The Light Keeper’s Legacy – A Retrospective

When publisher Midnight Ink picked up the first book in the Chloe Ellefson Mystery series, Old World Murder, I was given a two-book contract. After turning in the second book I wrote a proposal for two more, starting with a book set at Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin.

(Rock Island is off the tip of Door County in Lake Michigan, and it takes two ferries and a mile walk to reach the lighthouse.  Mr. Ernst and I had the pleasure of serving as live-in docents for eight years. For nine days at a time we gave tours during the day and got to live in the lighthouse.)

Mr. Ernst in the light room with the Fresnel lens.

A few months after turning in the proposal, Mr. Ernst and I left the mainland on the first ferry, heading for the lighthouse. Cell service was not available on Rock Island at that time, so I checked my phone one last time before turning it off for the duration. Up popped a note from my agent, telling me that my proposal had been accepted. That was a great way to start the week!

Pottawatomie Lighthouse

I was excited about several aspects of the proposed book. In real life, Pottawatomie Lighthouse had been restored by a group of determined citizens who formed a support group called The Friends of Rock Island. They did a phenomenal job with a huge project, and I was delighted to fictionalize that story in the mystery.

Also, I was eager to share a bit of the island’s rich history. It’s easy to imagine lighthouse families at work when a gorgeous structure like Pottawatomie remains. But nothing tangible remains of a fishing village on the island that once was home to perhaps 300 people. Writing the mystery gave me the opportunity to breathe life into that part of the island’s story.

This peaceful meadow on Rock Island was once the site of a bustling fishing village.

The rugged setting also was ideal for a murder mystery. The only drawback was spending that week on the island cataloging, for plot purposes, every imaginable way someone could get into trouble on roadless Rock Island.

We had guests visit that year, and they didn’t return from a hike when expected. After waiting an hour, Mr. Ernst set out to search for them. That left me alone at the lighthouse, knowing the day’s last ferry had departed and the ranger with it. I admit, my imagination got the better of me, and I wished I hadn’t spent quite so much time envisioning catastrophe. (Everyone did eventually return, safe and sound.)

I wrote some of the book while staying at the lighthouse—longhand, since there’s no electricity.

 

A year later, we spent some of our time at the lighthouse proofreading the edited manuscript.

SPOILER ALERT – plot points are discussed below!

As always, I started conceptualizing the book by thinking about Chloe and Roelke’s emotional growth in the last mystery, and where I wanted them to go in this one. Chloe is feeling strong again after her bad experience in Switzerland and her struggle with clinical depression. It was satisfying to give her the opportunity to head out on her own, quite comfortable with the prospect of spending a week alone on a wilderness island.

Beach below the lighthouse.

Roelke knows he wants a relationship with Chloe, but he’s still figuring out what that means.  He expresses doubt about her trip in the opening scene. When he finally hears about trouble on the island, he makes a decision to rent a plane and fly north. He knows Chloe might resent his appearance—especially if all is well. He does it anyway. I wanted to show that Roelke is a guy who’s willing to take risks to protect people he cares about, a theme revisited in later books.

The plotline about the young idealistic environmentalists who want to simplify a complex situation is fictional, but does reflect some personal experience. In college I majored in environmental education, and remember learning for myself that most often any issue is more complicated than it may appear. I tried to share a bit of that when discussing commercial fishing in the Great Lakes. Creating the character of Stig provided an opportunity to show the difficulty faced by someone who understands both sides of the dilemma.

When doing research I wasn’t able to identify any primary source material, or artifacts, directly tied to the fishing community on Rock Island. Ragna Anderson, in the historical timeline, is completely fictional.

Emily Betts, on the other hand, was a real woman who lived with her family at the lighthouse, and served as Assistant Keeper—until she lost her job, as described in the book. Obviously I fictionalized her experience, and her interaction with Ragna, but I hope I conveyed the essence of a woman who was, by all accounts, enormously capable and widely admired.

Emily Betts and two of her children in 1883. (National Archives & Records Administration)

Although Emily was officially on the payroll as Assistant Keeper, all of the lighthouse ledger entries appear to have been made by her husband, Keeper. The roster below notes that her position was abolished.

