Indian Paintbrush

Thunder Bay Island,

Lake Huron

Indian Paintbrush

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Photo of Thunder Bay Island

A most remarkable island that sits 13 miles offshore from Alpena, Michigan at the northern edge of Thunder Bay. This 215 acre piece of solid limestone has been the site of numerous shipwrecks, once contained a fishing colony, and became one of the first sites in the Great Lakes to have a lighthouse and fully manned Life Saving Service. It is also a wilderness island with tremendous numbers of nesting birds and fields of natural wildflowers. Today it remains with the U. S. Government and is managed as a wildlife refuge. The lighthouse is being deactivated but it and all historical structures are being restored by the Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society.

There are hundreds of reasons Thunder Bay Island is special in the Great Lakes. These web pages can only give a glimpse of the complexity and beauty of the Island.

Quick Tour of the main features of Thunder Bay Island

The lighthouse was built in 1832 on the SE tip of the island with a tower of stucco covered brick, and a spiral staircase. In 1857 it was raised 10 feet and a fog signal added. The light keepers' quarters are attached. From 1832 to 1939 the Station was run by the U. S. Lighthouse Service, thereafter the U. S. Coast Guard manned it until 1983 when it was automated and abandoned.

This crucial daymark and beacon was sought by every mariner sailing from Detroit to the Straits or Lake Superior. A Life Saving Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard was stationed on the west side of the Island.

The lighthouse was serviced by a small rail line from the fuel and supply dock. A small hand "pumper cart" was used to tow a trailer with rail wheels. Two strong men would move the assembly with the teeter-totter rocker drive. The cart was taken from the island and has not been recovered.

The large (three feet) carvings above are perhaps the most historical of European settlement in the Great Lakes. The left one shows the 1879 station personnel of the United States Life Saving Service on Thunder Bay Island, led by Capt. J. D. Person. The right carving shows the 1923 crew of the U. S. Lighthouse Service on Thunder Bay Island. Both these organizations were forerunners to the U. S. Coast Guard, which manned the Island and Lighthouse from 1939 to 1983. Photographs cannot do justice to the beauty and detail of these carvings.

There are many other carvings (about 25) on the limestone slabs along the east shore. Case and Potter stopped by in 1889. Church left no date.
Wildflowers abound from May through September because there are no deer to keep everything browsed down. Yellow lady slippers (upper left) line the trails, harebells (above) fringe the rocky shores and the fields are loaded with hawkweed, coreopsis and anemones. For Coastal Plants of Lake Huron.
Tremendous numbers of gulls and terns nest on the island, free from major carnivores except the raccoon. In June and early July, young birds can be seen everywhere along the shore practicing their flight muscles in short hops and glides. Expanded pages of Lake Huron Birds.


To reach the power rescue boat, the Life Saving or Coast Guard crew had to run out to the boathouse, here shown in disrepair but still with the sign and orange Coast Guard logo. In the early years they rowed out to ships in distress.
Many boats, large and small have left their bones on or around Thunder Bay Island. A freighter passes the east side (left photo) as seen from the lighthouse tower. The Panacea (right) was on her maiden voyage from Wisconsin to Florida, with the retired teacher, wife and daughter that put their life savings in their dream of ocean freedom. Such was not to be when they miscalculated the waters of the south shelf in heavy weather, 1988. In 1994 a 52 foot yacht went to pieces 100 yards away. Take a dive on many large wrecks----Thunder Bay Shipwreck Pages.

Here we see the huge rocks upon which many ships met their final fate and on which the carvings are etched. The crystal clear water drops immediately to 80 feet within several feet of the last shelf. It is a divers paradise because this rock wall is strewn with timbers and skeletons of ships, however strong currents and dangerous swells make it a difficult dive. A boat offshore is especially vulnerable.

From the Alpena Argus, Oct. 10, 1883

Wreck of the Propeller Davison

"It appears to be just as difficult for a large vessel to run over Thunder Bay Island, as it is for a small one, and the propeller Davison found it to be so. That boat not only undertook to sail over the island, but she tried also to tow the barge Middlesex over the same place. The Davidson had on board 1,500 tons of stove coal......and......on Thursday night she got to Thunder Bay Island sooner than was calculated on. The Life Saving crew soon discovered the wreck and were promptly on hand.....Capt. Person dispatched messengers to town that night to telegraph for a tug."


Credits and Notes:

All photos used with permission and rights reserved, Copyright 1999..... RH = Russ Heimforth, WH = Walter Hoagman,  KM = Karen Melton

A Webfoot Page by MSU Sea Grant Extension, Northeast District, and MSUE, Iosco Co. Write Walter Hoagman with comments or suggestions. We need photos of other ships, birds, plants, etc. please help.

Additional links to Maritime History, Birds, Plants, Islands, Wetlands, Museums and other Great Lakes Info.

Copyright 2000 Michigan State University