Fire and Fog


A short story by Kathy Warnes

Waugoshance Light-Lake Michigan

On April 19, 1871, James Davenport, accepted the position of assistant keeper at Waugoshance Lighthouse at the western entrance to the Straits of Mackinac in Lake Michigan. He had only been the light keeper for about six months when the Great Chicago Fire broke out in October of 1871. The winds blew the smoke from the fire onto Lake Michigan and the smoke caused a severe fog. The fog encased several ships, putting them in peril. Maritime legend has it that Captain Davenport had to stay awake all night to keep the foghorn operating, so he surrounded himself with pots and pans that would trigger a clattering alarm if he fell asleep while tending the fog horn.

This story could have happened but there is only imaginary evidence that it did…

Fog as thick as the distance between light keeper Robert Downs and his wife Melinda blanketed the lighthouse like a shroud on that October morning in 1871. He coughed as its acrid bite traveled from his nose to his lungs. Waugoshance Light Station stood at the end of a narrow strip of land called Waugoshance Point which marked the turning point for ships traveling through the Straits of Mackinac and along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan between the Beavers and the mainland. Using the point as a lethal home base, eight miles of islands, treacherous shoals and islets extended into Lake Michigan that covered them to only a depth of twelve or less feet at this point.

Robert paced the empty tower room, his dark blue wool trousers and jacket hanging on his six foot frame. The sable brown hairs on his head and crisp moustache and the silt brown of his eyes contrasted sharply with his milk pale complexion. “The perfect place to navigate a marriage full of shoals and islets and fog,” Robert addressed the empty tower room. “The isolation is why I brought her here.” As if his voice had summoned her, he heard Melinda’s footsteps coming up the cast iron stairway to the tower.

She sailed into the room. An apt nautical metaphor, he thought to himself with approval. Her figure and her dress reminded him of a tall, lean, main mast with the sails fastened securely. It was the potential of her black hair hanging loosely to her shoulders that excited him and gave him hope for the future, their future together.

The coolness of her blue eyes drowned that hope. His attempt at a smile ended halfway. “I hope your heart isn’t as heavy as your footsteps or this smoke.”

“There’s a terrible fire in Chicago,” she panted. “One of the ship’s captains told me to let you know. He narrowly missed Arrow Shoal.”

“It’s a good thing we didn’t stay in Chicago,” he said.

“I wanted to stay in Chicago for Seth’s sake. It’s civilized and far enough away from Seattle to keep him safe.”

“Safe?” Safe from what?” Robert looked past his wife at the swirling dark clouds of smoke. They were sliding into the same, well traveled argument that always ended up in a draw.

“Melinda, you knew when you married me that I wasn’t a city person.”

“You weren’t a country person, either. You were a sailor on the lakes. You promised me you’d stop sailing and settle on the land.”

“We are living on a point of land in a lighthouse, Melinda.”

“We don’t have any neighbors and it’s twenty miles to town, Robert.”

“It’s land, Melinda. You have me firmly anchored to land. You already had me firmly anchored when we got married.”

“We made an agreement, Robert. I didn’t force you to marry me.

“You didn’t? What about Seth?”

“What about him? I wanted to take care of him by myself. You’re the one who followed me to Ohio and begged me to come back. I was living well and taking good care of him.”

“That’s true, Melinda, but Seth is partially my responsibility too.”

He watched her stiffen her spine as hard as the wooden pier that jutted out into Lake Michigan. But, he reminded himself, the constant irritation of the water softened the wood and gradually eroded it into splinters. Maybe the isolation of this place would do that to her resistance. Maybe the isolation of this place would soften her women free ideas.

“Robert, when I found out that Seth was coming, I decided that I would bear him and take care of him myself. I hadn’t intended to marry and I hadn’t intended to change my mind. I listened to your argument that Seth needed the influence of a father in his life, an influence other than my father.

Robert smiled. “I’m glad I’m an influence other than your father and I’m glad I came after you.”

