Port Austin Reef Light Seeing The Light

Port Austin, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

In 1838, P C Austin arrived in the area that would eventually receive his name, and established a lumber mill and dock from which he planned to ship the bounty of the Thumb area's forests. Although a number of attempts to secure federal funding for harbor improvements at Port Austin ware undertaken by Michigan's State Representatives through the 1860's, Port Austin itself would never attain any great prominence as a shipping point.

Click to view enlarged imageHowever, by the mid-1870's, the reef lying 1.7 miles to the northwest off Point Aux Barques had become a critical obstacle in the path of the growing numbers of mariners rounding the point in and out of Saginaw Bay. With a but a few small portions awash, the majority of the craggy reef lurked just below the surface, waiting to tear the hull of any mariner unfamiliar with the areas navigation intricacies. Congress appropriated the sum of $10,000 for the construction of a light to mark Port Austin Reef on March 3, 1873, and Eleventh District Engineer Major Godfrey Weitzel dispatched a survey crew to Port Austin that same year to select a site for the new light. After two years of unsuccessful negotiations, an alternate site with a more willing owner some 200 feet eastward was selected in 1875, and Weitzel drew up plans for a 1-story brick dwelling with integrated tower similar to that which would also be built at Sand Point on Lake Superior in 1878 and at Little Traverse in 1884. The plans were approved by the Lighthouse Board on September 6, 1875, and construction at Port Austin scheduled to begin at the opening of navigation the following year.

Work was about to commence in the spring of 1876, when the Lighthouse Board convinced Congress that the nature of the danger at Port Austin lent itself more appropriately to the erection of an offshore light to mark the northern extremity of the reef. Major Weitzel estimated that the revised project could be brought to completion for an additional $75,000 by locating the keeper's dwelling onshore on the reservation already purchased, thereby eliminating the costs of building extensive living quarters on the offshore crib. Congress made the necessary appropriation on July 31, 1876, and perhaps skeptical of Weitzel's estimate, included the wording that "the appropriation heretofore made for a light-house at Port Austin, Michigan, may be expended in commencing the construction of the proposed light-house on the reef instead of on the shore, provided the total estimate for its completion shall not exceed eighty-five thousand dollars."

Construction began in early July 1878 at both Tawas and on the reef off Port Austin. On the reef, a crew worked to clear and level the selected area in four feet of water at the northwest end of the reef where the crib would eventually be placed. At Tawas, where a ready supply of timber could be obtained, work began on the construction of the crib that would form the core of the offshore pier itself. A massive octagonal structure, eighty feet in diameter and six feet in height, the crib form was constructed of twelve-inch square oak timbers. Assembled on a timber skid-way down which it would eventually slide into the water, the cribs inner cross members were secured with three-foot long iron bolts, and the outer timbers secured to the inner cross members with over 500 iron bolts, each five feet in length.

Click to view enlarged imageThe crib was lowered down the greased skid-ways into the water, and towed into the open water of Saginaw Bay in early August. From there, it was carefully towed to Pointe aux Barques, where an additional four feet of height was added, increasing the total height of the structure to ten feet. On Sunday August 12, 1877, the completed crib was towed out to the reef, and carefully centered over the previously cleared and leveled area. A number of doors in the exterior walls of the crib were opened, allowing water to flow into sealed pockets within the crib, thereby overcoming the crib's buoyancy, and lowering it to the prepared rock bottom. The crib was then secured to the rock bottom with 150 three-inch diameter bolts, seven feet in length which were sunk through the base of the crib and anchored with wedges into the rock. Rope caulk and Portland cement were then used to seal the gaps between the base of the timber crib and the prepared surface of the rock, and the water within the crib was pumped out. With the crib now securely anchored to the reef, all eight faces were covered with a veneer of hard brick to a height of 29 feet. Within these hard brick walls, fourteen thousand barrels of cement and seven hundred cords of crushed stone quarried at Grindstone City were poured into the structure to form the final pier. Work on onshore keeper's dwelling reached completion in early July 1878, and the crew turned 100% of its attention to the construction of the tower on the pier. 

