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Lost pictures of Apostle Islands lighthouse offer beacon on the past

BAYFIELD, Wis. -- A collection of images once unknown to historians is breathing new life into the story of the last lighthouse keeper of Sand Island. Emmanuel Luick tended to the Apostle Islands' lighthouse from 1892 to 1920, helping navigate sh...

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Sand island lighthouse: Ella Luick, Emmanuel Luick’s first wife, sits on the steps of the Sand Island lighthouse July 11, 1900. This is one of 220 recently discovered glass plate negatives taken by Emmanuel Luick — the lighthouse’s keeper from 1892 to 1920 — depicting scenes from the Apostle Islands area. (Courtesy of the Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy).


BAYFIELD, Wis. -- A collection of images once unknown to historians is breathing new life into the story of the last lighthouse keeper of Sand Island.

Emmanuel Luick tended to the Apostle Islands’ lighthouse from 1892 to 1920, helping navigate ships away from the rocky shore through fog and storms. But Luick also had a hobby - photography - and used his large format camera to capture images of the lighthouse and scenes of the area’s communities.

Only a few of his photos were known to have survived, however, leaving the rest of his body of work a mystery.


That is until one day in April, when glass negatives taken by Luick around the turn of the century started showing up on eBay.

“My very first thought was, ‘Holy Moses, I can’t believe this,’ ” said Bob Mackreth, a local historian who learned of the auctions from a fellow member of the Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy.

The glass negatives had been put up for auction by a Duluth antiques dealer who had bought them from an estate sale, he said. The Apostle Islands preservation group quickly purchased the negatives already up for sale and then raised money to buy the rest from the dealer.

All told, they purchased 220 of Luick’s glass negatives that range in condition from very poor to incredibly good, said Mackreth. He declined to say how much how much the group paid.

“From an artistic standpoint, you can appreciate the craft that Luick did put into his work,” Mackreth said. “He wasn’t just cranking these out; he obviously cared about the artistic side.”

Luick’s photographs give rare glimpses into turn-of-the-century life - fishermen mending nets, women raking hay, men sailing on Lake Superior - in the Apostle Islands area, sparsely populated at time by mostly Norwegian immigrants continuing their fishing and farming lifestyles.

Other photographs offer connections to historically significant events.

In one photograph, Luick is seen with his assistant gathering sheets and towels into wheelbarrows - items that are believed to have washed ashore following the 1905 sinking of the steamship Sevona, which wrecked off shore from Sand Island during a storm, drowning the captain and six member of the crew.


Some of the photographs, which were taken from about 1900 to 1905, are expected to soon make their way to the walls of the Bayfield Heritage Museum, where there had already been an exhibit on Sand Island planned, said Jerry Phillips, president of Bayfield Heritage Association.

“This is a huge, wonderful thing - it’s a great find,” he said. “This gives us information we just didn’t have before.”

Life on a Lake Superior island

Emmanuel Luick (1866-1947) was serving as an assistant lighthouse keeper at Outer Island in the Apostle Islands when he was promoted to keeper at Sand Island in 1892, said Mackreth, a retired park ranger at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The Sand Island lighthouse, a Gothic-influenced building constructed in 1881 from sandstone quarried on site, had seen only one other keeper in its existence, and Luick would be its last.

In 1895, he married Ella Luick - a teenager at the time - and took her to live with him on the island. The marriage, however, appeared less than blissful.

“I have a feeling that what she thought was as very glamorous as a teenage bride began to pall after ten years of living on an island in Lake Superior,” Mackreth said.


A window into the couple’s daily lives is found in the lighthouse’s logbook. Ella Luick helped her husband with the daily entries, but also used it like a personal diary at times.

“We have kind of a portrait of their marriage falling apart,” Mackreth said. “You could tell when she was mad at her husband.”

Here, in a passage provided by Mackreth dated Nov. 23, 1898, Ella Luick offers a taste of the couple’s lives on Sand Island:

“6 (degrees) rose to 12 and dropped to 9 above zero. This forenoon Mr. Luick went to the boat house and brought home from the shanties a pair of skees, belonging to Mr. Louis Moe. He made a poor Norwegian though, but after practicing awhile he decided that he could manage them. So he put our four chickens in a bushel basket, and the basket in a bag, and the ‘skees’ on his feet, and with the bag on his back he started for East Bay. He got home three hours later and says ‘skees’ are better than walking in 18” of snow, but not as easy as snow shoes. In the evening he worked at making a hand sled. I haven’t anything whatever to do and time goes slowly.”

There was a settlement on the Island’s East Bay, providing some company for the Luicks, who lived on the island’s northern tip during the shipping season. But the residents there also suffered from isolation. In his logbook, Luick writes once of visiting the settlement and discovering the residents had lost track of the day and date, Mackreth said.

After 10 years of marriage, Ella Luick decided she had enough of that life and left Sand Island and her husband. Luick, however, stayed on as light keeper and eventually remarried. The couple had four children, two of whom died on the island.

In 1921, Sand Island’s lighthouse became the first of the Apostle Islands to be automated, and Luick left for Grand Marais, where he worked as a lighthouse keeper until his retirement in 1936.

He was known to be a prolific photographer during his time in the Apostle Islands and nearby Iron River, Wis., where he spent his winters, but until know, historians had access to only a fragment of his work.


The new images - which show long-gone buildings and fields where there is now forest - open up the potential for more research into early 20th century life in the area, said Mackreth, adding they are the only glass negatives of Luick’s he knows to be in existence.

“It’s kind of exciting for me as I’m scanning these negatives,” he said. “It’s like I’m helping resurrect the guy’s work.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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