In November of 1970, two young U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse keepers who were on duty at the Wisconsin Point Lighthouse in Superior, Wisconsin witnessed the wrath of Lake Superior, something that this, the largest fresh water lake in the world, is famous for. In fact, it was that wrath that nearly cost them their lives.
In recalling the incident, Chuck Frederick of the Duluth News Tribune wrote, “The big lake grew angrier by the hour. Relentless winds howled at 70 mph, rolling mammoth walls of icy Lake Superior through the lighthouse.”
The Wisconsin Point Lighthouse, also known as the Superior Entry Lighthouse and the Superior Harbor Entry South Breakwater Lighthouse, had been built to accommodate keepers. Originally, the first story of the lighthouse housed two twenty-two-horsepower air compressors and tanks, a heating plant, a bathroom, and a cold storage room. The second story of the lighthouse contained a kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, and a bathroom. The lower part of the tower held the fog signal equipment.
There was a keepers’ duplex on the mainland, but in inclement weather the living quarters at the lighthouse had to be used so that the keepers could manage the light without having to go back and forth twice a day from the mainland. Most times, the keepers reached the lighthouse by boat. However, they could also walk to and from the lighthouse over the 500-yard-long breakwater, which had a safety cable running its entire length for the keepers to hold onto in bad weather.
The storm had started a couple of days earlier. And by Monday night, November 28, 1960 the two young Coast Guard keepers, 24-year-old Robert Dunno and 18-year-old Fred Ketola, knew they were trouble. Fred Ketola later recalled, “She was quite a blow. It started just like a regular little storm. They always do.”
Winds and waves crashed through some of the windows, and water was starting to slowly fill up the lower levels of the lighthouse. The radio beacon equipment was totally destroyed. The power was out, and the backup generator provided almost no heat and only a dim light. Food supplies were low and the fresh water was almost gone.
Fred Ketola later recalled, “If I was scared of anything it was the pounding of the waves. They smashed out windows that were 20-feet up and the spray hit the top of the 70-foot high lighthouse. I didn’t believe a solid concrete building could shake, but it did. It moved around pretty good.”
Their last meal was instant coffee, instant soup, and instant hash brown potatoes, all boiled in lake water.
Because the storm seemed to be winding down, the cold and hungry men radioed to shore that they were coming in. Robert Dunno said that as they contemplated their escape, “There was no doubt that it was going to be dangerous.” Late in the morning of Tuesday, November 29, 1960, they ventured out onto the ice-covered breakwater and closed the lighthouse door behind them.
They knew the risk that they were taking. A wrong move, a wave, or a gust of wind could toss them into Lake Superior, which would mean certain death. Neither man was wearing a life jacket.
Ketola and Dunno were able to hold onto the railing posts from the lighthouse entryway walkway to the cement part of the breakwater pier, but after that there was nothing to hold onto. At that point, the cement breakwater was so slippery, and the wind was so strong, that the young men were unable to stand or walk. They were forced to lie on their stomachs and crawl. The wind was ferocious, and waves slammed at the breakwater and often up and over the two men. They had not ventured very far when an enormous gust of wind literally blew Fred Ketola off the breakwater.
Ketola recalled the incident. “It blew me like a sail and threw me on the rocks.” He landed just inches from the frigid water and certain death. That’s when Dunno reached down and grabbed his arm. At that exact moment, a photographer was able to snap the photo of that split-second rescue that is shown with this article of Robert Dunno reaching out to grab and pull Fred Ketola back up onto the breakwater.
While all of this was going on, Head Keeper David S. Simonson, who had taken line from shore, was able to crawl on the rocks from shore to secure a lifeline half way out onto the breakwater. The other end of Simonson’s line was securely held on shore by Coastguardsman Richard Bye. The man on the shore would then struggle to hold the lifeline taut so that all three men could use it to hold onto until they reached the mainland and safety. Simonson later told a reporter, “Oh there was a certain amount of risk involved of course. But someone had to do it, and I had done it before.”
Once Ketola was back on the breakwater, the two men navigated their way to the halfway point where, with the help of the life-line, slowly, but as fast as possible, all three men made it shore. They were lucky to be alive. The men were encased in spray-frozen clothing and were “blue” from clinging to the line and from crawling on the jagged concrete. Once back in the keeper’s house, and dressed in day and warm clothing, they were served eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, and a cigarette.
Fred Ketola told a newspaper reporter, “I’ve got nothing but total respect for Lake Superior now, especially in November.”
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2018 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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