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Lake Superior lighthouse to be restored

The Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society is planning a multi-year project to restore the lighthouse, located to the west of Isle Royale, to a 1930s look. Photo courtesy of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society1 / 3
The Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society is planning a multi-year project to restore the lighthouse, located to the west of Isle Royale, to a 1930s look. Photo courtesy of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society2 / 3
The Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society is planning a multi-year project to restore the lighthouse, located to the west of Isle Royale, to a 1930s look. Photo courtesy of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society3 / 3

DULUTH, Minn.—The Rock of Ages Lighthouse has greeted visitors approaching Isle Royale National Park since 1908, but it's been nearly 40 years since a lightkeeper cared for it.

Although the bones of the structure are in good shape, the lighthouse's interior needs attention — and the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society is hoping to provide that. The preservation society, based in Duluth, is planning a multi-year project beginning this summer to restore the lighthouse to a 1930s look, with the goal of opening the lighthouse to the public in 2020.

Heather Gerth, a preservation society board member, said they want to preserve the lighthouse because of its history and its unique, remote location to the west of Isle Royale National Park, 15 miles off of the North Shore. The lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places and sits on the Rock of Ages reef, where two shipwrecks occurred prior to the lighthouse's construction.

"If the lighthouse is torn down, that's one less lighthouse that will ever be in existence. They're kind of an obsolete type of historical building. They're not being used in the same way. You can now put a buoy out in the water and accomplish the same thing. Those buildings really capture a historic way of life that's disappearing," Gerth said. "The keepers who stayed out there, the stories they have and the lives impacted by that light station are something that we think are worth preserving."

The lighthouse is still strong and sturdy, Gerth said. However, when the last lightkeeper left in 1979, the interior was sprayed with an exterior-grade white paint that has trapped a lot of moisture.

"You walk in there and it looks really bad. It looks like plaster is coming off the walls, plaster is coming off the ceiling. But when you get down to the skeleton of the structure, things are intact," Gerth said.

The preservation society's plan is to work its way through the 10-story lighthouse, restoring a room or two per year using mostly volunteers. This year's project will be the lightkeeper's quarters that housed the beds and closets. They're hoping to have six crews of six volunteers do the restoration work over seven weeks this summer, and plan to outfit a sleeping and cooking area for the crews on Barnum Island between Rock of Ages and Isle Royale.

The budget for the first year of restoration work is $36,000. In-kind donations total $21,000 and the preservation society is fundraising the remaining $15,000 that's needed to meet the budget, Gerth said.

In addition to two basement levels used for storage and a machinery room in the entrance area, the lighthouse had three floors for the lightkeepers that included an office, bathroom, gathering space, kitchen and sleeping quarters. Restoring a living quarters built more than a century ago will provide some challenges, she said.

"The year that we do the bathroom and that space, we're going to have to come up with some creative solutions for water and electricity. Historically, the lighthouse had discharged water into the lake and, obviously, that's not an option with very good reason," she said.

The top floors of the lighthouse are a watch room with access to the lighthouse's catwalk and the room that housed the light. The original light's pedestal and lens are located at Windigo on Isle Royale and the U.S. Coast Guard still operates a small light at Rock of Ages, Gerth said.

The preservation society also hopes that the National Park Service will restore the dock to the lighthouse to provide a safer landing for visitors, Gerth said. She added that they also plan to contract for the lighthouse's exterior restoration work, which requires more specialization than volunteers can provide.

The preservation society was created by Gerth's husband Dave Gerth in 2008. The first few years were spent transferring ownership of the lighthouse from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service and establishing a partnership agreement between the preservation society and NPS, Beth Gerth said.

The preservation society sees itself as a support organization for the lighthouse and creating a partnership with NPS is key to future work, including restoring the lighthouse. Gerth noted that they're fortunate that the lighthouse hasn't sustained more damage than it has.

"I think a lot of lighthouses that are being restored don't have that benefit of having really good solid bones to start with. We're lucky, actually, that things are in really good shape and we can work to make it much nicer inside," she said.

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