Sturgeon Point Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Harrisville, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Sturgeon Point sits approximately halfway between the northern point of Saginaw Bay and Thunder Bay Island. While the Point lay somewhat off the main north/south shipping lanes, the Lighthouse Board noted that "vessels frequently, from various causes, get out of the direct course, and a light-house at this point would enable them to take a new departure and shorten the long stretch across the mouth of Saginaw bay." A shallow reef lurking below the surface for a mile and a half beyond the Point added to the dangers associated with passing close by the Point, and estimating that a lighthouse could be erected here for $15,000, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of that amount in its annual report for 1866. Congress responded quickly, granting an appropriation for the requested amount on March 2, 1867.

By July, an agreement had been reached with local landowner John Sabin for the purchase 60.2 acres of land on the Point, and title papers had been filed with the US District Attorney. After plans and specifications for the station were drawn up and approved on July 6 1868, arrangements were made to begin construction on the opening of the 1869 navigation season.

Click to view enlarged imageWork began with the excavation and erection of the tower foundation. Consisting of cut limestone blocks, the foundation stood sixteen feet in diameter; seven feet six inched in height, with the upper three feet exposed above grade. Atop this foundation, a team of masons erected the cream city brick tower. Standing sixteen feet in diameter at its base with its massive walls four feet six inches in thickness, the walls tapered gracefully to a diameter of ten feet at their uppermost, at which point they had narrowed to a thickness of eighteen inches. Supported by ten gracefully curved corbels, a copper-clad gallery was installed and encircled by an iron safety railing.

Click to view enlarged imagePlans for the two-story dwelling called for a kitchen, pantry and storeroom on the first floor, and a sitting room and three bedrooms on the second floor. The dwelling was attached to the tower by an eleven-foot long covered passageway to provide the Keeper access to the tower without having to leave the warmth of the building during inclement weather. A cast iron door at the tower end of the passageway was installed to stem the spread of a possible fire between the two structures.

Click to view enlarged imageBy the end of July, the exterior of the dwelling was complete, and the tower completed to the point that it was ready to receive the lantern. The decagonal cast iron lantern was erected at the center of the gallery, and covered with a tapered iron roof with ventilator ball, standing seventy feet nine inches above grade level. A lightning rod atop the ventilator ball was attached to a copper cable, which lead down the outside of the brickwork to a ground stake driven alongside the foundation. A spiral cast iron staircase with three landings wound its way within the tower to a hatchway through the keepers could gain access to the lantern.

The station's fixed white Third and a Half Order lens, had previously been installed in the lighthouse at Oswego, New York until a characteristic change at that station rendered the lens obsolete. The lens had been carefully crated and shipped to Detroit, where it had been in storage for some time. The District Lampist arrived at Sturgeon Point, and after supervising the movement of the lens segments into the lantern, assembled the glass gem on a cast iron pedestal designed to place the "Sweet spot" of the lens at the required elevation in the lantern. 

Perley Silverthorn, a fisherman and owner of property close to the new station who had been living in the area since 1854 was appointed as the station's first Keeper. However, after Silverthorn, his wife Caroline and their four children failed to report for duty at the station until November 19, it was deemed too late in the season to exhibit the Light. Thus, on January 2, 1870 an official Notice To Mariners was posted announcing that the new Light would be lighted on the opening of navigation that spring.

For reasons that we have as yet been unable to determine, Silverthorn was removed from his position as Keeper on August 19, 1873, and Noah T Farr selected as Acting Keeper of the station, appearing on payroll listings for the station for the first time on October 14. While Farr was promoted to full Keeper status in September 1875, his stay at Sturgeon Point was not long-lived, as he resigned from Lighthouse service on May 18 1876, with John Pasque appointed to replace him.

Click to view enlarged imageConstruction began on a Life-Saving station at the south of the Lighthouse reservation soon after Pasque's arrival. On completion of the new station, Perley Silverthorn again made an appearance at Sturgeon Point, after managing to arrange his appointment as Keeper of the new Life Saving station. While Silverthorne's annual pay as keeper of the Life Saving Station was half of the $400 he earned as a Light keeper, he likely found the new position a great deal more challenging, as he was now responsible for seven cantankerous surfmen and living the Service's motto of "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back." John Pasque accepted a transfer to the higher paying position of Acting Keeper at Stannard Rock in Lake Superior on June 6, 1882, and Louis Cardy Sr. was transferred-in from Skillagallee, where he had hired into lighthouse service as Second Assistant just two months earlier.

By virtue of its location on the flat, sandy beach on the Point, the light station was at the mercy of the action of the pounding waves, and by 1885 it was found that the shoreline had encroached to within forty feet of the tower foundation. Fearing that continued erosion might compromise the tower's integrity, the Detroit Depot dispatched a work crew to Sturgeon Point in 1886 to erect a system of shore protection. Radiating in front of the station, five timber cribs, each 350 feet in length and 8 feet wide were erected, and a log breakwater erected along the shoreline to prevent further undermining.

