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Gert Wellisch, the Woman Who Saved the Sand Island Lighthouse

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Gert Wellisch (1896-1966) spent her summer vacations as a child in the Apostle Islands. Her family used to spend their summers on Madeline Island, but in 1910, her father, a wealthy manufacturer from St. Paul, collaborated with three other businessmen to construct an imposing Adirondack-style lodge on Sand Island’s west shore. The West Bay Club is still standing today, now owned by the National Park Service but occupied by its former owner under a use-and-occupancy agreement.

The Apostle Islands are a group of 22 islands in Lake Superior, located off the northern Wisconsin peninsula of Bayfield. The majority of the islands are in Ashland County, with the exception of Sand, York, Eagle, and Raspberry Islands, which are in Bayfield County. Except for Madeline Island, all of the islands are part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. New France historian Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix renamed the islands the Apostle Islands after the 12 apostles (for the 12 largest islands).

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Jeff the quiet, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Apostle Islands’ shorelines contain excellent examples of Great Lakes sea caves. Swallow Point on Sand Island, the North Shore of Devils Island, and near Mawikwe Bay on the mainland are all possible locations. Arches and delicate chambers can be seen. Visitors can see frozen waterfalls and chambers filled with delicate icicles during the winter.

Gert grew up to become a St. Paul schoolteacher, and she and her small group of female city friends became a regular fixture of the Sand Island summer community during World War I. When Gert reached adulthood, she was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own her own summer home on the island. The brownstone lighthouse on Sand Island’s northern tip became the Apostles’ first automated beacon in 1920. The lighthouse sat vacant until 1925, when Gert, using her father’s political connections, obtained permission to lease it for $25.00 per year.

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Gert spent her summers at the Sand Island Lighthouse for the next eighteen years. She was able to spend the entire summer on the island because she was a schoolteacher, and she put in a lot of time, effort, and money to keep the old building running. “My living there has kept the place from becoming a ruin,” she later boasted. Gert’s final year at the lighthouse was 1942. For a long time, the building’s federal owners had discussed selling it as surplus. Seeing the writing on the wall, she purchased a stretch of shoreline near the island’s southeast corner and hired a carpenter to build a cabin.

Plenty Charm, as named by Gert was her summer home on Sand Island for nearly a quarter-century. The National Park Service purchased the property from her heirs a few years after she died. (1966) The cabin has been used by the agency as a ranger station and housing for park employees. It now stands empty, a silent reminder of Gertrude Wellisch’s life.

Camping is available on 18 of the Lakeshore’s 21 islands, as well as at one mainland campsite. Only by kayak or a 6-mile hike on the Lakeshore Trail from Meyers Beach can you reach the mainland campsite. In the Apostle Islands, there is no drive-up, tent, or RV camping. The islands can only be reached via sea kayak, motor boat, sail boat, shuttle service, or water taxi. If you want to visit the islands, make your plans ahead of time. Reservations are required for all camping, and there are fees associated with it.



About Author

Kathy is the owner of Kirk Scuba Gear, a passionate Scuba Diver, Ocean Advocate and Managing Editor of The Scuba News Canada

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