Poe Reef Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Off Bois Blanc Island, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Poe Reef lies just eight feet beneath the water's surface between Bois Blanc Island and the Lower Peninsula mainland, and as such has long represented a significant hazard to vessels making their way through the Straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron.

In the early 1890's the Lighthouse Board faced a vexing problem. Increasing vessel traffic created a need to install navigational aids at a number of offshore shoals and reefs. With Congressional funds increasingly difficult to obtain, and the costs of offshore lighthouse construction prohibitively high, the Board determined that the use of lightships to mark such hazards would be both significantly more expeditious and cost effective.

Unable to convince Congress to free up the funds for these lightships, the Board took the chance of redirecting an existing $60,000 congressional appropriation for a lighthouse off Peninsula Point to the purchase of four lightships.

In 1892 two contracts totaling $55,960 were awarded to the Craig Shipbuilding Company in Toledo for the construction of four lightships. Designated as Lightships LV59, LV60, LV61 and LV62, all four vessels were built to similar specifications. Framed and planked of white oak they measured 87' 2" inches in length, 21' 6" inches in the beam, with a draft of 8 feet. In a cost-cutting effort, the vessels were un-powered, outfitted with only a small riding sail carried on a short after mast. Equipped with a cluster of three oil-burning lens lanterns hoisted on their foremasts, each was also equipped with 6" steam whistles and hand-operated bells for fog use. Work was completed on the four vessels the following year, and after sea trials, all four were commissioned by the Board and placed into service, LV59 being assigned to Bar Point, LV60 to Eleven Foot Shoal, LV61 to Corsica Shoal and LV62 to Poe Reef.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the words POE REEF brightly painted in white on her fire engine red hull, LV62 was towed to Poe Reef by the lighthouse tender Marigold, and anchored on station to begin her vigil on September 29, 1893. For the next seventeen years LV62 spent every shipping season faithfully guarding the shoal. With the end of each shipping season, one of the lighthouse tenders would make the rounds of all lightship stations in the Straits area, and tow them into Cheboygan harbor for winter lay-up. While in Cheboygan, necessary repairs and improvements would be made in preparation for the following season. At some time in March or April, the ice would break up sufficiently to allow the vessels to be towed back to their stations to stand guard for yet another season.

1910 would be LV62's last season on Poe Reef, since for reasons we have as yet been unable to determine the decision was made to trade assignments at Bar Point with LV59. LV59 was delivered to Poe Reef at the beginning of the 1911 shipping season, remained at the reef for the following three seasons. During a departmental survey of lightships in the fall of 1914, she was found to be unseaworthy and thus condemned at the end of the season. To replace her, LV96 was repainted with POE on her sides, and transferred from Buffalo to Poe Reef at the beginning of the 1915 navigation season.

Click to view enlarged imageBuilt by Racine-Truscott-Shell Lake Boat Company in Muskegon in 1914 at a total cost of $71,292, LV96 had only seen one year of service at her Buffalo station before her transfer. 101' 6" in length, 23' 6" in beam and drawing 9' 5", she was constructed of steel in the whaleback design, with her pilot house forward. Equipped with electrical generators and batteries powered by two 3-cylinder kerosene engines, she displayed a large cylindrical lantern housing with a thousand-candlepower electric lamp. A revolving parabolic reflector provided her with a unique light signature. A six-inch air siren, submarine bell and a hand operated bell made her presence known whenever fog shrouded the reef.

In the spring of 1921, LV96 was reassigned to duty on Corsica Shoal in Lake Huron and the newly commissioned LV99 was delivered to Poe Reef in her place.

LV99 had her keel laid in June of 1919 at Rice Brothers in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and work was well underway on July 10 when a fire gutted the structure. With new materials procured, the vessel was completely rebuilt at a total cost $97,220, and she was launched on November 7 of that same year. 91' 8" in length, with a beam of 22' she drew 10' 7" and was powered by a single-cylinder 125hp steam engine. Displaying a single acetylene lens lantern, she was also equipped with a ten-inch steam whistle and a hand operated bell.

As part of a series of a significant offshore light construction projects being undertaken in the Straits area in the late 1920's, the Lighthouse Service decided to build a permanent station on Poe Reef in 1927.

Click to view enlarged imageFor two years, an 80-man construction crew had been working out of a base camp on Government Island in Les Cheneaux Islands, while they undertook the mammoth task of building the Martin Reef Light. With the completion of that project in the summer of 1927, the entire base camp was loaded onto the lighthouse tenders ASPEN and MARIGOLD, and rebuilt on the north pier at the mouth of the Cheboygan River. With establishment of the camp, construction at Poe Reef Light began on two fronts.

Construction plans called for the placement of a sixty-four foot square wooden crib on the reef to serve as a foundation for the pier on which the tower would be constructed. In order to prepare the reef for the crib's installation, an area first had to be leveled and cleared of all rocks and boulders. For this task, Lighthouse Service Scow #1 was equipped with a steam-powered derrick and a clamshell bucket. Towed out to the reef by the lighthouse tender ASPEN, and anchored at the edge of the reef, hardhat divers assisted in guiding the scow's clamshell.

