Places & faces in history

Rock Island & the Lighthouse

by Gail Larson Toerpe

There are a number of books and periodicals that relate the histories of Rock Island and its lighthouse. I have the names of two: Washington Island Guidebook, and Acorn Country.

There are, according to historians, 912 acres of Rock Island to be explored, investigated and savored for the beauty therein. The island itself is located one mile west of Washington Island and had, as its early settlers, folks who later moved to our larger island.

Most readers/Islanders know that there are a variety of things with which to occupy oneself while visiting Rock Isl. Numbered among the sights to see and things to do are: tent-camping, numerous rustic paths to hike, sandy beach on which to relax, guided tours, and, of course, the great Thordarson Boathouse. The later contains fascinating artifacts from the Rock Island history, going back to the French and Indian trading days.

To get to Rock Island, for those who don't yet know, one can start at Washington Island's Jackson Harbor. From there we can take either a boat of our own or, for a small fee, be delivered by way of the passenger ferry, the Karfi. It's about a ten minute trip across.

Besides the usual botanic interests, there is the lighthouse, known as Potawatomi Light. As usual, I have found several different dates for its construction: 1835, 1836, 1837, and 1839. Which is the accurate one, I've not been able to determine. (I would trust the first date, given by Kirby Foss, once a Ranger on Rock Island.)

Nevertheless, the Potawatomi Light was the first United States Government Light to be built on Lake Michigan. The first of its lighthouse keepers were David Corbin and Jack Arnold.

Kirby's information is that the mortar used in the original lighthouse was of inferior quality, consequently, it washed away. A second Lighthouse was built in 1858, he says, next to the old one, which was then torn down. Other data tells us that the light was built on a 137 foot bluff at the north end of the island.

By the late 1800's the settlement began moving to Washington Island and only the lighthouse keepers remained. The light was fully automated, finally and the keeper's job was done.

For many years summer Islander Susan Rock has given wonderful nature tours on Rock Island. She wrote about them and kept the Island Observer informed of the Rock Island news. There is also a new "Friends of Rock Island" group, working on various projects to offer the public. Tours of the lighthouse would be nice!

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