Stannard Rock Light: The Loneliest Place in The World

Jan 22, 2020 0 comments

The life of a light housekeeper is always lonely, but for sixty years those who served the Stannard Rock Light in Lake Superior, it was extraordinarily so. Known as “the loneliest place in the world”, the Stannard Rock Light is located in the northern half of Lake Superior, off Keweenaw Peninsula. The nearest land, Manitou Island, is situated about 40 km to the northwest, making it the most distant lighthouse in the United States, and probably the entire world.

Stannard Rock Light

Photo: Lt. Kristopher Thornburg/Wikimedia Commons

The reef on which the lighthouse stands today was discovered in 1835 by Captain Charles C. Stannard. He was alarmed to find this underwater mountain so far from shore in waters thought to free of hazards. With depths as shallow as four feet at places, he recognized the risk this invisible mountain posed to navigation.

As maritime traffic increased, the potential danger of the reef grew. The US Lighthouse Service decided that a navigation light was needed but was unsure whether any kind of structure could survive on an exposed rock less than twenty feet in diameter on a lake famous for furious storms. In 1868, a temporary day beacon was constructed to test the stability of the rock. It was a stone crib 12 foot in diameter topped by a 20-foot high and 6-foot diameter iron marker. Only after that structure survived storms and ice for a few years did engineers determine that a lighthouse could be built on the reef.

Stannard Rock Light

Location of Stannard Rock Lighthouse in Lake Superior.

It took five long and difficult years to build the lighthouse. Every spring, workers returned to the lighthouse to find their work undone by the previous year’s winter storm and ice. At times the men bemoaned that they did more repairing than building. During summer, storms often suspended work slowing down construction.

The tower was eventually completed and lighted for the first time in 1882. It stands 78 feet tall and has seven levels, from the galley, or kitchen, at the base level up through the sleeping quarters, library-reading room, watch and lens rooms.

Life in this remote outpost was lonely and harsh. The keepers were not allowed to have wives, girlfriends and families, which increased homesickness. The men spent time playing cribbage and ate whatever came out of the can. Often, they went days without speaking to each other. To combat the terrible isolation, the men were rotated off the Rock, typically after three weeks. Louis Wilks, who was the lighthouse keeper for twenty long years from 1936 to 1956, spent a record 99 consecutive days on the Rock—a feat no other keeper were able to even approach. The solitude was so crushing that many keepers had no idea what they signed up for until they arrived at the Rock. One keeper threatened to swim ashore if a boat did not come immediately to get him. Another one—as the legend goes—became deranged and had to carried off the Rock in a straitjacket.

Stannard Rock Light

Photo: Neil Harri

The keepers went home at the close of the shipping season in early December and returned in March. When they did, they would find the lighthouse heaped over by a thick layer of ice. The men would take sledgehammers and pickaxes to clear away the ice in order to gain entry. Then they hacked away ice from the lantern and the foghorns. The trip to the lighthouse itself was no easy matter. One year there was so much ice on the Lake that keepers didn’t reach Stannard Rock until July.

Throughout the summer, violent northwest storms sent 30-foot waves smashing into the tower, knocking cans off shelves and plates from tables. When keepers had to go out from the galley at the base of the tower during high winds, they tethered themselves with rope so they are not blown away.

Removing keepers at the end of the shipping season was equally perilous. In 1913 the entire tower was encased in 12 feet of ice by a vicious storm. It took a 12-man team a week to rescue the keepers. Another time, in 1904, the fishing company hired to remove the keepers from Stannard Rock forgot and sent a tug two weeks late. By then the four keepers had consumed all their provisions and were contemplating a suicidal escape on the station’s yawl.

Stannard Rock Light

The first real tragedy struck the rock on the night of June 18, 1961, when a massive explosion of gasoline and propane tanks used to fuel the station plant ripped through the tower instantly killing a 35-year-old Engineman and injuring three others on duty. Injured, but alive, the three men hoped for an early rescue. But it took two days for a passing Coast Guard boat to realize that the beacon was not working and there was no radio contact with the keepers. When the Coast Guard cutter Woodrush arrived at the lighthouse they found three keepers huddled in a makeshift shelter atop the pier.

The following year, the lighthouse was automated. It is closed to the public now and can only be viewed from a boat or an airplane.

Stannard Rock Light


# Lake Superior Magazine,
# Lighthouse Friends,


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