Melinda didn’t smile back at him. Instead, she stretched taller revealing the outlines of her body under her straight lined blouse and trousers. Ever since he had known her, Melinda had occasionally worn the newfangled outfits with skirt- trousers, unlike most other women. Now that they lived in the light house, Melinda wore the skirt- trousers all of the time. The light had yet to soften her ideas. Watching her, Robert thought about the magical night aboard the Betty Jo when Melinda had stayed with him all night and they hadn’t argued. At first he had been astonished at her honesty. She didn’t want any commitments, she’d told him. If they spent the night together that would be the extent of their commitment. They wouldn’t see each other again. She hadn’t even told him about Seth. He had harried that secret out of her mother during the hurried trip to Seattle.

Her glance blazed blue fire. “Why did you come after me?”

“Melinda, I’ve told you at least ten times, I came after you because I love you and Seth.”

“You love me because you want to own me. To me love is captivity. And how could you love Seth before you even knew him or knew about him?”

“I love him because he’s my son and your son. “

“You love him because you want to own him.”

“He’s my flesh and blood, part of my family.”

“He has his own flesh and blood. He is his own person.”

“He’s part of both of us. Why do you deny that?

“He will be his own person, Robert. He’ll stand tall, resolute, independent like this lighthouse. I’ll see to that.”

So much for softening of ideas, he thought.“Even the light house needs help once in a while,” Robert said gently. He wanted to fight his way through the thick smoke of misunderstanding and fear and mistrust that swirled between them. He wanted to put his arm around her waist, draw her close to him, and kiss her, but he couldn’t. The smoke enveloped them both and he knew that if he materialized as a solid object in its midst, she would scream in fright and flee down the stairs.

Instead, he rang the fog bell that warned ships to stay away from the shoals surrounding the lighthouse. Its brass voice sounded loud enough to reach Chicago. He imagined its echoes riding the tendrils of smoke back to their source. He sighed. If only he could send buckets of water on the smoke trails to help fight the fire both here and in Chicago.

“It is beautiful here, Robert.” Melinda had walked to the edge of the tower and was leaning against the railing trying to see through the smoke.

“How can you see the beauty when the smoke covers it?” he asked her.

“I know what the beauty looks like. I see it every day with Seth. We watch the sea gulls performing air current ballets above the rocks. We watch the sky change from white cloud sailboats to black thunder cloud pirate galleons. We collect shells on the beach and carry them inside to bring in the sound of the waves. We listen to the rhythm of the waves on the shore and breathe in time. We fasten our lives to a wave beaten rock and count the beats. We collect shells on the beach and arrange them in the garden. We sit on the beach and explore the endless horizon.”

Robert smiled. “Each of the Great Lakes has a soul . Lake Superior is wild and remote like a wolf stalking the edges of the world. Lake Erie is like a peregrine falcon, preferring to be wild but adapting to existing on the edges of tall buildings. Lake Ontario is like a chameleon, mixing the genes of the four great lakes that empty into it and reflecting their personalities. Lake Huron is an octopus with huge arms like Georgian Bay and geologists say Lake Michigan, extending its range. And Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is a faithful pet dog, surrounded by humans, but with the lurking potential of the bite.”

Melinda stared at him. “I didn’t know you had any of the poet in you, Robert. That is an extraordinary way of describing the great lakes.”

“I didn’t just sail the lakes, Melinda. I studied and learned and absorbed them. I want to domesticate them, but I know I can’t. No one can.”

“Maybe that’s the most important lesson to learn about the lakes Robert. They are familiar because they are so vastly and eternally there. We take them for granted and think they are domesticated, but it takes just one storm or sunset to show us that they can’t, they won’t be tamed.”

“Fire can’t be tamed either, Melinda, but we need to keep ringing the bell so people can confront the fire and fight it. The smoke is so thick that ships captains can’t see through it and I’m afraid that some of them might sink or run aground on the rocks.”

