 acres on North Fox to the state
in exchange for the remaining third of South Fox, which
the state owns. Total land in public ownership is 1,140
1996: The Grand Traverse
Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians opposes the proposal,
citing ancestral ties to the island, a tribal cemetery,
and treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather vegetation
on public land in areas its ancestors ceded to the U.S.
governments in an 1836 treaty. DNR's district office
opposes the swap, saying South Fox is more important
than North Fox for ecological reasons, public recreation
1997: Maybe in view
of much public opposition, the DNR rejects Johnson's
swap proposal. Instead, DNR director K.L. Cool says
the state wants to buy North Fox. In December, the state's
Natural Resources Trust Fund approves purchase of North
Fox for $2 million to use it as a natural area open
to public access and for ecological research.
2000: The Grand Traverse
Band offers to take ownership of the south tip of South
Fox Island, including the former light station. The
federal government rejects the proposal, citing the
1949 Federal Lands to Parks law, which does not mention
tribes as possible recipients.
A request is filed
by the DNR to allow a road to be built through critical
dune land on South Fox. As the state says, the road
is needed to make repairs to the light station. The
state doesn't plan to do the repairs, though. According
to the land swap draft, Johnson will have to restore
and maintain the lighthouse. Opponents fear that the
road would just be used to link Johnson's house to the
lighthouse and the southern beach area.
2001: Despite strong
opposition from a standing-room-only crowd at a meeting,
the Leelanau Township Planning Commission recommends
that the Leelanau Township Board not oppose the special
exception permit for the construction of the road on
the island. The DEQ can't issue the permit unless the
The Michigan United Conservation
Club Region 1V board adopts a resolution opposing the
land swap. The swap also is opposed by various associations.
In March, the Leelanau Township Board votes to oppose
the road permit, which leaves the whole swap up in the
In September, the DNR bans hunting on the
southernmost 115 acres of South Fox to prevent vandalism
of the historic lighthouse.
In December, the DNR
and Johnson eventually reach a swap agreement that does
not include the 115 acres transferred to the state in
the 1970s. The Grand Traverse Band files a lawsuit against
David Johnson opposing the deal, citing the tribe's
treaty land claims on the island.
2002: The Fox Island
Education Association (FIEA) is founded by Cathy Allchin,
Bradley Boese and friends. Its goal is the preservation
of the light station.
The Michigan Land Use Institute
joins the Grand Traverse Band's lawsuit, saying the
DNR did not follow its own policies for transferring
State Attorney General Jennifer Granholm
rules that she cannot approve the swap because of Indian
land claims that "cloud" the title on 200
of the 219 acres to be traded.
David Johnson files
a counter-suit against the Grand Traverse Band and the
Michigan Land Use Institute.
In November, Leelanau
Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power rules against some
of the tribal claims. This clears the "cloud"
over the title and allows the swap to proceed.
2003: The Michigan
Land Use Institute holds a forum in Traverse City in
an attempt to drum up opposition to the land swap. However,
on March 7, Attorney General Mike Cox certifies the
2004: Two board members
of the former FIEA, Sandy Bradshaw and John McKinney,
and an associate, H. Joerg Rothenberger from Switzerland,
launch the South Fox Island Lighthouse Restoration Project
(SFILRP) in order to revive the restoration plans for
the Light Station. In October, a meeting is held with
somewhat poor public attendance, but very important
connections can be made. At the same time, a new Web
site is published, soon reaching fairly good attention.
2005: Stephanie Staley,
director of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum, sets
up a public awareness campaign with a series of activities
involving school classes. Public presentations are held
at the Maritime Academy in Traverse City in March and
in Northport in April.
In view of the application
for non-profit status, the group is named Fox Island
Lighthouse Association (FILA).
Around the end of
April the group learns that a great boat will be donated
to FILA as soon as non-profit status is obtained. However,
the non-profit status application is stuck in a long
waiting-list. In May, the South Fox Island Research
Project Exhibit is opened to the public at the GT Lighthouse
For the rest of the year, FILA concentrates
on making important contacts and on technical issues
concerning the boat, such as the purchase of a trailer.
