Turtle Island, Part 5: “Land Ho!”

RETURN to part 4

I deftly hopped over the cracks and onto the shore, where two kitchen chairs sat on the beach for me to rest on for a minute:


This was it; I had finally set foot upon what is effectively Michigan’s southeasternmost point of land. To my knowledge, the state line actually runs through right about where the chairs are sitting. The beach was exposed in a few patches and I could see it was made up of millions of small mussel shells.


From my chair, looking back to the Woodtick Peninsula, it was awfully far away:


I was now at the halfway point of my 10-mile round trip for the day, and it was 1:02pm; it had taken me an hour to make the two mile trek across the open ice. This was good; I wanted to be off the lake before 4pm when the ice was supposed to begin degrading. Of course, we are still talking about hypothetical forecasts generated by computer models, so even though they carry the authoritative mantle of the NOAA’s supposed seal of approval, no one can predict what the lakes will do with 100% accuracy. As much as I wanted to sit here and relax and soak in the glory of this amazingly cool place, there would be no such indulgences today. This was all business—get a few pictures and get out. This wasn’t the f#$%ing Packard Plant, where I could just sit around and drink beer all day.

The first structure closest to me was this barn-shaped shed of unknown vintage. I have a feeling it predates the 1991 effort to restore the island:


Here, amongst the undulating six-foot-deep drifts of snow is the skeleton of a tool shed, with the last remaining vacation house behind it:


I assumed that the rubble of the other two houses lay crushed beneath the weight of all this snow. Behind the barn, the ruins of the c.1866 lighthouse tower:


An overturned tractor with a front-loader sits in front of the house:


This house is curious—it certainly doesn’t look like it was built in 2002…I mean look at that front door:


The wood plank exterior and wooden columns also speak to older construction, or at very least a reconstruction using salvage materials. I think there is a chance that this might be an old lightkeeper’s house that has been added-onto with some modern McMansion construction.


The view from the front door:


Huh…a bar? That’s sure what it seems like:


This place is just my style…for a summer party pad this would be unbeatable.


Ah-hah! The ceiling joists sure look like modern construction, but the walls of the main floor look much older:


Why there are so many different mattresses in here is anyone’s guess. Behind the bar was lots of picnic-type trash:


Out the back door, the stairs to the second floor are on the outside—another reason I think this was an add-on to an older structure:


Perhaps this is what’s left of the old keeper’s house that had been “all but destroyed” by vandals?

The deck:


This looks more like a living quarters up here on the second story:




Then again, the trusses up here look fairly old as well, but the plywood sheeting on the back wall looks modern. The flooring looks fairly old too.


View from the balcony:


The inside of the square turret is to the right:




The ruins of the c.1866 lighthouse as seen from the turret:




I always wanted a house with a turret, dammit. Heading back downstairs, the view out to the east over the lake:


Some modern beacon to the right:


The Toledo Harbor Light to the left:


Immediately to my right was the old crane:


By 1839, due to erosion and rising lake levels Turtle Island was reduced to about one and a half acres, though the government spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to stabilize the island and the lighthouse. In 1866, the battered old wooden lighthouse was replaced with the brick structure we see in ruins today. Another interesting anecdote from LighthouseFriends.com:
It seems that the lighthouse did not function solely as an aid to navigation, however, as evidenced by a 1929 story in the Toledo Blade: “Captain John Skeldon of Toledo recalls piloting, immediately after his return from the Civil War, a party of young people to the island for a dancing party on the tug George R. Hand shortly after the completion of the lighthouse. They were guests of the lightkeeper.”

The constant deterioration of the island was ongoing however. Achinger says that in 1883 a wall was built around its exposed side, the last serious attempt made to shore up the now minuscule island. But as you can see Lake Erie gives very few fucks indeed, and will erode what she pleases, when she pleases.


In order to get over to the lighthouse ruins now, I decided to walk around on top of the ring of mighty stone blocks.


