For a time after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, the Great Lakes became the nation’s foremost transportation system. These waterways connected the Atlantic Coast with the Midwest. Ships carried grain, lumber, and coal to eastern cities and returned with manufactured goods. This system reached its fullest development in 1855 with the opening of the St. Mary’s Falls Ship Canal at Sault Ste. Marie, linking Lake Superior with the lower lakes. One result of these developments was a mining boom in the Mesabi and Gogebic ranges around Lake Superior. In turn, the extraction of vast iron, copper, and coal deposits enlarged the Great Lakes shipping industry. Prerequisite to this shipping boom was the development of a navigation system, including lighthouses to guide ships to harbor. On Lake Superior—which had ninety-one lights by 1900—it was essential to mark harbor entrances and dangerous shoals, reefs, points, and islands. The Michigan Island Light built in 1857 became the second navigational aid on the Apostle Islands archipelago. The light helped mark two channels for ships headed westward into Bayfield and Ashland.
Michigan Island is a remote, wooded site where two lighthouses cluster on the southeastern shore, roughly ninety feet above the lake. Each reflects a different era in design, though both are built of stuccoed and whitewashed stone. The older lighthouse combines the light with a simple keeper’s dwelling, as was common for the mid-nineteenth century. The conical light tower attached to one corner of the cottage extends 129 feet above the lake, terminating with a conical lantern surrounded by a railed walkway. A board-and-batten workshop and a privy complete this station. In 1930, the old tower was retired and its light removed to a taller, 102-foot steel pyramidal structure, about a hundred feet away. Constructed in 1869, it originally stood on the Delaware River near Philadelphia. Its original Fresnel lens is now on display in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitor Center in Bayfield. Inside its hexagonal framework stands a diminutive classical cottage, which looks even smaller because the metal skeleton towers above it. Tuscan pilasters support a pediment at its entrance. The pediment bears the date 1880; some historians speculate that this structure was relocated from another site.