Back at the Cheboygan pier with the construction of a skid way complete, the timbers of the crib itself were assembled on top of the skid way. Constructed of dressed 12" by 12" timbers, the crib was a sixty-four feet square and featured tightly crafted half-lap joints throughout in order to provide the utmost in structural rigidity. With the outer walls constructed in an elongated brick pattern, each joint was hand-drilled and bolted, and iron angles added to the corners for even more strength. Finally, the upper exterior surfaces were sheathed with steel plates protruding six feet above the sides. These steel plates designed to create the exterior forms into which the concrete of the pier itself would be poured once the crib was positioned on the reef.

Click to view enlarged imageWith preparatory work complete on the reef, the lighthouse tenders ASPEN and MARIGOLD pulled the completed crib down the skid way, into the water, and thence into the lake to the reef, where it was carefully positioned over the prepared area on the reef. Crushed limestone and rocks were then dumped into the crib from a self-unloading lake freighter until the crib sank to the bottom, resting on the leveled area of the reef. With the crib completely filled with limestone and rocks, Scow #1 was outfitted with a gasoline powered cement mixer, a wooden tower, hopper and discharge chute. With concrete from the mixer dumped into the hopper, the hopper was raised to the top of the tower and dumped into the discharge chute. This chute was then pivoted across the surface of the crib, allowing crewmembers to distribute the concrete evenly until it was filled to the top of the steel plates rimming the crib. By virtue of the base camp's location in Cheboygan, dependent on weather conditions either the Aspen or the crew's work boat would transport the crew to the reef at the start of each day's work, returning to transport them back to camp at day's end.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the final pour to the upper limit of the steel sheathing, the entire top surface of the concrete was carefully leveled through the use of a transit. It was critical that this upper surface be completely plumb, since it was the foundation on which the pier and the lighthouse itself would stand. Once level was established, the first of a series wooden forms which had been prefabricated back at the camp, were attached to the outside of the structure. As the form for each level was filled with concrete, the next level of forms was added above. Like a giant puzzle, each form created different sections of the ladder accesses on each of the four sides, the arch-topped storage areas within the pier, and finally the wave flare at the top of the pier. This wave flare was a vital component of the crib's design, since it was designed to divert waves crashing against the pier, thus reducing the likelihood of wave action smashing against the tower itself. With the pouring of the final level, anchoring points for the light station structure itself and the posts around the outer edge were cast in place.

With the setting of this final layer of concrete, the bunkhouse on the pier in Cheboygan was loaded onto the Aspen and transported to the reef, where it was lifted onto the pier. With the construction of a temporary cook shed, the crew was able to take up residence at the work site, and the workdays grew longer with the elimination of the daily commute from Cheboygan. The crew's attention now turned to the construction of the tower itself.

Click to view enlarged imageThe station building at Poe Reef was to be an exact duplicate of that which the crew had previously completed at Martins Reef. The main twenty-five foot square structure consisted of a steel skeletal framework to which an exterior sheathing of riveted steel plates was applied. Thirty-eight feet tall, it contained three levels, or "decks", as the crews assigned to the station knew them. The two upper decks were set up as living quarters, while the main lower deck served as housing for the machinery required for powering the lights, heating system and foghorn.

Click to view enlarged imageCentered atop the main structure stood sixteen-foot square, ten-foot high watch room of similar construction, with a single observation window on each side. Finally, a decagonal cast iron lantern room was installed on the roof of the watch room, and outfitted with a Third Order Fresnel lens. The combination of pier and tower provided the Fresnel with a seventy-one foot focal plane, and a visibility range of almost twenty nautical miles in clear conditions. Work was completed at the station and the light exhibited for the first time on the evening of August 15, 1929. 

At some point in time, in order to eliminate the possibility of the Poe Reef Light being mistaken for the identical all white structure at Martin Reef, the main deck and watch room of the Poe structure were given a contrasting coat of black paint.

With construction at the reef complete in late 1929, the bunkhouse and cook shack were loaded back onto the tender Aspen, and returned to Cheboygan, where the camp was readying to begin construction of a new light on Fourteen Foot Shoal.

The light was automated in 1974 with the installation of a solar-powered 375mm acrylic optic.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

While a private vessel is undoubtedly the best way to obtain close-up views of this Light, Sheplers Ferry Service out of Mackinaw City offers a number of lighthouse cruises during the summer season. Their "Eastbound Tour" includes passes by Round Island, Bois Blanc Island, Poe Reef and Fourteen Foot Shoal. For schedules and rates for this tour, visit their website at: www.sheplerswww.com or contact them at:

PO Box 250
Mackinaw City, MI 49701
Phone (800) 828-6157

References & Credits

National Parks Service 1994 Inventory of Historic Light Stations
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, various 1914 - 1929
USLHS Bulletin, May 1, 1930
Great Lakes Coast Pilot, NOAA, 2000
Martin Reef - Lightship to Lighthouse, John J. Sellman, 1995
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1995
Lightships and Lightship Stations of the United States Government, Willard Flint, 1989
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

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

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