History Mystery: How Gert Wellisch saved Sand Island Lighthouse

History Mystery Wellish

Gert Wellisch (1896-1966) spent her childhood summers in the Apostle Islands. In 1910 her father Robert Wellisch, a well-to-do manufacturer from St. Paul, joined with three other businessmen to build an imposing, Adirondack-style lodge on the west shore of Sand Island.  

the West Bay Club
The West Bay Club
The main room in the West Bay Club
The main room in the West Bay Club
Gert by the wood pile at the West Bay Club in 1916
Gert by the wood pile at the West Bay Club in 1916

Gert grew up to be a St. Paul schoolteacher, and her small cadre of female city friends became a regular fixture of the Sand Island summer community during the World War I era.

Their island adventures, exploring forests, farms, beaches, and rock outcrops, and sharing late nights around West Bay Lodge’s massive stone fireplace, are amply and humorously documented in her surviving photo scrapbook: it is itself a rich visual representation of the era.  The West Bay Club still stands today, now owned by the National Park Service. 

Gert and her girlfriends on the Sand Bay beach 1922
Gert and her girlfriends on the Sand Bay beach 1922

When Gert reached adulthood, a unique opportunity came her way to have her own summer place on the island. In 1920, the brownstone lighthouse at Sand Island’s northern tip became the first beacon in the Apostles to be automated. The building sat vacant until 1925, when Gert, making use of her father’s political connections, secured permission to lease the lighthouse, at a rate of $25.00 per year.

Gert standing in front of the Sand Island light
Gert standing in front of the Sand Island light

For the next eighteen years, Gert made the Sand Island Lighthouse her summer home. As a schoolteacher, she was able to spend the full summer on the island, and she invested substantial time, effort, and funds into maintaining the old building. As she later boasted, “My living there has kept the place from becoming a ruin.” 

Gert at the Sand Island lighthouse
Gert at the Sand Island lighthouse
Gert's brother "Bun" on the lighthouse roof
Gert’s brother “Bun” on the lighthouse roof
The Sand Island Fresnel lens
The Sand Island Fresnel lens

 In her raffish (if somewhat theatrical) version of a sailor’s “cracker jack” uniform and white sailor hat, accompanied by her police dog Sandy, she was the first female “keeper” of the lighthouse as well as the face of a new generation of young and empowered females. 

Gert and her dog Sandy
Gert and her dog Sandy
Excerpt of 1926 Minneapolis Journal article about Gert
Excerpt of 1926 Minneapolis Journal article about Gert

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 will be 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.