Click to view enlarged imageUnder normal circumstances, one would have expected that such an impressive pier structure would have been topped by an equally impressive tower. However, forced to work within the limitations of the $85,000 appropriation, the pier was instead capped with a timber-framed tower of a similar design to that normally used for pierhead beacons. Standing 57 feet in height, the pyramid timber-framed tower was sheathed to contain rooms below the lantern in which the keepers could store wicks and oil and take shelter while tending the light. The tower was capped with an octagonal cast iron lantern outfitted with a clear Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Henry Lepaute of Paris. Equipped with red flash panels, the lens rotated around the lamp by means of a clockwork motor. The rotation speed of this motor was carefully adjusted and maintained to place the flash panels in front of the lantern in such a way as to display the station's characteristic two minute cycle, consisting of a minute of steady white light, followed by a group of five red flashes every 12 seconds.

Three keepers were selected to man the station. Charles Kimball, who has served six years as First Assistant at Pointe aux Barques was promoted to the position of Acting Keeper of the new station, and Aron Peer was hired to fill the position of his First Assistant. Evidently Kimball pulled some political strings to get his brother Alonzo hired as the station's 2nd Assistant, since Alonzo had previously been removed from lighthouse service in 1886 when he was 1st Assistant at Pointe aux Barques. Kimball and Peer arrived and moved into the dwelling on September 9, exhibiting the light from the frame tower for the first time on the evening of September 15, 1878, and Alonzo reported for duty on October 18. All told, Weitzel was able to bring the project to completion for the sum of $81,871, almost $3,000 under budget.

In 1882, two wood frame buildings were erected on the crib to house duplicate steam engines which powered twin fog sirens. Problems with the fog signal's location on the crib some 33 feet above the water quickly surfaced, with the boilers becoming starved for water due to distance the water had to be raised. To this end, the valves in the suction pipe were replaced in 1886. However this repair still proved insufficient, and a high-capacity force pump was added the following year. Still encountering problems with the water supply, large wooden reservoir tanks were installed in the signal house in 1888, to provide a ready supply of water to be drawn by the engines as needed and replaced by the force pump. Also in this year, the well at the keeper's dwelling onshore was cleaned out, lined with stone, and outfitted with a new pump. As part of a general system-wide upgrade, the materials required for replacing the sirens with 10-inch steam whistles were delivered at the opening of the 1895 navigation season, with a work crew arriving at the station early that summer and completing the change-over on June 30.

Click to view enlarged imageBy the end of the nineteenth century, both the surfaces of the pier and the wood frame tower were showing signs of the ravages of the weather, and plans were drawn up for a major upgrade of the structures. In the summer of 1899, a work crew and materials were delivered at the pier, and by the end of the year, a resurfacing of the pier was completed, the landing crib on the south side of the pier was rebuilt and a boat crane and stairway installed. Thousands of tan bricks from a local brickyard were delivered and the masons began erecting a new 60-foot tall tower. Standing 16 feet square, the tower was constructed with double walls, the inner walls being 4 inches in thickness and the outer walls 13 inches thick with a 3-inch air space between. While the onshore dwelling would continue to serve as primary living quarters for the keepers, the tower included four floors, each consisting of a single room with four windows in each providing views to the south and east. The first floor served as a kitchen and dining area, and the upper three floors as bedrooms and an office.

Click to view enlarged imageThe tower was capped with a square cast iron gallery with hand railing, centered on which a circular cast iron watch room was erected. This watchroom was lined with oak bead board and featured four brass portholes offering a view of the lake in each direction, and supported a circular gallery and cast iron lantern. With an inner diameter of almost 8 feet, as was the case with almost all lanterns installed at this time, the curved lantern glass was set in thin diagonal astragals to provide a virtually uninterrupted focal plane for the lens. At the end of the 1899 navigation season, the lens from the frame tower was disassembled and reinstalled atop the new tower from whence it was exhibited for the first time of the opening of the 1900 season of navigation. In its new location, the lens sat at a focal plane of 76 feet, with a resulting range of visibility of 16 miles. Integrated into the southwest corner of the tower, a 34 foot square hip-roofed fog signal building was constructed of similar brick and construction, and both steam boilers placed onto elevated pads at the building's center.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1902, the landing pier and boat house at the dwelling were completely rebuilt. The stairway leading from the boathouse up the bank to the dwelling was also renewed, as were the concrete sidewalks around the dwelling. In 1915, the lamp was upgraded to an incandescent oil vapor (IOV) unit, increasing the output to 4,000 candlepower. At this same time, the characteristic of the light was also changed to a repeated 12 second cycle consisting of red flashes of 1.4 seconds in duration followed by 10. 6 second eclipses.

