COPPER HARBOR - Passengers aboard the Isle Royale Queen IV had to brave some rain and clouds Saturday to get a good look at the Manitou Island and Gull Rock lighthouses, but it wasn't nearly enough to keep them away from that rare opportunity. Some of them, in fact, wouldn't have had it any other way.
"This weather shows why the light station exists," said Evan McDonald, executive director of the Keweenaw Land Trust, which owns and maintains the Manitou Island Light Station on an island about three miles off the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. "I like people to experience it under these conditions."
The Land Trust was one of two beneficiaries of the charity cruise, along with the Gull Rock Lightkeepers, which owns and maintains the Gull Rock Lighthouse on an exposed rock just west of Manitou Island. The cruise was hosted by Captain Ben Kilpela and the Isle Royale Line, with profits dedicated to restoring the two lighthouses.
It was the first of two charity lighthouse cruises scheduled this month, with seats still available for the second cruise on July 19.
Jeremiah Mason, archivist at the Keweenaw National Historic Park, is a member of the Gull Rock Lightkeepers. For him, getting a look at the lighthouses was more personal than professional. That's because his great-great grandfather, James Corgan, was one of the first lighthouse keepers to serve at both the lights, in the 1870s and 1880s.
"The first time I went to Gull Rock I noticed tool racks in the basement rock that had been signed by James Corgan," Mason noted. "That was pretty cool."
By the end of his career, Corgan had served more years than anyone in the U.S. Lighthouse Service, about 50, according to Peter Annin, executive director of the Gull Rock Lightkeepers.
Annin also discussed the process that placed Gull Rock Light into the Lightkeepers' hands, and some of the work that's been done since.
He said the process started in 2000 when Congress passed the Lighthouse Preservation Act, which turned over historic lighthouses the Coast Guard couldn't afford to maintain to local government, nonprofit or private hands.
"Gull Rock was going to be orphaned," he said. "In '04 the Gull Rock Lightkeepers were formed and partnered with the Michigan Conservancy to receive and restore it."
McDonald said the Manitou Island Light was turned over to the Keweenaw Land Trust through the same process.
Since then, Annin said, the Lightkeepers have invested around $200,000 and 1,000 man-hours in the light station, with about three quarters of that money coming through grants. Last year's single lighthouse cruise, he said, raised about $1,500 each for his group and the Land Trust's Manitou Island restorations.
"Generally speaking we can get $2 for every $1 from private sources," he said.
Since 2004, he said, the Lightkeepers have replaced the roof and the floors, which had pancaked into the basement of the building, despite the logistical difficulties of bringing materials to the remote island.
The Manitou Island property, which the Land Trust, working with the Audubon Society, has also recognized as a bird habitat, is being renovated with a slightly different goal - to make the building useful again as a secure overnight stop for bird observers, while maintaining as much history as possible.
Currently, said McDonald, the trust is raising funds to repair the crib dock on the North Bay of Manitou - the only dock on the island - and hope to complete work on the dock next summer.
"Once we get the dock repaired, it will make the rest of the work easier," he said.
Captain Kilpela said he was happy to be able to help the lighthouse restoration effort. For mariners, he said, the lighthouses are "a symbol of the old ways of navigating."
Brian Jentoft, the son of a Great Lakes sailor who drove up from L'Anse for the cruise, said he was glad he'd been able to make the trip, rain or no rain.
"I think these things are national monuments worth preserving," he said of the lighthouses.
Information on the Gull Rock Lightkeepers is available online at gullrocklightkeepers.org.
For more information on the Keweenaw Land Trust, visit their website, keweenawlandtrust.org.
To reserve seats for the July 19 cruise, call the Isle Royale Line at 289-4437.