The group is unable to get a ride to the island, which
shows the importance of having a boat.
2006: In January,
the FILA Web site is chosen by Leelanau Communications
as the Northern Michigan Site of the Year 2005. In February,
FILA gets non-profit status, and it becomes a member
of the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance. Presentations of
the lighthouse project are given at a Grand Traverse
Bay Power Squadron meeting and at the Chicago Maritime
In May, the donated boat is moved to
Northport to be reconditioned. Thanks to volunteering
skippers, several trips to the light station can be
made in May and June. An assessment of the state of
the buildings is followed by basic repairs (windows,
metalwork of the lantern room etc.).
In June, the
Board of Directors of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse
Museum approves a resolution that establishes close
cooperation with FILA.
In August, the boat is launched,
but it still has to undergo some work on the engines.
FILA presents its project at various public events.
The thicket around the light station buildings is cleared
by volunteers and FILA members. In September and October,
various repairs are made on metal structures, roofs
and chimneys. In November, the results of the work and
a task list for 2007 are presented to the Department
of Natural Resources. The DNR issues an extension of
the use permit through the end of the 2007 season. The
annual assembly in December introduces the new bylaws
and the board of directors is re-elected.
2007: The two engines
of the Lightkeeper, FILA's boat, are rebuilt
and a lot of other maintenance and repair work is done
on the boat. Several board meetings are held in cooperation
with the Board of Directors of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse
Museum. FILA gets office space and a phone number at
the GTLHM. A new computer based presentation of the
South Fox Island Lighthouse Restoration Project is created.
Again, a lecture on the project is presented at the
Chicago Maritime Festival.
A benefit concert for
both lighthouses, featuring Chicago maritime musician
Lee Murdock, is held in Suttons Bay on February 28.
Another presentation of the project is given at the
Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City in March.
A great set of aerial photos of the South Fox Light
Station is shot by FILA board member Cathy Allchin in
Starting in June, regular work trips
to the island are made whenever the weather is safe
enough. They include participation of GTLHM volunteer
lightkeepers. The Lightkeeper boat is launched
in July. In late August, Team Nickerson, three generations
of descendants of the family that owned most of the
island decades ago, spends a whole week at the light
station and gets a lot of work done.
the first Fall Harvest Festival with Pancake Breakfast
and Silent Auction is held at the Leelanau State Park
pavilion next to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum
in Northport. In October, the light station buildings
are secured for winter. Team Nickerson gives a great
presentation of their work week at FILA's Annual Assembly
2008: This year sees
FILA's boat, the Lightkeeper, in full action.
Many trips to the island are made between May and October,
and many people, FILA members as well as volunteers,
spend some time at the light station to contribute their
share to the preservation of the station.
FILA takes part in the conference of the Michigan Lighthouse
Association held in Traverse City. Five local artists
(three painters, one writer and one photographer) spend
a day at the light station to capture scenes for an
art show in Northport. A new flag pole is erected in
the original stanchion next to the 1867 lighthouse,
and the FILA flag is proudly raised together with Old
In July, a group of boy scouts from
Charlevoix spends four days at the station, doing a
lot of work. The video camera on top of the skeletal
tower is connected to the mainland via directional radio.
The pictures captured are displayed at the South Fox
exhibition at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
August, the totally overgrown site of the well house
is found in the thicket near the southern beach. Team
Nickerson does a lot of great work in a sequel to their
work week of the previous year. The boat house is completely
re-roofed, the workshop is painted, and more walkways
are dug out.
In September, FILA holds the second
Fall Harvest Festival at the GT Lighthouse Museum. The
last trip to the station is made on October 12. The
Annual Meeting in December brings an expansion of the
2009: FILA gets substantial
financial support from the state! This is very encouraging,
and so is the good cooperation with the Department of
After careful planning and preparation
on the mainland, outings to the island begin in late
May. The board meeting of June is visited by US Coast
Guard representatives, who give us important advice
concerning emergencies on the island and on the water.
