Cheboygan Range Lights Seeing The Light

Cheboygan, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

With a population of approximately 800 in 1870, and a growing number of mills along the shores of the Cheboygan River, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted their first survey of the Cheboygan River in 1870 to evaluate the possibility of improving navigation within the river. Determining that the channel could be enlarged to a width of 200 feet and a depth of 14 feet, Congress responded to the Army Corps of Engineers recommendation with an appropriation of $160,000 to begin the improvement the following year.

Click to view enlarged imageAnticipating an increase in vessel traffic entering the improved harbor, Congress responded to the Lighthouse Boards request for funds with an appropriation of $10,000 for the construction of a set of range lights in the river in July 1876. However, with the Corps of Engineers improvements still in progress, work on the range lights did not begin until four years later in 1880.

Click to view enlarged imageThe front range light was designed as a combination tower and keepers dwelling. The rectangular brown-painted two-story wood frame building stood some twenty-four by twenty-seven and a half feet in plan, with its integral wooden tower, six feet two inches square, located at the apex of the north end of the gabled roof.

Click to view enlarged imageSince range lights are designed to be seen from within a narrow arc of visibility, a wooden lantern was constructed on the tower gallery, as opposed to the normal cast-iron multi-sided lanterns in general use at the time. Equipped with a fixed red Sixth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Henry-Lepaute of Paris, the light was displayed through a single rectangular window on the north side of the lantern, where it would be visible to vessels in the Straits off the mouth of the river.

Click to view enlarged imageThe rear range originally consisted of a spindly wooden structure with a vertical oval daymark consisting of horizontal wooden bars, and held a lens-lantern, located at the top of the structure. The work was completed that same year, and the station was illuminated for the first time on the night of September 30, 1880.

Click to view enlarged imageCheboygan was in its heyday in 1890. The eight huge mills an the banks of the river shipped 127 million board feet of lumber, and the town's population had exploded to 6,956. The town was growing rapidly, and the front range light, being located a mere block from downtown, was able to share in the conveniences of its location. In that year the station was hooked-up to the city water supply. However, the small plot of land on which it was situated was found to be poorly drained, and was frequently surrounded by fetid standing water, and its cellar inundated. Reporting on the unsanitary conditions at the site, the Lighthouse Board requested the sum of $1,500 to purchase adjacent property in order to re-grade and improve the drainage. For some reason, Congress turned a deaf ear to the request, and it was not until the Board had restated its case in each of its subsequent eight annual reports Congress responded with an appropriation of $1,700 in July 1898 to fund the purchase of the much needed land. The process of obtaining title began immediately.

Click to view enlarged image1891 saw the construction of a circular iron oil house with the capacity to hold 72 of the Board's standard five-gallon containers of kerosene, delivered by the lighthouse tender MARIGOLD during the District Inspector's annual inspection and re-supply visits.

Click to view enlarged image In 1900, work began on replacing the old wooden rear range with a new skeletal iron tower. Standing 75 feet high, the structure was equipped with an integrated ladder to reach the lamp and a small wood frame cleaning room at its base. With completion of the new tower in December, the old tower was demolished. In this year the front range also took on a new look as its original dark brown color was changed to an all white paint scheme, the color the structure displays to this day.

After eleven years of legal wrangling, title to the adjacent property was obtained in 1909, and the property was graded to its present condition.

Click to view enlarged imageAt an as yet undetermined point in time, the Fresnel lens was removed from the front range, and both front and rear range lights were replaced with locomotive style lanterns with 10,000 candlepower electric lamps visible at a distance of 14 miles. Automated in this manner, the need for a keeper's constant maintenance was eliminated, and the stations began their service alone. The Coast Guard still maintains an active presence in Cheboygan, as the USCG Mackinaw's home mooring is just across the river from the front range light.

The front range station building has remained in Federal ownership since automation, and is currently in use by both the Department of Fisheries. 

While the range still serves as an active aid to navigation, it no longer guides the bustling commercial maritime trade of the town's halcyon days of the 1890's, but instead serves mostly as a guide to pleasure craft entering the river.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Cheboygan Range Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

We last visited Cheboygan on a clear spring day in April of 2001. The front range structure appears to be in excellent condition, however it is surrounded by industrial buildings, making photography very difficult. We visited the Cheboygan Public Library to see if they had any historical information on any of Cheboygan's three lighthouses, but were disappointed to find very little information. We then went to the Cheboygan Historical Museum, but found that it was not scheduled to open for the season until June. Oh well, at least we have another good reason to return!

Finding this Light

Take US 23 into downtown Cheboygan to Water Street. Turn north on Water Street. Look for the front range tower approximately one block on the right side of the road.

Reference Sources

 USCG Historian's Office - photographic archives.
The Long Ships Passing, Walter Havighurst, 1943.
History of the Great Lakes, J. H. Beers Co., 1899.
Great Lakes Light List, USCG, 1953
Old river town, Cheboygan Centennial. Ellis N. Olson & Gordon Turner, 1898.
Photographs by Terry Pepper taken at the site on 10/11/98 & 04/30/01.
Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1890 - 1910
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1986.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

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

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