Final Keeper at Granite Island Light Station - John Archibald McDonald

by: Michael E. McDonald, September 12, 2002 (Grandson)

John A. McDonald and Catherine, 1935 John Archibald McDonald Ė Catherine Ann McLean

Recently, while looking up information about lighthouses on Lake Superior, I was able to trace my Grandfatherís career as a lighthouse keeper.
John Archibald McDonald Jr. was born in Cleveland, OH., October 10, 1867. In 1870, John moved, with his family, to Duluth, MN. Little is currently known about his boyhood. When he was a small boy he contracted Meningitis. He recovered, but he was left with reduced hearing.
Catherine Ann McLean was born Ripley, ONT, February 10, 1874. This is a different date than shown on her tombstone as 1876, but 1874 is confirmed by Canadian census records. Around 1890, Catherine left her family and moved to Duluth, MN. She probably traveled by steamer up Lake Huron and through Lake Superior. It is not known why she traveled to Duluth, but several brothers had already moved from the family farm out west in Canada and they may have told her that there was opportunity in Duluth.
Sometime, between 1890 and 1897 John and Catherine met. They were married on November 10, 1897. About this time John was employed in the Lighthouse Service. He first shows up listed as an Acting Third Assistant Keeper assigned to Stannardís Rock [ also known as Stannard Rock] beginning May 8, 1899. This was just three months after the birth of their first child, and my father, Murdock. Murdo John was named after Catherineís father and Johnís father. Catherine and the new baby were residing with Johnís parents John Archibald McDonald at 409 St. Croix Avenue, in Duluth.
A Third Assistant Keeper is the low man on the totem pole. His life consisted of heavy labor for very little wage. Most did not last very long. Many left after months or at the end of the shipping season. On Stannard Rock there was no way to leave except by ship. Ship visits were infrequent. Stannard Rock is located about 50 miles north of Marquette, Michigan. The men worked a 3 week shift, and then rotated to land for 3 weeks. I suspect that John traveled from Marquette to Duluth on the railroad on his time off.
John apparently was determined to make this his career. He came back to Stannard for a second year and on April 1, 1900 was promoted to Second Assistant Keeper. Near the end of his third year on Stannard he was promoted to First Assistant Keeper on October 6, 1901. Effective the next day he was transferred to the lighthouse located at Two Harbors, MN. This was much closer to Duluth and the family could be quartered in the lighthouse in the summer months. The McDonald family grew by two while they were stationed at Two Harbors. Joseph Norman McDonald, named after Johnís brother and Catherineís brother, was born in 1903, and Lillian Marie McDonald was born at the Two Harbors lighthouse on May 30, 1906. On December 31 1907, John was promoted to Keeper and transferred to Passage Island lighthouse located on Isle Royale effective January 1, 1908. He was now the top man in the lighthouse. During this time the pay for a Keeper was about $700 a year! Again the family could reside in the lighthouse during the shipping season. In the winter they resided with Johnís parents or with Catherineís sister Sarah in Duluth. The children must have attended school in Duluth. At sometime during their stay at Passage Island, Catherine fell and broke her leg. It was a bad break but they could not get to medical attention, her leg was bound to assist in healing. The leg never did heal and she continued to bind her leg for the rest of her life. After years of binding her leg with bandages, the circulation was reduced and the leg discolored. She must have suffered greatly with the leg but did not complain much.
On October 1, 1915 John was transferred to Big Bay, Michigan lighthouse as Keeper. Catherine was pregnant with her fourth child so this would be a difficult trip.
Just as the shipping season started on the Great Lakes, John Edward McDonald was born on April 17, 1916! Murdock was now 17 years old and ready to join the U.S. Navy to serve in World War I. Murdock served on the U.S. Dekalb, a troop ship that made numerous trips to Europe. Joseph was 13, and Lillian was 10 so that they could help the family. During the winter months the lighthouse was closed and the family moved to Big Bay to live in town. Early in their tour at Big Bay the mode of transportation to town was by horse. Later, it was reported that they would go to the lighthouse in a Model T. One story was that the road to the lighthouse had deep ruts. They would pull out the throttle and jump in the back seat and watch the car steer itself.
Granite Island, 1935 In the fall of 1917 the fifth and last child was born. William Charles McDonald was born on November 21, 1917. The school age children attended school in Big Bay. On July 8, 1925 a grandson was born at the lighthouse. Joseph Warren McDonald, son of Joseph and Grace Strongman McDonald. The family would remain stationed at Big Bay until August 1927. The record also shows that John A. was assigned to Huron Island Lighthouse in August 1927 as keeper. He apparently was sent there to fill in until a keeper could be assigned. A new keeper was assigned to Huron Island in 1928. It is almost certain that John transferred to the Granite Island Lighthouse beginning in 1928. Family recollections are that John was assigned to Granite Island Lighthouse, located about 20 miles north of Marquette. Records indicate that John was the Keeper of record in 1937. If he retired in 1938 he would have 39 years of service. He received a U.S. Government pension for his service. He was 71 years old and had nearly 40 of government service. Granite Island Lighthouse was automated in 1939. It is probable that John was the last lighthouse keeper at Granite.
At some time following the Big Bay service, the family moved to Marquette and rented a house located at 213 North Third Street. Most likely this was in late 1927 or early 1928. Later [late 1930ís] they moved to a house that they rented at 427 North front Street. Around 1946 they moved again to a rented two family home at 117 West Ridge Street that they shared with their daughter Lillian and grandson Michael, only child of Murdo. Michael had come to live with John and Catherine following the death of his mother in September 1939. John died at that address on September 26, 1959.
Catherine and Lillian moved to the Hargrave Apartments, Marquette. Catherine suffered a stroke in December 1963 and died April 4, 1964.

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