Many work parties are taken to the island and back
to Northport. An emergency radio connection to the Leelanau
County Police is established. A detailed survey of the
lighthouse property is started to make even more accurate
plans of the complex. A whole group of state officials
(DNR and State Historic Preservation Office) is taken
to the island to give them a close-up impression. After
a third episode of Team Nickerson doing a lot of work
at the station, the deteriorating roof of the workshop
is repaired and reshingled. Meanwhile, FILA members
present our project to the public at several big events
in the area, including the third Fall Harvest Festival
at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum in Northport.
Towards the end of the season, even pretty heavy equipment
is transported to the light station to do some landscaping.
Now practically all walkways, as far as we know them,
are free of humus, rocks and overgrowth. Again, FILA
has used every opportunity to make progress.
2010: In March, FILA
is awarded the MRPA Community Service Award by the Michigan
Recreation & Parks Association (MRPA) and the Michigan
Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE)
at a ceremony in East Lansing.
In spring, FILA
Vice President Cathy Alchin give several public slide
presentations in the GT area. A project for a safe harbor
at the Light station is intiated by the Michigan Waterways
Commission, while the DNRE spearheads the effort to
get FILA listed with the National Register. The FILA
board decides to approve the bid for the Historic Structures
Report from Upper Peninsula Engineers & Architects
In spring and summer many work trips
to South Fox Island are made, with volunteers of all
kinds working on various projects at the Light Station.
As in previous years, once in a while, crews are isolated
on the island for several days due to bad weather preventing
the FILA boat from recovering them.
most important outing is the one with Ken Czapski and
his ad-hoc assistant, Heather Landis, who did all the
on-the-spot research for the Historic Structures Report.
The Webmaster spends a whole week on the island to gather
thousands of measurements for even more accurate maps
of the Light Station and the neighboring dune area.
Meanwhile, back on the mainland, FILA is present
at various regional events to raise public awareness.
By the end of the season, the 1867 Lighthouse gets a
completely new temporary roof, because patching up all
the leaks just hadn't done the job.
The very successful
year is rounded off by the Annual Meeting at the Traverse
City District Library, with elections to the board,
a presentation of the activities of 2010 and a big Holiday
Potluck for the board and the numerous supporters, live
2011: FILA continues
their cooperation with Ken Czapski of U.P. Engineers
& Architects Inc. for the Historic Structures Report.
The cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources
and Environment and with the State Historical Preservation
Office is intensified, and FILA joins the Michigan Historical
Society. Board members and supporters carry out many
oral history interviews.
In spring, it becomes
more and more evident that the Lighkeeper, FILA's boat,
is too expensive in the long run, due to too many repairs
and exorbitant expenses for fuel. Alternatives are necessary.
For trips to the island, FILA has to entirely rely on
privately owned boats. Despite those difficulties, a
lot of important work can be done on the island, including
an archaelogical dive trip by the State Marine Archaeologist.
During summer, FILA is represented at various events
in the Grand Traverse area, and in October, the group
and the Leelanau State Park organizes the 5th Fall Festival
at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Just a few days after
the Festival, FILA receives a Special Merit Award from
the History Center of Traverse City (formerly the Grand
Traverse Heritage Center).
In November, two board
members purchase a boat, which they are willing to loan
to FILA for transportation. In December, the traditional
Annual Meeting concludes the year, this time at Center
Pointe (formerly the Great Lakes State Building) in
with a team at the Northwestern Michigan College in
Traverse City is initiated in order to give FILA's visual
appearance a face-lift. The most important project of
the past two years, the Historic Structures Report (HSR),
is finalized and submitted to the State Historical Preservation
Office. What's more, the pretty substantial financial
aspects of the report can be settled.
with authorities concerning the Safe Harbor project
are continued, besides the HSR one of FILA's most important
projects in view of the difficulties constantly faced
when trying to safely transport crews and materials
to the island and back to the mainland. The cooperation
with all the important agencies and authorities is cultivated
also in many other fields. Even the Lieutenant Governor
of Michigan, Hon. Brian Calley, is briefed on the state
Quite a few work trips to the Light
Station are made, and the restoration of the Boat House
can be almost completed. New equipment is brought to
the island. However, due to the weather and the smaller
boat, there are fewer outings than in former years.
