Wednesday, September 8, 2010

South Fox Island Lighthouse Work Crew!

My brother, Gary, got me interested in joining the restoration project for FILA (Fox Island Lighthouse Association)

See Blog post 5-15-10 for more information about the boat work days that we did in May.

I got a message from Island Project Manager Phil about a work session on Fox Island.  Gary had already done two day trips and I was anxious to go to the island.  The message said to come prepared to  scrape and paint and stay on the island for 3 days.  I packed my backpack and got out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag.  Note, I did not pack a tent!  Later this would prove interesting.  We were suppose to bring our own snacks.

On Thursday, I got up at 5:30 am and left for Northport, MI.  The Lightkeeper was set to sail at 8:00 am, weather permitting.  Why does Phil always say "weather permitting"?  I was soon to find out.

The Lightkeeper was an old charter fishing boat that had been restored to serve as the main way to get out to the island.  Island Project Manager Phil is also Captain Phil.  I arrived to find six other people and a small mountain of gear to be stowed in the boat.  I was introduced to John, Jerry, Chris and JJ.  Soon Kathy arrived with a huge amount of containers and stuff for the trip.  This was our supply of food for the trip.  Kathy was to be in charge of the group and head chef.  Why all the food, Kathy?  Once again, I found out the wisdom of Kathy's planning for six people for three days when only four people were staying on the island.  Phil, Jerry , and Chris would get us out to the island and work all day and return to the mainland.

Remember to click on any picture you want to enlarge.  We took out a motor for the Zodiak, and edge trimmer, gas, paint, tools and all our gear.  What is a Zodiak?  Well I think it is the small shuttle or dingy.

Chris was topside with the Zodiak. 

The forward stateroom was filled with all our gear.  We had to stand or sit in even numbers to balance the boat.  Soon we were off to Fox Island.

It was a rough ride out but now the island was in view.

The boat house, light tower, and fog signal can be seen in this picture.  There are seven structures on South Fox Island.  The light station was closed over 55 years ago and are are slowly being restored.  The work is all being done by FILA volunteers.  The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) and the state of Michigan actually owns the 115 acres. 

History of the Light Station  - (you can skim this)

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 lake level.

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 high.

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 minutes.

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 station.

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."

The harbor 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 acres.

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 and accessibility.

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 township approves.

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 air.

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 lands.

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 transfer.

2004: Board members of the FIEA launch the South Fox Island Lighthouse Restoration Project (SFILRP). 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 whole 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 Museum.

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 Festival.

In May, the 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 thorugh the end of the 2007 season. The annual assembly in December introduces the new bylaws and the board of directors is re-elected.

2007: Supervised by Phil von Voigtlander, 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 spring 2007.

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.

In September, 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 in December.

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.

In June, 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 Glory.

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.

In 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 board.

2009: FILA gets substantial financial support from the state! That is very encouraging, and so is the good cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources.

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.

Compiled by Hans Joerg Rothenberger.

Whew, I know that was a long history but I know you skimmed over the dull parts to read the good stuff.

Time to get the gear to shore.  Ahoy, mate, steady as you go.  Let's clear this deck.

Jerry and Chris built this landing dock for the Kodiak. 

This gear took about 4 trips in the Kodiak and the picture is only the gear we had when we left the island!

The land here is for public use and recreation and will always be open. 

This is the back of the Boat House.  The walkways were restored last year.  This building was to be scraped and painted on our 3 day work session.  It was then to get an oil base sealer and a latex finish coat.

The sidewalk up to the center area.  All the lawns were mowed and the sidewalks trimmed.

This is the campground fire pit that Kathy built.  She rolled up some corrugated steel into a circle and stood it upright for her oven.  Worked great!

This is the Workshop and it has a new roof and has been painted.

This is the 1867 Lighthouse.  It is the main structure on South Fox Island lighthouse area.  The top has been painted and the roof patched.  It needs more restoration work.

This is the Assistant Lightkeeper housing.  It has three separate apartments.  This would make an excellent place for overnight  guests. It needs a lot of restoration.  All restoration work must be done according to the Restoration Plan.  If you tried to mortar in a old brick with new mortar, it would cause a reaction with the old mortar.

Here is JJ (from Beaver Island & Key West) cleaning out the gutters.  He volunteered.  Thanks, JJ!

This is the view from the top of the Lighthouse that shows the Oil House.  The Oil House has been restored and painted.  It holds supplies and the water pump that should be up and running next year.

This is the Light Tower that was brought in from GA in 1934.  It is a 68 foot tower that is scary to climb.  It has a great view of our swimming beach.

You can see the Signal Tower and the 1897 Fog Signal Building in the background.  I slept in the Fog Signal Building after I swept it out.

The first day I slept on the concrete floor with my Thermarest pad and sleeping bag.  The windows were open and the breeze was constant (for the next 7 days!!).  In the morning I had to crawl out of my bed.  Kathy found a WW 11 Army stretcher and I slept like a log on it it.  Literally, like a log!  I couldn't move or I tipped it over.  But I slept good!

