Few things fuel as much curiosity as big bodies of water and the mysteries that lie beneath. For David Cooper, that curiosity spawned a life-long love for Wisconsin’s Great Lakes.
“I grew up over in Door County, and grew up around lighthouses and shipwrecks and that sort of thing,” Cooper said. “I became really fascinated by the maritime history of the Great Lakes as a little kid, and was playing around on shallow shipwrecks with a mask and snorkel I got from Ace Hardware when I was ten years old.”
As Cooper grew older, that boyhood curiosity blossomed into a career in Great Lakes history.
“I ended up working for the Wisconsin Historical Society as a maritime archaeologist, studying shipwrecks and started doing work up in the Apostle (Islands) on a number of our local wrecks,” Cooper said. “Some of the local Parks Service people that I was working with said ‘Hey, are you interested in working for the Parks Service as a ranger and a cultural research specialist … I ended up working on the Minnesota north shore, Grand Portage.”
Eventually, Cooper found his way back to the Apostle Islands near Bayfield, where he now works as a cultural resource specialist.
“It’s a group of islands in Northern Wisconsin, on Lake Superior, and it’s between Duluth to the West and Ashland to the South, so it was kind of a funnel for shipping moving up and down Lake Superior.”
That shipping history left the Apostle Islands dotted with historic lighthouses and outbuildings for those who kept the lights on. The first of those lighthouses was built in 1856 on Raspberry Island, Cooper said.
Time and elements have worn on the lighthouses, leaving them in need of extensive repairs. For several years, Cooper has overseen those repairs.
“We had some money provided us by Congress for restoring a number of the lights in the park, and one of the first projects we’d had some years ago was here at Raspberry Light, and this was done in 2005-2007,” Cooper said. “Subsequent to that, we received a special appropriation from Congress for working on the remaining five light stations.”
Performing those repairs takes the skills of builders and artisans, but it also takes the expertise of historians like Cooper.
“Detective work is a good way to describe it,” he said. “We had what’s called a historic structures report done for all the lights, and it’s basically a top-to-bottom survey … There’s all kinds of things out on these grounds from where they played croquet to where the gardens were to where the keepers’ kids may have scratched their initials on the rocks you know a hundred years ago down below.”
That rich history carved into the landscape attracts thousands of visitors to light stations around the country, including these in the Apostle Islands.
“There’s a lot of folks who really, they’ll travel the whole country, even travel internationally to visit lighthouses,” Cooper said. “There’s a romance to the stations … these silent sentinels sitting on these bluffs overlooking the ocean or the lakes and the story of the keepers and their solitary lives, but the stations were very pretty. There’s a lot of aesthetics to the stations, so they’re very appealing to people for a lot of reasons.”
Working on these light stations appeals to Cooper as well.
“I love being outside and I love being on the lake,” Cooper said. “I’d rather be out on the water than anywhere. There’s bad days on the lake … but mostly it’s really nice working out on the water and on the islands. It’s a real privilege to work with this collection of lighthouses.”
Take a tour of the Apostle Islands with David as your guide!
Watch another story here to see how the National Park Service restored the Raspberry Island Lighthouse in 2005-2007.