The Lightkeeper, FILA's former boat, is purchased
by a board member, with the intent to recommission her
on FILA's behalf in future years after thorough changes.
As in the years before, FILA is represented at
various regional events, such as the Classic Boat Show
in Suttons Bay, the Port Oneida Fair, the Leland Heritage
Festival, and, of course, the 6th Leelanau State Park
At the end of the year, the Annual
Meeting with elections and potluck is held at the Traverse
Area District Library.
Compiled by Hans Joerg
Many of the older details presented
here were taken from a collection of excerpts from Annual
Reports of the US Lighthouse Board submitted by Terry Pepper of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association
in 2005. The entire collection can be seen by clicking here.
Thank you very much Terry!
Top of page
Mysteries & Questions
This section is about things that puzzle
us, objects at the South Fox Island Light Station of
which we would like to know the purpose, observations
we cannot explain etc..
Dear visitor, if you know more than
we do, please
and share your knowledge with us!
Structures of which we need
to know more
- The plumbing stuff in the sandy brush
area close to the south-east beach, i.e. south of the
Assistant Keepers' Quarters and west of the boathouse.
In our plan on the Facts & Maps page, the site is
called the "Newer Well House". Was that really
the second well, of which some sources say it was dug
in 1905? Are there pictures of the installation?
Location of the plumbing site.
A burst tank and a pipe protruding from
Logs lying in the sand at right angles,
just a few feet east of the pipe.
- The all-rusty little iron hut in the
woods north of the skeletal tower. Doug McCormick, who
spent six years of his childhood at the light station,
told us that it was used as a smokehouse, and the pitch-black
interior confirms that. However, it seems a bit unlikely
that it was built for that purpose, especially in view
of the fact that it cannot be found in any official
plans. Could it be that it originally was built over
one of said wells and later moved to its present location?
Old aerial photos show a wooden structure close to or
at the location of the newer well, and the site of the
old well we found in August 2008 consists of just a
few rotting beams and boards. Is there a connection?
Location of the smokehouse.
- The plywood hatch and concrete pit
close to the walkway junction SW of the workshop. Maybe
it contains plumbing buried under humus and bugs. Any
hints out there?
Location of the pit and hatch.
Plywood hatch in the foreground,
Workshop in the background.
- The three-legged steel cone in the
woods west of the Assistant Keepers' Quarters, sometimes
jestingly called "The Still" in FILA lingo.
It's about 10 ft tall and completely empty inside. What
was that funny looking gadget for?
The "still" is
just a few steps east of
The steel frame has a triangular
The top of the "still."
Looking inside the funnel through
We assume that this contraption may
have been a sand filter for drinking water. Imagine
the cone being filled with fine sand (abundant on the
beach!), the water fed to the top, being filtered on
its way to the bottom where there was another pipe (now
missing) to catch it for use. However, we have no evidence
for this theory. Who has?
- The somewhat strange wooden clothesline
pole with the wires that do not make it look like a
real clothesline pole at all. Originally there were
two of those poles, as can be seen on an old black-and-white
aerial, and their location on a straight line confirms
the clothesline theory. But what were those wires for?
The clothesline pole or whatever it is,
seen from the east side of the 1867 lighthouse.
The hooks may have been used for clotheslines,
but what about the wires?
UPDATE Spring 2010: Doug McCormick (see
above) told FILA that the pole, together with a presumably
decayed counterpart, had been used for hanging fishing
nets. Sounds perfectly reasonable. Thank you very much
- The pipe and pole between the bushes
east of the flag pole, i.e. southeast of the 1867 lighthouse.
