Frying Pan Island Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Originally off DeTour Village, Michigan Home Back

Historical Information

As up-bound maritime traffic entering the St. Marys River increased toward the 1870's, Congress appropriated $2,000 for a "small beacon-light" on Frying Pan Island, approximately two miles above the mouth of the river in 1879.

A rock outcropping, a few hundred feet in circumference, protruding a scant few feet above the surface of the water, the island's location allowed it to serve not only as a guide into the River, but as a warning for Frying Pan Shoal lying a few hundred yards to the south east, and as a front range for the light at Pipe Island further upstream above DeTour Village.

Although the island was surveyed in 1880, clear title could not be obtained until 1882, and thus construction on the island did not begin until that summer.

As a result of the minimal size of the appropriation, Eleventh District Engineer Major Godfrey Weitzel was hard pressed to bring the construction to completion. In order to keep costs as low as possible, he was forced to keep the size of the wrought and cast iron tower as short as possible while still allowing sufficient height to provide visibility. To further reduce costs the inner walls of the structure were left without the customary brick lining, and the interior was left completely bare with no shelves, storage or lamp cleaning area. Even the customary oil storage building was forgone, with the risky decision taken to temporarily store the oil within the tower itself. The low appropriation eliminated even the possibility of any type of dwelling for the keeper, who was thus expected to make his own living arrangements while spending as much time at the light as would be needed to keep the light burning.

Click to view enlarged imageAs a result of the spartan nature of the station's layout, construction on the island went quickly. On completion, the 18 foot tall prefabricated brown-painted structure was topped with a hexagonal lantern. With a focal plane of 19 feet, the lantern contained a 160 candlepower fixed red light and was visible for a distance of ten miles. Work finished late in September, with the light displayed for the first time on the evening of October 1, 1882.

Funds for completing the station finally became available in 1884, and a construction crew returned to Frying Pan Island in July to erect an 8 foot by 12 foot oil storage building which had been prefabricated at the Detroit depot and sipped to the island. To provide some accommodation for the keeper, one end of this storage building was outfitted with a bunk, shelves and a cleaning table.

To help the tower to serve as a more efficient front range for Pipe Island, the tower was painted white in 1894, and a landing crib and pier were built in twelve feet of water on the south east side of the island, and wooden sidewalks were built connecting the pier, tower and storage building.

Amazingly enough, it appears that the keepers took up permanent residence in the end of the storage building since in 1902, the Lighthouse Board reported on the deplorable living conditions afforded the keeper by the 8 foot by 12 foot combination oil storage and dwelling, and an appropriation of $4,000 was requested for building a proper dwelling.

Click to view enlarged imageWe have thus far been unable to identify if the dwelling was ever built, and with the transfer of responsibility for lighthouses to the Commissioner of Lighthouses in 1909, there were no longer any reports on this station, and information becomes very scarce. The Great Lakes Light list for 1924 shows that  

At a point we have as yet been unable to determine, the 1882 tower was replaced by an automated pole-mounted light. At some time thereafter, the old tower was removed from the island and transported to Coast Guard Station Sault Ste Marie, where it was restored, painted, and displayed in front of the main station building, where it stands to this day.

Keepers of this Light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Frying Pan Island Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

We have yet to visit this light, but plan to do so in 2001. Thanks to Russ Babington for his 2001 photograph of the tower at USCG Station Sault Ste. Marie.

Finding this Light

Frying Pan Island lies just offshore to the south of Detour Village, and can be seen in the distance from the docks of the Drummond Island Ferry in DeTour Village. 

The relocated Frying Pan Island tower is displayed in front of main office building at USCG Station Sault Ste. Marie. Take Hwy 2 north to the Easterday Ave exit and turn right onto Easterday Ave. Continue on Easterday approximately 3/4 mile. Turn left onto Ashmun St. Continue on Ashmun to the intersection with Water St. Turn right onto Water St. and continue to the Coast Guard station at 337 Water Street.

Reference Sources

USCG Historian's Office - photographic archives.
Photograph courtesy Russ Babington.
Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, various 1855 - 1911
Great Lakes Light Lists, 1924 & 1928 
Coast Pilot 6, Great Lakes, NOAA, 2000 
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

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

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