She smiled at him. “The bite of the domesticated dog, Robert?”

He smiled back. “Something like that.”

Their blue and brown eyes held and he felt like an empty Lake Ontario ship hold, eager to be filled with whatever bounty she offered.

She stiffened. “Did you hear that, Robert?”

“A ship’s whistle. I’ll have to keep ringing the bell to warn them away.”

Without looking at him, she turned away.“Ring away then.” Without looking at her, he heard her footsteps descending the stairs. He sighed again and continued to ring the bell.

He rang the bell for what seemed like hours before he finally got up from the chair and stretched. He walked to the edge of the tower railing to check on the condition of the smoke. It had thickened to the extent that he felt like he could grab handfuls of it and stuff it like cotton into a pillow. He heard the frantic searching of a ship’s whistle for directions through the smoke and hurried back to his chair. After ringing the fog bell vigorously for several minutes, he no longer heard the frantic ship’s whistle. He sighed with relief. One vessel had escaped the rocks, but the next had to be warned away. He pulled the rope harder, but now it seemed to pull back with strength that overpowered his own. The smoke had darkened the room, or perhaps it was night. He didn’t dare drop the rope to go to the window and scan the sky. He sat in the chair gripping the bell rope in his fingers like sea weed from the bottom of the lake. He shook his head. The lake water must be muffling the sound of the bell because now it sounded like he was sitting deep under water ringing it. He felt his chin hit his chest. He jerked awake. No! He couldn’t fall asleep. A nap from him could wreck a ship!

Robert rang the bell a few more times before he felt his head dropping to his chest again. He slapped himself across the face and his heavy gold wedding ring caught him painfully in the corner of his left eye. “Ouch!” he hollered, he hoped quietly.

He had not hollered quietly enough for soon he heard footsteps on the stairs. They were lighter and swifter than Melinda’s. Seth’s tousled blond head appeared at the top of stairs. “Papa, Mama says it’s time to eat supper.”

“Tell her I have to keep ringing the bell, Seth.”

“I can ring the bell while you’re eating, Papa.”

“Then when will you eat, Seth?”

“Mama will ring the bell while I’m eating.”

“Then when will she eat?”

“You can ring the bell while she’s eating, Papa.”

“We can’t ring in circles forever, Seth. We need to sleep.”

“Mama is bringing up some tools to keep us awake,” Seth told him.

“What tools, Seth?”

“These tools!” Seth hoisted the rest of his body up the tower stairs and Robert saw that he waved a copper sauce pan in each hand.

“What are you doing with your Mama’s pans? You better put them back before she misses them,” Robert told his son.

“She told me to take them, Papa.”

“Are you sure she told you to take them, Seth? Your Mama doesn’t readily share her tools.”

“She told me to take them, Papa. Don’t you believe me?”

Robert patted his small son’s head. “You may have misunderstood what she told you, Seth.”

“She told me to take them, Papa! She did!” Seth flung both pans down in front of his father’s chair.

“Mama works by herself, Seth.”

“Mama said that two partners working together are better than one.

Seth bent over and retrieved his pans. “Mama’s bringing more pans to help keep us awake. She said we can bang them whenever any of us are about to fall asleep.”

Robert stopped ringing the bell. “She said all of that? Are you sure, Seth?”

The smell of the roast chicken and the clatter of the pans she was carrying arrived at the top of the stairs a few seconds before he heard Melinda’s soft voice. “She did say all of that, Robert.”

Kathy Warnes was born and raised in Ecorse, Michigan downriver on the Detroit River. She moved to the west side of the state to continue her career as visiting professor at Grand Valley State University. A longtime journalist/writer/historian, Kathy has loved the Great Lakes from childhood and has spent much of her adult life writing about them. She is a past winner of the Barkhausen Award for original writing and research about the Great Lakes. Check out her maritime blog, her website, and her Definitely Downriver blog.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Lake Effect Living photographs
are the work and property of Sharon Pisacreta.