Any idea what purpose they served?
The pipe and pole seen from west.
Looking northeast past the pole.
- Why were the boilers etc. dragged
from the fog signal building to the beach near the boat
house? What sense did it make to move those very heavy
things and then just drop them on the beach? Who did
Boilers, coal conveyors and other stuff
on the beach just south of the boat house.
- Where is the catwalk that led from
the cupola of the fog signal building to the skeletal
- What happened to the Fresnel lens
(lantern) of the skeletal tower? Certain sources say
it was the lens of the 1867 light that got moved to
the Old Presque Ile Light around 1959. It seems that
the lens in the skeleton tower was part of the automated
system that kept that light on till 1968. And then?
- What is the history of the so called
summer kitchen? It was exactly where the workshop is
now, but most likely it was not the same building. There
is one old photo (pre 1910) that shows the summer kitchen
in a little building, open on two sides. When was it
built? When was the workshop built?
- What is the history of the rather
short and very heavy ladder that was found in the attic
of the workshop? Is the name carved in the side perhaps
that of a ship?
- Why was one of the second floor windows
on the south side of the Assistant Keepers' Quarters
boarded up with a plywood sheet that shows the black
contour of what looks like a hit man from a western
movie? It obviously provoked firearm vandalism. Who
put that board there and when?
The "cowboy window."
- Where is the vent ball that formerly
topped the roof of the lantern room of the 1867 lighthouse?
It was not a real ball like the one on top of the Grand
Traverse Lighthouse. The shape was more like a bucket,
so it was pretty similar to the one on the roof of the
oil house, just bigger. However, old US Lighthouse Service
documents called it a "vent ball" all the
- Does anybody know the history of the
two grave markers on the wooded knoll north of the Assistant
This obviously is the grave marker
of a Civil War veteran. "GAR POST"
stands for a local branch of the
"Grand Army of the Republic."
This one just reads "LEADER."
Doug McCormick told us it might be
a dog's grave.
ADDENDUM December 2008: Robert Harris,
who had been
at the Light Station as part of the U.S. Coast Guard
in 1953, told FILA that Leader was
a Blue-Tick Hound hunting dog that belonged to Allen
was killed in a hunting accident in 1953. Allen Cain
was 1st Assistant 1946 - 1948 and Keeper 1948 - 1958.
ADDENDUM II April 2009 by George Carpenter,
The flag holder reads GAR 399 and
the copper cross simply bears the name “Leader”. The
flag holder was made for the Woolsey Grand Army of the
Republic (GAR) Civil War Veterans Post #399. The
post was active in Northport from 1889 to 1921. A
study conducted by Jeffrey Adams, on record at the Grand
Traverse Lighthouse Museum, concluded that it might
be William T. Lewis. Lewis was an Acting Keeper
from July 1882 to June 1883, when he was made Keeper,
and then served until October 1885. This is confirmed
in Kathleen Craker Firestone's book, "The Fox Islands
- North and South". Lewis is reported in
our Keeper's List as dying in 1885 and Firestone's book
says he died on the Island from a fall. A conversation
with Doug McCormick, who was a Lighthouse Group Commander
in northern Lake Michigan from 1949 to the late 1950s
for the U. S. Coast Guard, confirmed that Lewis fell
from the Lighthouse Tower while painting it. McCormick
spent seven shipping seasons at the Station and remembers
looking out his bedroom window “at the Old Vet’s grave”
(his father was Keeper at the station from 1915 until
1922). At this point, we are working to learn whether
Lewis was a Civil War Veteran.
- Mysterious nature (added April 1,
What kind of creature left this strange track,
spotted by the Webmaster on the west
beach in August
2008? A snake? The only
gator in northern Michigan?
Got it? That was not an animal. Those
grass blades, moved by the wind, whipped the sand around
their roots, and it's a mere coincidence the semicircular
patterns combined to form that snake-like track.
Yeah, added on April 1st!