Click to view enlarged imageFor unspecified reasons, the station's lens was damaged in 1887, and sent to the lighthouse Depot at Staten Island for repair over the winter. Apparently damaged beyond repair, a new lens was sent to Sturgeon Point, and placed into service on the opening of the 1888 navigation season. While the cribs and breakwater installed in 1885 were still in good condition, the decision was made to augment them with two additional cribs to provide further protection. With the lowest bid for the work submitted at $1,050.70, Eleventh District Engineer Major Samuel M. Mansfield felt the bid was excessive, and decided to have the work done under the supervision of one of the District's construction foremen. After hiring the needed labor and purchasing materials on the open market, the work was completed in 1888 for a total of $734.59, representing a thirty percent reduction from the original low bid.

In the early days of the US lighthouse service, lard and sperm oil ware used for fueling the lamps. Relatively non-volatile, the oil was stored in special rooms in lighthouse cellars or in the dwelling itself. With a change to the significantly more volatile kerosene, a number of devastating dwelling fires were experienced, and beginning late in the 1880's the Lighthouse Board began building separate oil storage buildings at all US light stations. To this end, the metalwork for a sheet iron oil storage building was delivered at the Detroit depot in 1892, and loaded on the lighthouse tender AMARANTH late that year. A work crew arrived at the station the following spring, erected the oil storage structure and installed a below ground cistern by the dwelling. The downspouts from the dwelling roof were equipped with diverters, allowing runoff from the roof to flow directly into the cistern or to be diverted onto the ground. On completion of the installation, the pump at the sink in the dwelling kitchen was re-plumbed so as to draw its water from the cistern. In practice, the keepers kept the diverters closed so when rain came they would allow the rainwater to clean the roof for a period of time before opening the diverters to allow the water to enter the cistern. While to our twenty-first century sensibilities, the practice of drinking and cooking with water that had run from the roof sounds disgusting, it was a commonplace practice at light stations in the late 1800's.

Click to view enlarged imageRapid advancements in the application of acetylene for lighthouse illumination at the turn of the twentieth century, coupled with the invention of the sun valve, afforded the Lighthouse Service the opportunity to experiment with automating a number of Lights around the Great Lakes. In 1907, the Charity Island Light was thus automated, and Sturgeon Point followed in 1913. With the installation of the acetylene equipment, the characteristic of the light was also changed from fixed white to flashing white every 3 seconds. Keeper Cardy also passed away in 1913, making him the last full-time Keeper to be assigned to the station. It is possible that the need to find a Keeper to replace Cardy may have served as the District's primary motivating factor in its automation of Sturgeon Point. With automation, responsibility for maintenance of the light was turned over to the Coast Guardsmen at the Life Saving station.

With the Coast Guard's complete assumption of responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation in 1939, and the running of electrical power out to Sturgeon Point, the light was electrified through the installation of an incandescent bulb in the lens that same year. While Coast Guardsmen continued to tend the light for a few years thereafter, the station's importance waned, and it appears that the last crew left the Sturgeon Point station in 1941.

No longer inhabited, the wooden structures of the Life Saving station deteriorated rapidly, and constituting an attractive nuisance, were subsequently destroyed. The lighthouse dwelling and tower were vandalized, however their sturdy brick construction limited the damages to windows, doors and interior walls and woodwork. The Alcona Historical Society obtained a lease to the lighthouse structures in 1982, and began an intensive three-year volunteer restoration project. The dwelling now serves as a maritime museum, and is open to the public seven days a week from Memorial Day to mid September. The grounds are open to the public all year.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Sturgeon Point lighthouse is one of the most picturesque to be found in the area. The stark contrast of the bright white painted bricks with the deep red trim makes the building very photogenic. Sitting on the shore end of a long and shallow submerged finger of land that juts into Lake Huron, it is plain to see why a lighthouse was needed here in the days before radar and Loran.

Leaving most of the camera gear hidden in some scrub bushes, we gingerly made our way out into the water to capture the image seen in the upper right, the rocks making the way uncomfortable to our bare feet. We then toured the building, which has been completely restored in a very tasteful manner, giving the appearance that the keeper had just left some of the rooms ahead of us. Unfortunately, the tower was not open to the public, as it is still used as an active aid to navigation. Interestingly, we could see no remaining signs of the shore protection cribs and piers that were installed in the 1880's.

Returning to our truck, I realized that my glasses were missing, and retracing our steps through the grounds, we found them lying beneath the bush where we had left the photo equipment earlier.

Finding this Light

Take US 23 North approximately three miles out of Harrisville, turn right onto Lakeshore Drive and continue approximately one mile to Point Road. Turn East on to Point Road, and continue approximately one mile to the gravel road on the left that enters the lighthouse parking area. It is a short walk further down this road to this charming lighthouse.

Contact information

Sturgeon Point Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
Sturgeon Point Road
Harrisville, MI 48740
(517) 724-5107

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1867 - 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, 1910 - 1929
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, 1908 - 1930
Telephone call to Don Sawyer, VP Alcona Historical Society, 6/1/2000
USCG Historian's Office - photographic archives.
The Northern Lights,
Charles K Hyde, 1986 
Personal observation at Sturgeon Point, 09/11/1998
Photographs from the author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

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

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