The next couple of days we spent scraping the Boat House.  Here John is wire brushing the area after we scraped it.  It was tiring work.  We had to spread a tarp out under us to catch the paint flakes.  The paint was lead-based and every flake was collected and poured into 5 gallon buckets to take off the Island.

Here we have finished scraping and have started the oil based coat.  We had JJ scrape the top and paint the high stuff.  He sure was good at it!  We told him he was the best.  It was hard to hold the paint brush and the paint can and the ladder.

Kathy not only cooked our meals, but she worked along side of us.  She was also the reigning authority figure on the island work crew.  "If Kat is happy, everyone is happy, if Kat isn't......!!)  We tried to keep her "happy".  She did get us ice when we ran low.  I don't know how she got it and I didn't ask.

The Boat House is 3/4's done!  It is starting to look good.  Time for Lunch!

Here Kathy is allowing JJ and John in her kitchen.  I consider myself a pretty good cook, but I wasn't allow in the kitchen.  Don't rile the cook!!  Notice the plywood wall in the middle of the Boat House.  There was another retaining wall near the end by the water.  This was to add support until Jerry and Chris could shore up the walls.  That meant we had to crawl under these walls every time we entered the kitchen area.  That was 5 or 6 times a day.  It was like bowing to the Queen.  My back was sore from all that bowing.  We wanted to cut out a walk space but didn't.  All food and drink was stored here.  Breakfast and lunch was here and supper was at the firepit.

This graveyard site was cleaned up by Kathy and we came over to help.  The grave site has a GAR (Grand Old Army) Post #399 sign.  It was grown over before Kathy cleared it.  It might be William T. Lewis who was Acting Keeper from July, 1881 to June, 1883 when he was made Keeper until he fell to his death on the island in 1885.

The other gave marker says "Leader".  Leader was a Blue-Tick Hound that was killed in a hunting accident in 1953 and was buried there.  A sign is being made to mark the site.

After three day of the wind blowing hard we gave up thinking we were going to leave the Island on Sunday.  We just kept working on projects.  "Dinner" came the call and we went to the campfire pit.  

This showed the big waves still crashing.  We are going to be here for a while.

Kathy cooked Bar-B-Qued ribs one night, then salmon, and now what was this in the oven?  She put a 1/2 loaf of garlic bread in the bottom of a pan, added  some vegetables, tomato, cheese and some cut up marinated chicken breasts and created another outstanding meal.  About this time we didn't even care if the Lightkeeper doesn't come for a week or more!

Supper plates are clean and now time for a swim.

This was our beach.  It was free of rocks is you went down the beach a ways.  The wind didn't let up and when you went in, you had to watch for the waves.  The water was in the 70's.  This was our private beach and we had the feeling that we were on our own Island.  It was really very pleasant.

One day a sailboat anchored off this part of the beach.  We met the two engineers from Indiana and invited them to supper.  They brought two steaks and we had sausage over the fire.  It was our only company that week.

This was our emergency phone.  It was a direct line over to the mainland.  It was only for extreme use - broken bones, severe cuts, rescue help only.  It was in my room and I would hear a squawking noise every once in a while as I was sleeping.  At least I knew it worked.

There were hundreds of blackberries around the steel tower light.  We told Kathy and she agreed to make blackberry pancakes for us.

JJ and I picked the next morning.

I didn't get a shot of the pancakes that Kathy made.  They weren't around very long!  What a breakfast. 

As we we cleaning some of the room, I took this shot of a door in the kitchen of the Assistant Lightkeeper's building.  It almost looks like writing on it.  Squint up your eyes and tell me if you see any writing.

I had to try some pastel painting.

One of my last jobs was to clean out the chimney clean-out in the basement of the Lighthouse.  It was clogged.  I shoveled out 6  five gallon buckets of soot and debris.  I even got a petrified bird and nest.  It took two days of washing to get the soot off!

Wednesday night it rained and I found out that my roof leaks.  I could hear it in the night and i would check on it.  The pool of water collected but didn't come near me.  Man, it is time to leave this Island.  It has been 7 days.

Here we are packed and waiting for the Lightkeeper to arrive.

Here comes Jerry in the Zodiak.  We are saved.  We are returning to the Mainland.  We don't have to work any more.

As we left the Island we were actually sad.  It was a great experience.  I made some great new friends and hope to work with them again some day.  Then my mind turned to butter pecan!  I have been dreaming and thinking about butter pecan for several days.  I need a fix.

 Captain Phil and Jerry guided us back to Northport.  We were quiet and thinking about the past seven days.  Gee, it actually went fast.

When we unloaded , I asked the group to follow me to the ice cream shack.  A large butter pecan ice cream cone had my name on it and I was going to collect!


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful record of your work at improving the South Fox lighthouse structures and grounds. I appreciate it!

  2. Sounds like a great experience!

  3. Great story, and great pictures. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I camped on that part of the island about 40 years ago when I was a boy scout. We stayed there for about a week, it was fun exploring the island and the buildings and especially the lighthouses. I'm glad that someone is preserving the builds.