Nestled at the top of Wisconsin sits a cluster of islands on Lake Superior that have been home to Native Americans, pioneer farmers, commercial fisherman and more. Today it’s a land that is mostly reclaimed by the wilderness, it is also home to what some call the finest collection of lighthouses in the country.
Guiding the way for ships on Lake Superior, Nine light stations stand upon the Apostle Islands. Though operated automatically today, there was a time when lighthouse keepers lived on the islands and tended the lights. It was a lonely occupation, and while some keepers were bachelors, many brought families to the islands. A Lightkeepers’ wife was faced with the difficulty of caring for a family in conditions that are unimaginable today.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, the Apostle Islands National Seashore. Listen below, or on any podcast app:
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Anna Maria Carlson was one such woman. Born in Sweden, Anna Maria came to the U.S. as a teenager. At the age of twenty-one, she married Robert Carlson, the newly-appointed Assistant Keeper at the Outer Island light. Many years later, she told a newspaper reporter of how it felt to adapt to her new way of life:
I had three persons to talk to: my husband, who was assistant keeper, the head keeper, an old man with but one eye, and a fisherman who came that summer and lived in a shack down the shore.
Oh! The loneliness of those days on Outer Island! There was nothing to see but water, with the dim outline of other islands of the Apostles group behind the haze, and an occasional steamer way out on the lake. When my housework was done, my husband used to take me down the shore to the fisherman’s shack, where we would visit for a while. Or we would walk out into the woods.
That was my life, day in and day out. Going ashore to the mainland, 40 miles away, meant riding in a sailboat, which always frightened me. Nights I would look out of the window and see nothing but the dark water; no lights anywhere, not even in the fisherman’s shanty, which was too far away.
The old lighthouse keeper, dead these many years, was always very kind. He showed me how to cook, for I had never been used to much work. I have learned to do all kinds of housework since my marriage. A woman can learn to do anything if she sets her mind to it.
By the time Robert Carlson was promoted to Keeper of the Michigan Island light, Anna had given birth to three children: a daughter, Cecelia, and twin boys, Robert and Carl.
In her first year at Michigan Island, Anna faced a harrowing experience which gave her the opportunity to display an inner strength that proved she could overcome the worst that an unfamiliar environment could offer her.
Here is Anna’s own description of the incident, as transcribed by a reporter at the Detroit News in 1931:
We were trying a winter on Michigan Island, where my husband was head lighthouse keeper. His brother was assistant. When we decided to stay, our hired girl promised to remain with us through the winter. But she slipped away and went ashore with some fishermen, and didn’t come back.
[One day] they took the dogs and went fishing. I was always afraid to be alone on the island. A city-bred girl, the stark loneliness of it was appalling. As soon as they left the house I ran about and locked all the doors and windows. Yet there was nobody on the island but myself, and the children, a little girl past two, and the twin boys, nine months old.
For a few hours after they had gone that day I was busy setting the house in order. The tower was closed but there was lots of work to do in the house, and I was glad for that. I got the children’s lunch, prepared things for an early supper, as I knew the men would be very hungry when they came home, and then sat down to wait.
Women who wait in brightly lighted cities with people all around within call of the voice have no conception what it is to sit and wait for your man on a deserted island, with snow and ice everywhere and no light but the stars.
I watched the sun go down across the water, waited until its sickly yellowish light had disappeared and the stars came out. I kept stoking the fires, for I knew the men would be cold when they came in.
I did not even think of such a thing as their not coming. They had been gone since before daylight, and they would be home before six, I was sure. The wind was blowing a gale, but in my ignorance of such things I gave it no thought.
Six o’clock came, and darkness. It was so dark outside I could not bear to look out the window, but I kept watching for the men and the dogs. It began to snow. Seven o’clock and still my man had not come. I put the children to bed and waited.
All night long I sat by the fire, terror clutching my heart. I could not believe they would not come. Every time the wind rattled the branches of the trees around the lighthouse I would start up, expecting to hear my husband’s voice.
Morning found me on the verge of hysteria. But there was serious work to be done. I had to milk the cow because of the children. And I was afraid of the cow. Raised in Chicago, where one doesn’t even think of such things, I had never learned to milk, even after coming with my husband to Michigan Island, where a cow and chickens provided the main food for the children.