One interesting aside: I spent a week in Door County while working on this book, and learned that the marvelous Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay was hosting a temporary exhibit about the haunted history of county lighthouses. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but I’m glad I did. The exhibit did a great job of sharing stories and postulating possible explanations for some of the experiences that have been reported. Although many say Pottawatomie is haunted, Mr. Ernst and I have never run across anything spooky in our time there.  I was delighted that the story presented about Rock Island’s lighthouse had to do with the sound of laughing children—which I incorporated into the story.

Temporary exhibit at Door County Maritime Museum

So, what did you think? Was Roelke’s  protective instinct warranted, or all wrong for an independent woman like Chloe? Are you a lighthouse fan, and if so, why do you think so many people find them appealing? Would you be willing to spend a week alone in an island lighthouse?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on my webpage for The Lightkeeper’s Legacy. Resources include a Google map, a Locations Guide, full Discussion Guide, a recipe for Danish Apple Cake, and links to lots of additional background material. Happy reading!

That’s me, standing on “Emily’s rock” below the lighthouse.

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12 Responses to “The Light Keeper’s Legacy – A Retrospective”

  1. Sandra Radford Griswold Says:

    I am fortunate to live near several famous lighthouses, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke lighthouse, Currituck, Bodie Island The Old Point Comfort and I appreciate their beauty, mystique, their construction, their stories from a bygone era, their functionality., and now a history lesson. They provide great photo opportunities. I would like to think that yes I could spend a week alone in a lighthouse, provided I had plenty good books to read, lots of good food and plenty of hot tea to refresh me.Enjoying the sound of waves lapping the shore, the call of sea birds, and meeting and greeting any visitors that came! Just writing this makes me want to try it!???

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Sandra – You’ve had a chance to explore some beauties! I haven’t visited most of those you mention, but perhaps someday. I’ve also stayed at a couple of lighthouse B&Bs in Michigan, which provided a little taste without the labor. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. merrylu Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, it was fun to learn some of the background for this book. I think lighthouses have such appeal because of their solitude and because of the stories – real and fictional – they tell and/or are told about them.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi MerryLu – The stories they tell. So true! And maybe the solitude you mention helps encourage visitors to wonder about and ask questions about the people who have come and gone.

  3. Vickie Sheridan Says:

    The Lightkeepers Legacy was the first Chloé book I read and loved it. My husband and I have visited Door County many times and have visited Pottawatomie twice. We love lighthouses and have visited every one on Door County, along Wisconsin’s coast, along the western side of Michigan along with the west coast and Florida. Needless to say we would stay in a lighthouse any time. The solitude at Pottawatomie was amazing. Thank you for your Chloe mysteries and I look forward to reading her next adventure. You have brought the history of the early Wisconsin settlers to life.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Vickie, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts–and the kind words. I love having the opportunity to share some of our special places with readers, and Pottawatomie is certainly high on that list!

  4. Mary Scott Says:

    How can I buy the previous books that are in the set?

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Mary – All the books are still in print, so you should be able to purchase them or order them through any vendor. The first two titles are Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders. I hope you enjoy! The books work as standalones, but there is a trajectory to the series, so by starting at the beginning you can follow character development.

  5. Jill Nisbet Says:

    I have visited 2 lighthouses, Port Washington and one in the Apostle Islands. They are so charming, and I especially thought of the light keepers legacy while on Apostle Islands last summer. It was so atmospheric and I tried to imagine their lives on Lake Superior so long ago! One day I hope to visit the Pottawatomie light.
    The Port Washington lighthouse has a little museum that actually has an ancient Christmas tree brought up from the Rousse Simmons,
    The doomed Christmas tree ship that sunk on the way to Chicago.Don’t you just love history?

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Jill – I’ve visited the Apostle Islands light. The Apostles are so wild and beautiful it’s easy to imagine life there long ago. I haven’t been to the Port Washington lighthouse, so thanks for the tip! History isn’t about facts and dates, it’s about all these compelling stories.

  6. Linda May Says:

    I once did a circle lighthouse tour where we started in Wisconsin, went up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan & then came back down. It was the most amazing trip I have ever taken, visiting the different lighthouses & learning about how the lightkeepers lived was great.

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