Thursday, June 7, 2012

Turtle Island Lighthouse Keeper Gordon Wilson

There were long drawers full of old letters at the stamp show. I was pressed for time, and could not unpeel many of the letters about which I was curious. Quite a few of them were addressed to a certain R. B. Hubbard, a lumber dealer in 1850s Sandusky. I spotted a Toledo postmark, though – probably a boring legal case over lost lumber. I asked the dealer if I could open the letter, and what I saw amazed me. It was datelined Turtle Island, Maumee Bay and was from a lighthouse keeper. Suddenly, a neat piece of Northwest Ohio history was unfolding before me. I paid the dealer, and later that day opened the letter at my leisure. This is what I read:

Turtle Island Maumee Bay o Feb 21th 1853 Mr R. B. Hubbard Sir I received your letter this day Att 2 Pm which I sett down to Answer I have nott Ben Ashore Sence the 30th of November last I Received my Mail buy A man coming Here in A canoe Shod with iron Sost [so as?] to run on thin ice so he just Come to day I will take your Schooner Elmina If you Have nott gott out of Payshents [patience] waiting for an Answer Att your Proposals I wish you would write mee Again So I can make my Arrangement About my family for I want to move Them to Sandusky As soon as navigation is open I Shal Bee Att toledo As Soon Asican [sic, as I can] get there with my Boat I send this Ashore with the Saim Thatt Brought mee yours Yours Obt Servet [sic] G. S. Wilson

Spelling was not the lighthouse keeper’s long suit, but then we don’t know what the man’s background was – even educated people used spelling and punctuation erratically. We do know that on September 4, 1850, Gordon S. Wilson was appointed keeper of the Turtle Island lighthouse in Maumee Bay. Records in the National Archives show that Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Corwin (himself an Ohioan) approved the appointment of Wilson. He was taking the place of Alexander H. Cromwell, who had been keeper there since November of 1847. He took charge of the lighthouse, keeper’s house, and probably a boathouse, and was paid a salary of $400.00 by the United States Lighthouse Service.

Built in 1831 - 1837, the lighthouse station was on a very small island that sits on the Ohio-Michigan boundary. Extensively rebuilt in the years after the Civil War, the original lighthouse was 44 feet high and built of yellow brick with a black ‘lantern.’ It was a “fourth order fixed light,” using eight white fixed lamps with reflectors. The lamps burned kerosene, and on good days could be seen for six miles. Mr. Wilson also found a house for the keeper’s use. Connected to the light tower, a wooden story and a half house offered the keeper and his family a parlor, dining room, bedroom, and kitchen with stove. A half acre of land was available to the keeper, at least some of which was used as a garden.

Turtle Island itself was shrinking. There is some evidence that the island was fortified during the Indian war of 1794, although the fort’s owners are unclear (British? French? Native American?) at the time. When the federal land office sold Turtle Island in 1827, it was about 6 ½ acres in size. Ferocious storms in the late 1820’s whittled the island down to 1 ½ acres. The federal government repurchased the island in 1831 for a lighthouse. Toledo was in its infancy, but showed promise as a port, and the island was needed for a light to illuminate the shipping channel in Maumee Bay. The lighthouse, rebuilt in 1866, was abandoned in 1903, when the Toledo Harbor Light was established. All that was in the future when Gordon Wilson became lighthouse keeper.

Wilson’s life before 1850 is untraceable. He does not appear in the census records, at least under that name. Was he an immigrant? Did he ever get the job in Sandusky? We will probably never know. The letter does not actually say that much about life on Turtle Island, except that it was hard to get the mail (but not impossible), that the mail was brought over by non-post office transit, and that canoes were sometimes shod with iron. The 1911 Century Dictionary confirms this, listing “ice-canoe n. A boat with a very broad flat keel shod with iron runners, so that it can be drawn readily over the ice: intended for use on partly frozen lakes and rivers.” Other details of life for the keeper of Turtle Island light can be inferred. Not surprisingly, Wilson had a boat of his own, but could not use it year round. Wilson’s family lived on the island, although no clues remain to who or even how many were there. And if Wilson could not go ashore for November to at least February, he must have had supplies stored on the island, or perhaps relied on a wintertime contractor who brought supplies to him. The schooner Elmina that Wilson mentioned is elusive as well, but we do know that it was commandeered on April 28, 1850 to help rescues passengers from the steamer Anthony Wayne, which had exploded off Vermillion.

If you have a boat, you can journey out to Turtle Island, and still see the skeleton of the lighthouse tower and the ruins of some vacation homes. It is a poignant sight, although rarely seen because the island is so far out in Maumee Bay. And while we cannot tell the story of Keeper Wilson, his surviving letter is poignant as well. It hints at just how lonely life on Turtle Island must have been. [In addition to the letter itself, I used the following sources:, B. Ellen Gardner, Turtle Island Lighthouse: The Darkened Light (1997), and The National Archives. The letter is now in the collection of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library .]