Click to view enlarged imageWith recent advances in fog signal technology, a work crew again returned to the pier in 1933 to replace the 38 year old 10-inch steam whistles with a pair of compressed air operated "Type F" diaphones. Operated by diesel-powered air compressors, these new diaphones represented a significant advantage over the steam-powered whistles in that they could be operating within minutes of discovering that visibility was decreasing, whereas the old steam units took up to an hour to build sufficient steam before they could be sounded. To provide a mounting location for the trumpet-like resonators which projected the sound of the diaphone across the water, a gable was added to the roof of the signal building. With this new installation, the fog signal characteristic was also changed to a repeated one minute cycle consisting of a first blast of 3 seconds followed by a silent interval of 3 seconds, a second blast of 3 seconds followed by 51 seconds of silence. Finally, the work crew added three feet of concrete facing to all eight sides of the pier to protect its weathering surface.

Click to view enlarged image1937 saw the addition of three feet of concrete to all sides of the pier, faced with steel plates from the rock bottom to approximately six feet above the water line to protect the concrete from the grinding action of the ice. With the transfer of responsibility of the nation's aids to navigation to the Coast Guard in 1939, a submarine electric cable was run from the shore out to the pier, allowing the installation of electric lighting in the fog signal and tower, and the replacement of the IOV lamp in the lantern with a 25,000 candlepower incandescent electric bulb, without any change in the light's characteristic. The Fresnel lens was removed from the lantern three years later, to be replaced by a 300 mm glass lens, and the characteristic again changed to a repeated one second flash followed by a 9 second eclipse. The light was completely automated in 1953, eliminating the need for full time keepers at the station. No longer serving any purpose, the onshore dwelling was sold into private ownership at some time thereafter.

Click to view enlarged imageThe 300 mm glass lens was removed in 1985, and replaced by a 12-volt solar powered Tidelands Signal 300 mm acrylic optic, eliminating the need for ongoing maintenance of the submarine cable. Without the constant care of full-time keepers, the structure began to deteriorate, with the fog signal building roof caving-in, allowing the weather and thousands of birds to wreak havoc on the building's interior. To exacerbate the problem, vandals had broken out most of the windows and doors, and stolen anything that could be removed from the structure. Without the necessary manpower and funds to make necessary repairs, the Coast Guard formulated plans to demolish the buildings and replace them with a low-maintenance skeletal metal tower to house the solar-powered light.

Click to view enlarged imageOn learning of the plans to demolish the station, Port Austin businessman Louis Shillinger gathered together with a number of acquaintances to form the Port Austin Reef Light Association. A non profit corporation chartered to restore and maintain the station, PARLA obtained a five year license from the Coast Guard in 1988, and set about the daunting task of stabilizing the deteriorating structure. Over the following two years, the decaying roof on the fog signal building was completely removed and new trusses and decking were installed. The decking was then covered with galvanized metal shingles, and painted a historically accurate bright red. A railing was added to the access ladder, the safety chains around the edge of the deck were replaced, a new brick chimney was installed, and 18 windows were removed and replaced. In 1990, PARLA's license to renovate the structure was extended an additional thirty years through 2020.

Since that time, exterior doors have been replaced, bricks have been tuck pointed, new windows installed and various painting and maintenance tasks have been undertaken. PARLA has applied for the lighthouse through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, and plans to completely restore the station, and eventually to offer tours of the light station. 

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this light

A distant view of the lighthouse can be had from the public marina in downtown Port Austin. For updated information on the progress of their restoration and information about tours as they become available, click here to visit the PARLA website,  or call PARLA President Lou Schillinger at 989-738-6555.

Terry Pepper. This page last updated 09-02-2012.

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