The last keeper of Turtle Island Light was William Haynes, who is credited with saving seven people when their boat broke up near Turtle Island. Haynes raised his family on Turtle Island—which by this point had an apple orchard, shrubs, and a garden—and he turned the upstairs of the keeper’s dwelling into a one-room school.


The U.S. Lighthouse Service abandoned Turtle Island in 1904 in favor of the newly completed Toledo Harbor Light, and sold it in a public sale to A.H. Merrill. Mariners threw a major fit at Congress however, due to the apparently cavalier attitude they took in deciding that it was cool to deactivate the Turtle Island Light on May 15 of 1904, when the Toledo Harbor Light would not be ready for activation until May 23.


One section of the foundation I saw had what looked to be a cistern (I confirmed this via later research):


Coming up behind the light’s ruins, I could see the foundation stones were glazed in the same fine hoarfrost I had seen on the gate piers to Camp Lady of the Lake a few hours ago. The foundation looked to be stacked Lake Erie limestone, possibly from the same Kelley’s Island quarry that had supplied the stone to many older Detroit buildings, including Fort Wayne.


For the next three decades after the lighthouse was deactivated, Turtle Island was left to the mercy of the lake, and most of the keeper’s quarters and the boathouse were lost. In May of 1933, the Associated Yacht Clubs (AYC) of Toledo signed a lease with Merrill for the purpose of establishing docks, a beach, a picnic area, and a small clubhouse on the island, but it took a mere two years for these plans to disintegrate. The clubs of the AYC ran out of money, thanks to the Great Depression.

Achinger quotes a newspaper article of unknown origin, dated June 24, 1936 detailing the rejection of a plan submitted by the AYC that would have the state of Ohio purchase the island for a state park. This in turn would've allowed the use of state funds for the purpose of improvements to the island in general. The AYC lease would have still been honored, as well as their plans for a harbor and clubhouse. It was supposedly deemed that there would not be enough of a public benefit to justify the purchase of the island by the state, and the AYC abandoned their lease in 1937, according to another Toledo Blade article.


From that time Turtle Island fell into shadow and began a long decline of over 70 years, to the present day.

 

Looking up at the haggard old tower, I could see a couple scraps of old plaster still clinging to it:


The interior shows just how thrashed it is.


A big tag halfway up the tower said: “JIM ’68,” implying that this had been quite the party spot for many years.


Someone had bashed the iron spiral stairs up and broken most of them off, almost like they were trying to get the whole thing out for scrap, as the central post was leaning, and broken off at the bottom.


A non-profit was formed in 1991 to save the lighthouse but it failed, and in 2002 Keith Fifer bought the island, announcing plans to stabilize it and make it open to the public. He built three vacation houses there but a judge in Monroe County, Michigan issued a stop order because Fifer had applied for building permits from Ohio, but neglected to do so for the Erie Township, Michigan half of the island. Though Fifer planned to ignore the order the project languished, and in 2008 Erie Township solicited bids to demolish the unauthorized structures on the Michigan half of the island.

It was realized however that the costs of conducting such a remote demolition made it unappealing for contractors to bid on the job, but severe ice action nearly scraped the island clean that winter, demolishing two of the new structures free of charge. Which is further proof that God sides with Michigan over Ohio every time, even if the federal government doesn’t. The state line, as settled on in the aftermath of the Toledo War in 1837, did not show which state owned Turtle Island; it merely designated a land boundary. The north side of Toledo officially became Ohio territory while Michigan still claimed the island as part of Monroe County, even though the lighthouse was operated through the Port of Toledo. When the light was decommissioned, the question of ownership was forgotten until 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court laid out the final resolution of the Michigan-Ohio state line, equally dividing the island between Monroe County and Lucas County.


The snowdrifts here, again, were pretty intense. I hadn’t seen snow this deep since I visited the Keweenaw in winter.


