Isle Royale’s Rockin’ Restoration

Isle Royale’s Rockin’ Restoration
November 2, 2018 Jack Nissen
Photo by shipwrecklog.com via flickr.com cc 2.0

The Rock of Ages Lighthouse gets a makeover

No restoration expert is helping to fix the Rock of Ages Lighthouse on Isle Royale in Lake Superior.

Photo by rockofageslps.org

Rock of Ages Lighthouse, Photo by rockofageslps.org

Rather, it’s a collection of carpenters, brick masons, woodworkers and anyone else interested in dedicating a week of their time to salvaging the century-old lighthouse. Together, their combined expertise is expected to restore the historic gem from its derelict state into its former glory.

“It’s definitely a learn-as-you-go experience,” said Charles Gerth, the board treasurer of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society.

Even though there’s no cookie cutter formula for fixing a lighthouse, the northern Lake Superior tower presents a particularly tricky challenge for its saviors — and not just because of its deteriorating state. The Rock of Ages Lighthouse was built in 1909 on a rocky outcropping that’s 30 minutes away by boat.

Photo by nps.gov

Rock of Ages Lighthouse construction June 10, 1908, Photo by nps.gov

At the mercy of bitterly cold winters, harsh winds that accompany an already temperamental lake and very few routes of passage to access the isolated speck of land, tackling the challenge of rehabbing the neglected piece of history is not an easy undertaking. And until 2008, no one had fully attempted the challenge.

“There’s not many buildings that can stand being neglected for decades, but it’s in relatively good shape,” said David Gerth brother of Charles and chair of the preservation society’s board. “There’s not many places you can go that are so isolated and just see how it was 100 years ago, and it geeks me out.”

In the working years of the lighthouse, three men manned the station. When they weren’t monitoring the waters, they fished, played cribbage, amused themselves with music and read. The isolation didn’t allow for much else to pass the time.

Photo by nps.gov

Rock of Ages Lighthouse base work construction, Photo by nps.gov

That seclusion is still ever-present. But now, there’s much more to do.

David Gerth got the idea to fix the lighthouse after a visit to Isle Royale more than a decade ago. During a visit to the landmark, a review of its conditions rendered just what kind of beast they were dealing with. The lighthouse was automated after its last season in service in 1978, when people stopped living there.

“Most of it (damage) is just the passage of time,” David Gerth said, “without anyone taking care of it, it takes its toll on the building.”

Paint was left to chip off the walls and the dock was broken. When the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse,  they removed the heating and plumbing system, which tore up the walls and ceilings.

Progress to apply any remedy started off slow. Along with their third brother, Nathan Gerth, establishing the preservation society was only the first in a long list of steps that preceded any reconstruction. Those included transferring ownership of the lighthouse to the National Park Service, developing a relationship with the rangers on Isle Royale, coordinating with the historical society and acquiring funds for the restoration.

“Right now, I would say our biggest limitation is probably the work season,” Charles Gerth said. “We only have a short window to do that up there. It’s open from April to October, but weather is sketchy on the beginning and end of that season, so last year, we did seven weeks. This year, we did six weeks.”

Photo by nps.gov

Stairwell of lighthouse, Photo by nps.gov

While restoring the decrepit building was already tough, the logistics of reaching the site with supplies, tools and the hands to use them proved a unique challenge.

“It being incredibly isolated, it does mean a lot of things need to be done more manual, not using large pieces of equipment that usually would make it easier,” said Charles Gerth.

In the first year of work, volunteers rebuilt the light keeper’s quarters. By fixing that floor, workers wouldn’t need to travel to the lighthouse every day during the work season. Now, they could stay on site for part of the week. The next floor to be completed was the pantry and kitchen.

The team anticipates they’ll be working on the bathrooms next year, which will require a new brand of expertise from a plumber. By the time the 10 floors are completed, Heather Gerth, the assistant director and wife of David Gerth, estimates the price tag to be about $150,000.

“Most of the budget comes from donations from individuals, businesses and grants,” Heather Gerth said.

Acquiring enough money to fund each summer’s work happens in the offseason, as does the preparation for the work. The cabinets and windows going into the lighthouse next year are being constructed in the colder seasons. Because, despite any reclamation falling in a short window of time, the restoration doesn’t stop — it’s yearlong.

Featured Image: Fresnel lighthouse lens, Isle Royale National Park, Photo by shipwrecklog.com via flickr.com cc 2.0


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