History Mystery: Francis Jacker marooned on Oak Island!

Francis Jacker was keeper at Raspberry Island Lighthouse from 1885 through 1892.

Jacker was born in Germany in 1840 and studied for three years at the Munich Academy of Arts.  He immigrated to America in 1859 and moved to northern Michigan in 1862 to reunite with his brother who was a missionary among the Indians.  In 1863 Jacker married an Ojibwe girl, named Ikwesens (Little Girl), or Catherine, as she was christened.  Her father, Wabos, was one of the great chiefs of the Ojibwe nation.  They built a home near Portage Entry, Michigan and started a family. 

Francis Jacker at his farm near Portage Entry, Michigan

Francis Jacker at his farm near Portage Entry, Michigan

Francis & Catherine Jacker - Francis and his wife at home

Francis & Catherine Jacker – Francis and his wife at hom

Jacker learned the Ojibwe language and spent much of his life studying Ojibwe history, culture, and legends.  Jacker was also a talented artist.  He took advantage of his spare time at the lighthouse to create etchings of nature scenes on shelf fungus that were sold as far away as Europe.

Francis creating his shelf fungus art

Francis Jacker creating his shelf fungus art

Though the Raspberry station had once been allotted an assistant keeper, the position was abolished in 1882, presumably for reasons of economy. Keeping the station without help proved a challenging job, as one of Jacker’s log entries attests in the best bureaucratic manner:

“The reinstitution of an assistant keeper for this station is deemed necessary by the present writer for reasons submitted by letter to the inspector. In case of an emergency, no assistance is available on the island, and the proper surveillance of the revolving apparatus during the long nights of the fall when frequent windings are required, is exhausting. “

Though Jacker was married, he apparently chose not to bring his family to the lighthouse. Sometimes the logbooks give evidence of his loneliness, as on one Independence Day:

“Rain on the Fourth. No celebration within twelve miles of the station. The day passed in quiet solitude as usual.”

That year he had no visitors until mid-August:

“August 8, 1887. Tug Daisy brought an excursion party who visited the station and expressed their delight over the rural attractions of the place. They were the first visitors of the season.”

Little more than a month later, Jacker’s worst fears came true. His solitary situation put him into some real trouble. The keeper’s log for September 1887 tells the tale:

painting of Francis Jacker trying to save his skiff in September 1887

Painting of Francis Jacker trying to save his skiff in September 1887

“Early in the morning of the 13th, a westerly gale sprang up, all of a sudden, endangering the sailboat of the station which that night had been anchored near the dock. Jumping out of bed, I hurried to move it to a place of safety at the eastern extremity of the island— the dilapidated condition of the ways rendering it impossible, for the moment, to have it hauled up to the boathouse.”

Raspberry skiff 1925 - a skiff similar to what Francis had at Raspberry Island in 1887

Raspberry skiff 1925 – a skiff similar to what Francis Jacker had at Raspberry Island in 1887

But the storm’s fury was too much for the lighthouse keeper in his little boat:

“In the dark, I missed the point of landing, sailing beyond it, and the impetuosity of the storm made it impossible either to row or beat up against it, gravel having entered and lodged in the centerboard box, prevented the use of the latter; consequently tacking could not be resorted to. I could do nothing but to sail, under reefed canvas, with the current of the wind and waves, thus drifting over to Oak Island. “

“The storm did not abate until noon of the third day, by which time the boat had received such damage that there would have been no escape for me from my prison, were it not for a passing Indian who noticed my signal of distress and rescued me. I had spent nearly three days on the desolated island, without food, without fire, and being but scantily dressed.”

By coincidence, while Jacker was marooned on Oak Island, his wife and family arrived at Raspberry Island for a visit. Finding her husband missing, Mrs. Jacker did what she could to tend the beacon. She was able to light the lamp, but could not operate the clockwork mechanism that rotated the lens to produce its characteristic flash. In Jacker’s words,

“In consequence of the above occurrence, the light of this station was not extinguished in the morning of the 13th, and not exhibited the night following. It was relighted, however, in the night of the 14th and 15th by my family who happened to come on a visit, but owing to their inability to get the revolving machinery into motion, the apparatus did not revolve.”

This harrowing experience brought Jacker an unexpected benefit. On September 22, 1887, J.C. Thompson, master of the steamer Horace A. Tuttle, wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury with a complaint. Thompson reported that he had passed Raspberry Island several days before, and found that the light was out. He demanded an explanation, noting that Raspberry Island was “important because it is the leading light between Duluth, Bayfield, and Ashland.”

Letting the light go out was reason for a stiff reprimand or even dismissal, and the District Inspector ordered Jacker to explain himself. The story of his ordeal must have made an impression on Jacker’s bosses- before the year was over, Edward Jacker, Francis’s son, was appointed assistant keeper at Raspberry Island light!

The Apostle Islands are full of beauty, adventure, and wildlife; they also have a rich and varied history. This summer, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the park, we are exploring that history with a little help from some friends: large, nearly life-sized standing poster board images of lighthouse keepers and sailors and ship captains and island lovers and more. Each one will ask you a question, present a mystery of island history, and offer you a QR code to explore the answer.

So look for the cardboard cutouts popping up in local shops, on the ferry, in the parks, all over town, and when you find them, introduce yourself, look for the question, and explore the answer to one of the History Mysteries of the Apostle Islands. Then join us at Friendsoftheapostleislands.org to support the protection of the islands, their beauty, their adventure, their wildlife, and their history.

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