Point Iroquois takes its name from one of its earliest recorded skirmishes when Ojibwa Indians prevailed over an invading force of Iroquois fighters in 1662.
This point about 20 miles of Sault Ste. Marie and 51 miles east of Tahquamenon Falls attracted a few French explorers, fur traders and missionaries beyond the native populations during those early days, setting the stage for increased settlement and traffic in the area, leading to the development of the Soo Locks at the entrance to the St. Mary's River to help move sea traffic and trade between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes.
The St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal opened in 1855 and a wooden lighthouse with an attached tower also appeared on Lake Superior that same year.
The original one-and-one-half story lighthouse had a 45-foot-tall rubble stone tower with an octagonal iron lantern room atop it. It had a visibility range of 10 nautical miles at a fixed focal range of 65 feet above the water.
The lighthouse there unfortunately suffered from the shoddy materials and construction that caused so many early lighthouses in Michigan to quickly become outdated and unusable. District Lighthouse Inspectors called for its razing by 1857 with the idea that it might cost less to rebuild than doing needed repairs in a piecemeal manner.
The government finally approved building a new lighthouse at the site in 1869 for $18,000.
The Lighthouse Board approved plans for a fog bell tower during the mid-1880s, and the board approved another $5,500 in 1888 to upgrade the alarm system to a steam fog whistle, building it and placing it in operation by 1890.
Upgrades to the fog signal system also included a switch from the more traditional whale oil used to power the lights to the far more flammable kerosene housed in a separate flame-proof building. Ever-increasing sea traffic in the area caused more work at the station and brought an assistant light keeper to Point Iroquois.
The early 1900s brought a brick two-story extension to the building and dwelling space to house a staff of three keepers (a head keeper and two assistants). The complex at Point Iroquois grew to include three barns, a chicken house, a boat house, the oil house, a well house, an outhouse and, for the children of the keepers, school house also attended by a few addition kids from area fishing families.
Keepers at Point Iroquois switched to incandescent oil vapor to light the station in 1913. Further improvements included an upgrade for the for whistle in 1927 and extension of electricity to the tower and dwelling in 1933, making Point Iroquois a more modern lighthouse, but it was quickly becoming a relic in terms of modern technology.
The government deactivated the light in 1962 and an automatic light in the channel off of Gros Cap, Ontario, Canada in Lake Superior two miles northeast of Point Iroquois replaced it.
The tower's Fresnel lens went to the Smithsonian in 1963.
The National Forest Service applied for the lighthouse property in 1964 and it became part of the Hiawatha National Forest in 1965.
The lighthouse languished for a while until the Bay Mills Tribal Council expressed interest in claiming it as possible site for an Indian Cultural Center in 1970, but lost interest in it when they saw the accumulated mold in the abandoned structure.
The building earned a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and preservationists still wanted to see the building occupied and in use as an historical museum.
In 1981, the Bay Mills/Brimley Historical Research Society teamed with the Forest Service to restore the Point Iroquois complex to establish a museum and restore the keepers' quarters in the style of the 1950s.
Items displayed at the Marine Museum include a Fourth-Order Fresnel lens formerly from the nearby Martin Reef Light.
The museum hosted a grand opening celebration in 1988.
The museum and lighthouse opens daily from May 15 through October 15 and open during some weekend hours from October 16 through May 14.
Visitors can climb the 72-step stairway to the top of the tower to catch a glimpse of Canada and see the museum's collection during the warmer months.
A short interpretive wooden walkway and hiking trail leads to the Lake Superior beach.
Admission is free, but the staff always gladly accepts donations to help maintain the tower and museum collection!
Want to learn more about life at Point Iroquois? Check out Lighthouse Memories by Betty Byrnes Bacon, a short book about school day memories during the 1920s at Point Iroquois by the daughter of head light keeper Ed Byrnes.
© Dominique King 2016 All rights reserved