The Story Behind my Isle Royale Lighthouse Story

The Isle Royale Lighthouse on Menagerie Island. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

I recently had an article published in Lake Superior Magazine about a family of lighthouse keepers who spent their summers on a remote, rocky island that’s part of Isle Royale National Park. Here’s how the story (“Romancing the Stone”) came about.

Last December, I was hawking my books at a table at Fitger’s Bookstore in Duluth. Many holiday shoppers passed by, but one couple stopped to chat. Somehow, we got on the topic of Isle Royale, and I told them that my first novel was set on this island in Lake Superior.

The husband said something like, “Well, I’ve got a story for you. My ancestors were lighthouse keepers for two generations on Isle Royale.” The husband’s name was John Malone. His wife was LaRayne, and she mentioned they got engaged while on a trip to the “family’s lighthouse,” which was the Isle Royale Light on Menagerie Island. John mentioned that his lighthouse keeper great-grandfather had 11 children who lived out on the remote (and very small) island.

Although intrigued, I had plenty of story ideas in my head to keep me occupied for months. I told them I’d consider it but couldn’t promise anything.

But the more I thought about it afterward, the more interested I became in the story of the Malone Family. I checked with the Lake Superior Magazine editor to see if they’d ever featured a story about the Isle Royale Lighthouse and the Malone Family. She told me they hadn’t and that she would be interested in it.

I couldn’t find John Malone in the phonebook, but I was able to connect with him through social media. I reminded him who I was and told him I was interested in doing a story about his ancestors and family. On New Year’s Eve, he replied to me with his phone number. I called him to get more information so that I could pitch the story to the magazine.

Not long after, I pitched it, and the story was a go!

Then the work began. I was lucky that the Malones had a copy of a copy of the Isle Royale Lighthouse Keepers’ log, which they loaned me when I visited their home for an interview. Also, the National Park Service had done oral history interviews with two Malones a few decades ago. These Malones were now deceased, so those interviews were invaluable. I was able to combine those interviews with the ones I did with John.

After the last lighthouse keeper in the Malone Family quit his job on Isle Royale, he piloted yachts for the wealthy in Duluth. One of those families were the Congdons who built Glensheen Mansion, which is a tourist attraction now in the city. John Malone told me a tale about how his ancestor had been aboard the yacht when it sunk due to a fire. He had this great information (which is in my magazine story), but he didn’t think that the staff at Glensheen Mansion had heard the history.

It so happens that my daughter-in-law used to be a docent at the mansion and still has ties there. I consulted with her and she consulted with the staff at Glensheen to see what they knew about the sinking. It seemed as if a meeting between John and the mansion staff was in order, so I arranged it.

We met at the mansion and met with a Glensheen historian and the education manager. John got to tell his tale and I recorded it for my story. The mansion staff was excited to learn this new information. I hope they work it into the information that they provide to the public. And I think John was touched to have someone value the historic information he was privy to.

The Lake Superior Magazine editor only wanted a 1,200-word story, but I gave her more like a 2,000-word story. I apologized, saying the more I learned, the more there was to tell! But it paid off in the end because she dedicated much of that issue to maritime history.

Trying to sell books to people passing in a hallway can be depressing. I sometimes feel like one of those poor souls who stand on a street corner with a cardboard sign. My sign would say, “Will write for pay.” But this is one case where several good things came from putting myself out into the world.

Architectural drawings for the Isle Royale Lighthouse. This did not make it into my magazine story. Illustration courtesy of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Isle Royale Light Building Proposal, ISRO Archives, ACC#ISRO-00999, Cat#ISRO 20175.

A Perfect Duluth Evening

Boaters and landlubbers alike gather on the shores of Lake Superior for a “Concert on the Pier.” In the far background, you can see sailboats doing their Wednesday night races.

A historic mansion on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, offers free concerts on Wednesday evenings during summer. Local musicians play on a pier that juts out into the lake as hundreds of listeners lounge on blankets on the Glensheen Mansion grounds and the rocky shoreline. Boaters take advantage of the concerts as well, anchoring just off the pier. I should explain that all manner of watercraft people show up to listen: paddleboarders, kayakers, canoers, sailors, inner tubers.

I had never been to one of these concerts before. It was the last of the season, the weather was warm and calm, and some of my favorite musicians were playing – Jacob Mahon and Teague Alexy – in Teague’s “Common Thread” band. So, Russ and I grabbed our folding chairs and headed to the shore.

Since these events are so well-attended, parking space is at a premium. We parked in a neighborhood about a quarter mile away and walked onto the mansion grounds. We got there about an hour early so we would have a chance to sit in a good location.

The view from our concert spot on the beach. That’s the moon rising.

The best spots with direct views of the pier were already filled with picnickers. We noticed a small rocky hill on the beach behind the pier and decided to head there. We soon discovered that getting to the hill required fording the end of a creek (Tischer Creek) that runs through the property into the lake. Luckily, water levels were low enough that this was a simple task, requiring only a few steps on some well-placed rocks.

We planted our chairs to stake our claim and then headed out to investigate the food trucks, ice cream stand, and adult beverage purveyors on the grounds. We had just enough time to obtain some treats and return when the music began.

Teague’s songs have been described as “an inviting style of laid-back roots music” with a few Irish ditties sprinkled here and there. It was perfect for listening as the sun set in pinks and periwinkle blues over the lake.

More boats arrived until a minor flotilla floated in front of the pier. The boaters had the best seats!

Neighbors greeted neighbors. Former soccer moms reunited. Children continued their never-ending, generations-long quest to fill up Lake Superior with rocks.

A moonlit path on Lake Superior

Soon, an almost-Harvest-Moon rose, its light trailing a glowing path on the water. The disappearing sun had taken its warmth along with it. Although we wore jackets, a chill from the lake began seeping through. We stayed until we became too uncomfortable, leaving a few songs before the concert’s end.

As we walked back to our car serenaded by the band, the Lake Superior cold in our limbs was offset by warmth toward our community for providing this perfect way to spend a Duluth evening. Glensheen’s Concerts on the Pier are a unique experience. So glad we got our butts down to the shore to enjoy one.

Something Pumpkin-y This Way Comes

A river of jack-o-lanterns on the grounds of Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, MN.

A river of jack-o-lanterns on the grounds of Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, MN.

Dozens of volunteers carve what must be hundreds of pumpkins that decorate the grounds of a local mansion on the shores of Lake Superior that is open for public tours. I checked it out last night and brought my camera along. Happy Halloween!

Glensheen Mansion.

Glensheen Mansion.


An eerie blue light illuminates the room where the murder of the last owner occurred in the mansion.

An eerie blue light illuminates the room where the murder occurred of the last owner of the mansion.


I don't think this was part of the  tour, but I thought it was spooky: looking into a tunnel that runs under the road. Who is the bench for?

I don’t think this was part of the tour, but I thought it was spooky: looking into a tunnel that runs under the road. Who is that bench for?

Ghosts making s'mores.

Ghosts making s’mores.