MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Lighthouses

Ghosts of the Great Lakes

Centuries of tragedy on ship and shore leave haunting memories.

In late fall, ghosts go hand in hand with shipwrecks and the malevolent storms that cause them.

Crews and passengers have been coming to bad ends ever since boats sailed the Great Lakes, starting with the French explorer La Salle's Griffin, which disappeared in 1679 after leaving Washington Island in Door County and may have been found off Michigan's Garden Peninsula.

Some say the ship was done in by an Iroquois curse on the French invaders, and that it still can be glimpsed lurking in the fog.

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Graveyard of the Great Lakes

For 200 years, a bottleneck on the east end of Lake Superior has claimed ships and lives.

In 1816, the first schooner built for Lake Superior shipping also became first to sink. It was called the Invincible, but it was no match for winds whipping off the east end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The Invincible wreck was the first of hundreds along what become known as the Shipwreck Coast. The last — we hope — was the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in 1975 with 29 lives lost.

At Whitefish Point, not far from the Soo Locks, the lake narrows into a funnel where shipping lanes converge, visibility is poor and northwesters reach full fury, building up over 200 miles of open water.

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Lighthouses of Door County

On this Wisconsin peninsula, beacons are reminders of a more rugged past.

Today, Door County is not a very rugged place. It's a favorite vacation spot for city folk, and it reflects their tastes with dozens of art galleries, bistros and B&Bs.

But once, Wisconsin's Door Peninsula was rough and remote, settled first by Scandinavian fishermen and loggers.

Navigating this long finger of land, which separates the wind-whipped expanses of Lake Michigan from Green Bay, was no treat for early mariners.

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Lighthouses of the Apostles

The allure of a bygone lifestyle pulls visitors to these island beacons.

A century ago, in the Apostle Islands, only seven puny shafts of light stood between sailors and catastrophe.

Lake Superior has been called the most dangerous body of water in the world, an inland teakettle in which any tempest can be deadly.

Storms gather fury over 200 miles of open water, and heaven help mariners caught between wind and rock — heaven, or a lighthouse keeper with sharp eyes.

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Dwelling in the past

Around Lake Superior, overnight guests can try out life at a lighthouse.

When Lake Superior lighthouses had keepers, there was nothing romantic about life there.

The posts were cold, lonely and meagerly furnished on the government dime. The work was physically taxing and repetitive. Through the long nights, keepers had to get up every two hours to wind the mechanism that rotated the lens.

It's no wonder many of the early lighthouse keepers were hermits or grouches.

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Living in a lighthouse

Around the Great Lakes, volunteers keep the light on for tourists.

Around the Great Lakes, love for lighthouses is unlimited. Often called "America's castles,'' lighthouses are symbols of a more adventurous era, and tourists find them irresistible.

Now, the state parks and friends associations who care for them have found a way to harness all this passion: They're turning tourists into volunteer keepers. 

For a week or two, volunteers live at the lighthouse, hosting visitors and doing chores. Some get to sleep under quilts in the historic keepers' quarters.

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The Lighthouse Express

Between Duluth and Two Harbors, vintage trains take passengers back to the past.

Once, passenger trains crisscrossed the state, and lighthouses guided sailors on the Great Lakes.

Trains and lighthouses are beloved relics now, symbols of a simpler past. In the digital age, they seem antique, like Grandpa's buggy or Grandma's butter churn.

But don't relegate them to history's dustbin just yet.

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Cruising to a lighthouse

In summer, excursion boats give visitors a chance to see historic beacons.

By definition, lighthouses aren't easy to visit.

Most are between a rock and a hard place, out of the way and on the edge of a fickle inland sea.

“When the government came here after 1843, they were afraid the Native Americans would be hostile, but they quickly found out the only thing hostile was Lake Superior,'' said our captain on a cruise to the Copper Harbor Lighthouse in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.

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