What was weird though was that it was generally concentrated in bands that stretched across the island from east to west with the prevailing winds, dragging snow from all across the lake’s frozen expanses and piling it here five feet deep and more, and yet between them I could see grass poking through.


Rutabaga says this tree with the crazy bark is a Hackberry tree:


According to the internet it prefers wet soils, and areas with limestone. Which makes perfect sense.


I had originally planned that if I were spotted trespassing out here by authorities, I would quickly run back to the Monroe County side of the island and claim legal asylum, hahaha. But that was back when I was planning this as a summer boat trip; right now no one would dare come out here except the Coast Guard chopper. Come to think of it though, I hadn’t seen any real NO TRESPASSING signs, just that bounty offer for vandals.

Now it was time to go see the crane real quick before making my move to get back to land.


I was bummed to learn that it was not one of Bay City’s finest:


It was definitely an oldie though.


Inside the operator's cab:


It was unfortunate that I had to be so swift in my visit, but I really did need to get off the lake. It was now 1:30pm; I had been on the island a full half hour, which was already more than I wanted to stay.


I geared up to start hiking again but I realized that I was still quite tired and stiffening up from the hard exertion. It would be wise to sit down and take a break before power-walking another two miles.

I sat on the kitchen chairs on the beach and took some more nibbles from my pizza bread and sipped from my water until it was down to halfway, while listening to the wind blow snow across the silent lake surface. As I stared back to Michigan’s shores, I realized just how far I’d come—at least 5.7 miles—and how much further I yet had to go. This was going to be one long-ass walk back.


The return hike brought a few more pictures of ice and snow, but I mostly concentrated on getting my ass back on terra firma, now that I had done what I came to do.


I followed my original path diligently, exactly retracing my footsteps in the snow, which gave me an added feeling of security that I did not have on the way out. The muscles in my hips began burning from the nonstop exertion by this point, and I knew that the rest of the deep-snow slog back to Luna Pier was going to be murder. And it wasn’t because this was really that long of a hike, it was mainly because it was the middle of winter and I hadn’t had much call for any kind of serious exercise lately, so I was quite out of shape.

When I began to get back within sight of the gnarled log I had left my snowshoes at, I heard the approach of a couple snowmobiles from the north, following the shoreline. They passed without stopping, though they may have looked out and seen me walking on the ice and wondered what the @#$% some maniac was doing that for.

For what it's worth, I found somebody's video online as I was writing this of some people riding snowmobiles out to Turtle Island, but judging by his comment that they were all in "serious pucker-mode" the whole way there, it doesn't sound like they were incredibly confident that it was a smart idea either. Plus they still had to find a gap in the shattered ice wall to pass through before they could proceed, and one of them was heard remarking that he freaked out a bit when he hit a soft spot.


When I reached the log I was due for another break, so I sat down to consume more of my food and drink more much-needed water. The water in the small container was dwindling perilously low however, so I scooped some of the cleaner snow I could find into it, and zipped the bottle up in my warm outer layer so it would melt from my body heat.

I began the 3.7-mile long trek northward along the Woodtick Peninsula back to Luna Pier.


I tired quickly and took very frequent breaks to stop and rest my legs and hips, which were now completely exhausted from the constant lifting and dropping of my heavy snow-covered snowshoes. I still had three miles to go…this was going to suck balls. I found this interesting flotsam, an old Detroit News box:


I continued to painfully drag-ass along the shoreline as my legs continued to turn to jelly, and clawed my way back up the beach to my truck at 4:40pm—two and a half hours after reaching land.


The entire ~12-mile trek lasted six and a half hours from start to finish. Brutal.


References:
The Toledo War, The First Michigan-Ohio Rivalry, by Don Faber, pg. 178-179
“A Brief History of Turtle Island,” by B. Achinger
Toledo Times article, dated October 8, 1936
http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=271
"Erie Township seeks bids to remove buildings," The Toledo Blade, May 29, 2008

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