It was bitterly cold and still snowing. A winter fog shut us in. I went down to the barn and looked at the cow. She swung her head and made a noise and I knew I could never milk her as I had seen my husband do.
Running into the woodshed, I grabbed the ax, and in desperation began chopping at the wall of her manger. Making a hole through which I could put both hands, I started to milk into a little tin cup which I held with one hand, milking with the other. The cow kicked and I jumped away.
But the children had to have their milk. So back I went and I kept at it until I got enough for them. I fed the cow, and watered her, and looked after the chickens.
Then I went back to the house and waited. I waited and watched, and somehow kept my reason all through that terrible day, and the more terrible night that followed.
Things began to get a little hazy after that. Two nights of terror, and another night faced me. Somehow, I lived through them, looked after the children, got their milk, fed the chickens. That is about all that I remember of those days.
The ice had broken up while the men were fishing, carrying Robert and his brother out into the open lake. At this time of year, the lighthouse lamp would normally have been secured for the winter. Anna tried to signal her distress by hanging a white sheet from the top of the tower, but so many miles from the mainland shore, there was no one to see it wave.
On the third day, I could stand the house no longer. Leaving the little girl with the twins, I put on a hat and coat and went down the shore. You don’t know what the Michigan Island shore is, in winter. Unbroken trails through the woods, ice hummocks barring the way, deep gulches of snow into which I stumbled, the bitter, cutting wind from the lake lashing my face; and above all the sight of that white expanse which was holding my husband from me.
It seemed hours afterward that I came back to the house. The twins were asleep in the cradle. Little sister was rocking them. As I closed the door, I fell to the floor, screaming. I screamed at the top of my voice, until I was exhausted. And still my husband did not come. There was another terrible night before me.
You know how it is with us women. Sometimes, when we think we can’t endure any longer, it does us good to let go, like that. I think if I had not screamed I would have lost my mind.
That night I slept a little. On the fourth day the weather had cleared, but it was still bitterly cold. I went about the house in a daze. The same chores had to be done, the children had to be cared for. How I hated Lake Superior!
I was doing some task about the kitchen that afternoon when I heard my husband’s voice.
“I’m all right, Anna,” he called to me. “Don’t be afraid.”
The next moment I was in his arms, sobbing and laughing in real hysterics.
My husband told me that he had been afraid to come in without first calling to me. He said he was afraid– afraid. He thought I might have killed the children and myself.
The two men had drifted to Madeline Island when the ice broke up. Their sufferings from the intense cold, hunger and weariness were terrible. When the gale came up, it started the ice out into the lake, with them on it. By night the floe upon which they were riding, with the dogs, pushed up against Madeline Island. They had walked, and jumped from floe to floe, until their shoes were almost off their feet and the feet of the dogs were bleeding.
On the island they found some flour in a fisherman’s shanty, some dry wood and kindling, and, after building a hot fire, they boiled the flour into a sort of gruel. That was all they and the dogs had to eat during the time they were held on the island.
On the beach they found an old boat. In the shanty were oakum and pitch. They patched and caulked the boat and rowed across the eight miles of stormy waters to Michigan Island, and home. They were badly frosted, and it was two weeks before they recovered from the terrible experience. The feet of one poor old dog, the most faithful of the team, were so badly torn and frosted he had to be put out of his suffering. We never tried living on any of our island homes through the winter after that experience.
The 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland host a unique blend of cultural and natural resources. Lighthouses shine over Lake Superior and the newly protected wilderness areas. Visitors can hike, paddle, sail, or cruise to experience these Jewels of Lake Superior.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has more lighthouses than any other site in the National Park System, and more than 240 species of birds breed in or migrate through the park.
Clear water, underwater rock formations, and fascinating shipwrecks combine to provide outstanding freshwater scuba diving opportunities, and 50 miles of trails keep hikers busy. The Lakeshore Trail on the mainland extends about five miles from Meyers Beach past clifftop overlooks of the mainland sea caves. Island trails provide access to lighthouses, abandoned quarries, old farm sites, historic logging and commercial fishing camps, beaches, campsites, and scenic overlooks. Camping is available on 19 of the lakeshore’s 21 islands.
The visitor center at the Bayfield Headquarters is a good place to begin your journey. Apostle Islands brownstone was used to construct this stately building, as well as many other elegant public buildings and residences throughout the Upper Midwest.
The text for this episode is adapted from an article by the National Park Service.