Cheboygan Main Light Station Seeing The Light

Lighthouse Point, Cheboygan State Park, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

In 1851, Duncan City was the only town of prominence near the mouth of the Cheboygan River. Located at the western edge of McLeod's Bay, a little over a mile to the east of the river, where the McLeod brothers had established the area's first sawmill in 1846.

Duncan City was a "company town," and took its name from Jeremiah W. Duncan, whose lumbering operation eclipsed all others in the area. Duncan's docks along the bay established it as a fueling stop for the wood-burning steam vessels passing through the Straits. As Duncan City grew, it did not take long for the bay itself to take on the Duncan name.

Located directly across the three mile width of the Straits from the southernmost point of Bois Blanc Island, the eastern prominence of Duncan Bay marked a natural turning point for vessels entering the Straits, and the growing bounty of Lake Michigan beyond.

On December 21, 1850, Congress appropriated the sum of $4,000 for the purchase of a 41.13 acre reservation on what would become known as "Lighthouse Point" at the western end of Duncan Bay for the construction of the first Cheboygan light station. The construction contract was awarded to Rhodes and Warner, of Ohio, and under the superintendence of Captain Shook of the Army Corps of Engineers, construction of the station began in the spring of 1851. Consisting of a round 40-foot brick tower on a stone foundation, the lantern was outfitted with a Fifth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by L. Sautter of Paris, making it one of the first on the Great Lakes equipped with a lens of the Fresnel design. William Drew, the station's first keeper, took up residence in the detached keeper's quarters, and exhibited the light for the first time in September, 1851.

The tower was evidently poorly located, as high water was found to be undermining the stone foundation soon after construction. Fearing collapse was imminent, in 1859 the newly-formed Lighthouse Board decided to build a new station and demolish the original tower, only eight years after its construction.

Click to view enlarged imageThe replacement station, was similar in design to that built at Port Washington the following year, consisting of a combined keeper's dwelling and tower, with the tower located at the north apex of the hipped roof. The tower stood thirty-one feet above the foundation, and was capped with an octagonal iron lantern into which the Fresnel from the old tower was carefully relocated. The lights' thirty-seven foot focal plane provided a twelve mile range of visibility, thereby providing coverage throughout the Straits.

The arrival of the lighthouse tender Ruby in the Fall of 1889 was a momentous, but not altogether enjoyable occasion for the Cheboygan keepers, when the apparatus for duplicate fog-signals were delivered to the station. The arrival of the fog signal equipment not only meant more work,  but sleepless nights until they adjusted to the noise!

Click to view enlarged imageThe Ruby returned the following Spring with additional materials and a construction crew, who quickly set about construction of the new fog signal, close to the lakeshore approximately one hundred feet to the east of the station.

All was not bad news for the keepers, however, as the construction crew also improved the dwelling with the installation of running water pumped from a cistern installed in the cellar, the boat house was relocated from Duncan Bay to the shore in front of the fog signal building, and a circular iron oil house of 225-gallon capacity was constructed to allow the storage of a year's supply of oil a safe distance from the dwelling. Finally, with the construction of plank walkways connecting the new structures to the dwelling, work was completes on June 2, and the fog signal was placed into operation. Over the remainder of that year, the fog signals were operated for a total of 96 hours, their boilers consuming 4 tons of coal.

Click to view enlarged imageThis was the time of peak production for Cheboygan's lumber industry, with the area's eight mills producing over 100 million board feet of lumber, of which the Duncan Mill produced 27.5 million feet alone. Thompson Smith took over as the owner of the Duncan Mill. A religious man, he forbade the construction of any saloons in his town. It would appear safe to assume that this may have contributed to the 42 saloons located in Cheboygan in 1895!

As was the case with most of Michigan's lumber towns, the boom days were short-lived. The areas forests were quickly clear-cut, and the lumberjacks began picking up stakes to work the virgin forests of the west.

1896 saw the busiest recorded year at the Cheboygan Main fog signal, as the keepers were kept busy shoveling thirty-nine tons of coal in order to keep the to keep the signals waling for a total of 509 hours. The Duncan Mill burned to the ground in 1898, and with the decision not to rebuild, Duncan City's reason for being disappeared, and the few remaining citizens abandoned the town.

With the construction of the Fourteen Foot Shoal Light offshore in the Straits in 1930, Cheboygan Main was considered obsolete, locked-up and abandoned.

With growing vandalism, the old station was considered to be in dangerous condition and the Coast Guard demolished the stations buildings at some time during the 1940's. The Federal Bureau of Recreation conducted a survey of Michigan's coastline for possible State Parks in 1956, and designated Lighthouse Point as part of its proposed "Poe Reef State Park Site." In 1958, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources built the Duncan Bay State Forest Campground on thirteen acres at Duncan Bay Beach, all of which was combined to become the current 1,200-acre Cheboygan State Park in 1962.

Seeing this Light

It was a beautiful late spring afternoon as we found ourselves on the gravel road leading to the Cheboygan State Park entrance. Picking up a trail map of the park at one of the boxes along the road, we found that there are a number of trails leading to Lighthouse Point. Without a great deal of time remaining, we determined that the best trail cut across the park entrance road, and parked our truck as far off the road as we could manage, and disappeared into the forest.

The trail was a pleasant walk of about a mile and a half through relatively dense woods, and was easy to follow. We passed the "Poe Reef Cabin," named for its distant view of the Poe Reef Light, one of three in the park available for rental.

The trail to lighthouse Point led directly to the old station ruins, which have been surrounded by a split rail fence. The entire area is now completely overgrown with pine trees, and we could not even see the lake from the station ruins. We walked down the cement walk to the shore, and turned to look back at the station. Everything has become so overgrown that it is hard to imagine that less than seventy years ago the area was the site of such a historically significant structure. 

Finding this Light

Take US 23 southeast out of Cheboygan, approximately four miles, and look for the Cheboygan State Park sign on the left. Turn left, and continue until the hard surface gives way to gravel. You will see signs for the various trails on the right side of the road. Each of the trail heads has a sign with a box containing trail maps attached to it. Just about all of the trails end up at Lighthouse Point, and represents a walk of about a mile and a half.

Reference Sources

 Photographic field trip to Cheboygan State Park, 04/30/2001.
USCG Historian's Office - photographic archives.
Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, various 1855 - 1911
The Centennial History of Cheboygan County, Historical Society of Cheboygan, 1976.
Old River Town, Cheboygan Centennial, Ellis N. Olson & Gordon Turner, 1989.
Wood Butchers of the North, Cheboygan Tribune, July 4, 1978.
Shipwrecks of the Straits Of Mackinac, Dr. Charles E. Feltner & Jeri Baron Feltner, 
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

Terry Pepper. This page last updated 12/02/2007 .

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