Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Arrow points to a vertical timber lifted by ice, its lower end
still embedded in the base of stones.  This aid marked the old
channel into Detroit Harbor.  Many years, during average
water levels, both this timber and the rock pile
supporting it lay just beneath the surface.  The modern-day
aid (#8) is a steel nun chained to a cement anchor
and maintained by the U. S.  Coast Guard.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Over the weekend of Feb. 21 we drove around the upper part of Lake Michigan to visit son Thor.  It was his 35th birthday.   If he thought those 35 years went by quickly, it was like lightning for us.

Passing through Green Bay, I took the opportunity to have my three month check-up on the titanium implants in my knees.   I received confirmation that the occasional clicking sensation in my new joints - something that concerned me - was simply the clatter of plastic inserts glued to the underside of each patella.  It wasn't quite the same as sloppy clearances on valve tappets, I was told, and I shouldn't worry as it's quite a normal function of artificial knees.

We looked forward to our winter's trip from the Island, and the further north we drove into the UP, the snow showed greater accumulation, more in keeping with expected ground cover for late February than our skimpy Island snow cover.   A major portion of the highway vehicle traffic we saw, especially as we drew closer to the Straits, consisted of 4-wheel drive vehicles pulling snowmobile trailers, dozens and dozens of them.

Between card games and snacks at our comfortable hotel in Petosky, we sandwiched in a couple of visits to the Van Dam shop in Boyne City to observe progress on their latest boat building projects.  Friday afternoon I met several of the craftsmen who were still working, winding up the last half-hour of their day and their workweek before they put tools away, swept up and departed for the weekend.

For someone who enjoys this specialized boat construction process, there's a lot to take in at the Van Dam shop.

The hull of a sandbagger, a uniquely developed
 Chesapeake Bay sailboat design, takes shape
quickly as the first longitudinal strips are added.
Here, at the end of the day, Thor scrapes
excess epoxy oozing from joints of
recently attached strips.   Beamy, bow-on view
with low freeboard resembles a Viking
Strips of cedar, about one inch in thickness, provide the first
layer in this sailboat's hull.   Two more layers of 1/8"thick
mahogany strips, laid on a 45-degree bias,
will follow, also held in place with epoxy.  Due to
hull curvature, stainless screws and washers
 are used to secure strips until the
epoxy dries, after which time they'll be removed.

So far, this blog departs from the subject of my previous several blog entries, but doing so allows me to get underway slowly by inserting a few loosely related comments and photos, before spinning off into a continuation of Island waterfront history.

From the ferry's deck the morning we left, against the low sunlight I noticed a timber projecting upward from the old stone pile, the remains of the original channel marker.  During these past two months this same timber has risen between 3-4 feet, forced upward by the grip of ice and the rise in harbor water levels brought on by strong southerly winds.

My photo (at top) shows what nearly every winter traveler sees from the Arni J. Richter as the ferry departs from the Island dock and makes its turn southward down the channel and on toward Northport.  I highlighted the old timber with a hand-drawn circle and arrow.  The modern day red nun marking the east side of the dredged channel is frozen in the foreground ice.   You may recall I pointed out the old channel marker in my Jan. 31 blog, noted in a photo in which Dora Engelson stood before the ferry Welcome with several children in tow, taken sometime in the early 1940s.   As a novice, I learned from Captain Nathan Gunnlaugsson that this pile of stones with a timber protruding from it marked the "false channel."  It had been worn down so by ice movement and waves that most years it lay in waiting beneath the surface to snag unsuspecting boaters.  This "false channel" was the original, or natural, channel denoting acceptable depths, and it was used for many years by vessels entering Detroit Harbor proper.

The forces that are brought about by the hydraulic lift of the lake, following hard freezing around an object, has destroyed many a massive crib of timbers filled with stones.   We can see evidence along the island shoreline today of old fishing docks, torn apart even when considerable efforts were made by the pier owners to repair them.  Eventually, most crib docks and timbers were leveled, some in only a few years' time.   So, it comes as no surprise that a single timber remaining upright from an old navigational mark should be lifted by the ice, too.  What does amazes me is that this process took so many decades, including years when the stub projected above the lake level.  This winter, mother nature managed to extract this timber.

What is the history of this particular stone pile with timber?  Eric Bonow sent along some interesting information about the origin of this navigational marker, officially referred to as "The Elbow Light" (likely it referred to the dog-leg course change leading mariners into Detroit Harbor from the West Channel).   The photos and documents provided by Eric are courtesy of the Washington Island Archives.

At far left, the "Elbow" marker when it was in good shape (year unknown).  
 An unidentified small sloop heads into the harbor, its crew 
bundled in jackets and caps.  In the background on "Richter's Point,"  
Detroit Island, are buildings of the old fishing camp.

Fred Richter's application for a fixed red light was
made July 31, 1924, at a time when small freighters,
commercial fishing vessels, and relatively recent
auto & passenger ferries entered Detroit Harbor
with frequency.  The photo of a Goodrich steamer was
included with his application as an example of area maritime
trade, but it is unlikely this steamer (or any of similar
size) ever navigated to or from Detroit Harbor.

Fred Richter was one of nine children of Jacob and Anna Marie (Kalmbach) Richter.  He fished, along with his wife, Ida (Cornell), and they at one time owned the Pearl, a  boat named after their daughter.  (Two sons were Roy and Earl.)  The Pearl, according to a record of vessels compiled by CAPT Gene Gislason, was just under 30-ft. in length, and had been built by Nels Jepson in Detroit Harbor in 1906.

In the official Great Lakes light list, published some time after the light was installed, the aid's characteristics were as follows:

Fixed red, in 7 feet, on east side of north end of channel, at turn.

The light was affixed ten feet above high water, atop an "unpainted pile."

Under Light List "Remarks":
      Maintained by Mrs. Fred Richter, Detroit Harbor, Wis.

Anyone who has been boating at night in this harbor without the benefit of radar, GPS or depth finder knows how hard it can be to differentiate land formations from good water.   Although the gas buoy was in place at this time, located seaward from the entrance to the West Channel, we can assume the addition of this Elbow Light was welcomed enthusiastically by mariners for both nighttime and daytime navigation.

-  Dick Purinton

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