Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Off Alpena, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Thunder Bay Island sits just three miles East-northeast of the north point of Thunder Bay, and thirteen miles from the harbor at Alpena. This 215-acre limestone island is the outermost of a group of islands connected to the shore by a shallow rocky shoal. As such, it represented both a significant marker for Northbound vessels making the turn toward the Straits, and stood ready to chew the wooden hulls of vessels unlucky enough to stray too close to its rocky shores.

After a hearing a number of memorials presented on behalf of maritime interests throughout the Lakes begging that a light be placed on this important island, Congress instructed the Commerce Committee to conduct an investigation into the need and feasibility of the construction of such a light on January 6, 1831. At the completion of its investigation, the Committee on Commerce responded favorably, and Congress appropriated the necessary funds for what would become Lake Huron's third lighthouse later that same year.

A site for the station was selected on flat ground approximately 1,200 feet from the Southeastern point of the island, and in accordance with policy, bids were advertised for its construction. The contract was awarded to Detroit builder Jeremiah Moors, and as was the case in almost all lighthouse construction on the Lakes during these early years, costs were kept as low as possible through the use of construction material found at the site. With a ready supply of  limestone on the island, it is no surprise that limestone rubble was used extensively throughout the construction. Through the 1831 season of navigation, Moors' crew built a forty foot tall tower and detached 1-story keeper's dwelling. While we have been thus far unable to locate either written specifications or plans for the structure, it is reasonable to speculate that it was similar in design to the station built at New Buffalo which was built seven years later in 1839 for which we have been able to find complete specifications. We do know that the tower stood 21 feet in diameter at the base, and tapered to a diameter of 11 feet  4 inches at the top, and was almost certainly capped with a birdcage-style lantern and Lewis lamp array in exclusive use at that time. Joseph Duchene was chosen as the station's first keeper, and is listed as officially taking office at the station on February 1, 1832, and after arriving on the island Duchene officially exhibited the light for the first time at an unrecorded date later that spring. Apparently Duchene was not well suited for the rigors of island light-keeping, as payroll records indicate that he resigned his position after only three months on May 1, to be replaced by Jesse Muncey.

Evidently, the tower did not last much longer than its first keeper, since Congressman Austin Wing presented a petition to Congress on Jeremiah Moors' behalf on January 26, 1834 requesting that Moors be reimbursed for additional expenditures incurred at the station after it "fell in consequence of being located on a site unfit for the same." This collapse of the original tower was later mentioned by Lieutenant James T Homans in his 1838 annual report on the condition of Great Lakes Lights, when after visiting the station on November 15, he reported that the tower was in "a critical situation, and may, if not soon protected by some barrier, share the fate of one formerly near this site." Homans then went on to report that he found the lake lapping at the tower's foundation, and recommended that $800 be immediately allocated for the construction of stone-filled timber cribs to protect the base of the tower from being undermined and toppling once more. As a longer term solution, and adding credence to Moors' claim that the site selected by the Government was unfit, Homans also recommended that the station be completely rebuilt on higher ground to the rear of the original site. It appears that the wooden cribs were successful in stemming the erosion, since after visiting the station on July 3, 1850, Henry B, Miller the Superintendent and Inspector of Lights of the Western Lakes reported only that "Everything here is in good order."

With the area frequently enveloped in thick fogs and snow squalls making the light impossible to see, Congress appropriated $2,500 for the installation of a fog bell on the island on March 3, 1853, and the newly formed Lighthouse Board dispatched a survey crew to the island to select a site and make the necessary plans for construction the following spring.

Although more than twenty years had passed since the construction of the original tower, it would appear that the matter of Moors' losses involved in rebuilding the tower remained unresolved, as Senator Lewis Cass took up Moors' cause on January 3, 1855, presenting a petition on the builder's behalf "praying compensation for services rendered and losses sustained in the construction of a light-house on Big Thunder Bay island." Two months later on March 3, the Thunder Bay Island fog signal was finally placed into service.

Click to view enlarged imageWith rapidly increasing maritime traffic through the 1850's, the Lighthouse Board determined that the combination of inefficient Lewis lamps and the diminutive 40-foot height of the tower provided a less than effective aid to mariners relying on this important station. To rectify the situation, plans were formulated to increase the height of the tower and to install an improved French Fresnel lenses of the type currently being installed throughout the system. Over 1857, the upper 14 feet of the tower was encased in brick and continued above the upper limits of the old structure to a height of 50 feet, effectively increasing the total height of the tower by 10 feet. The entire exterior of the tower was then given a veneer of Cream City brick to provide a smooth, weather-proof surface. At completion of the masonry work, the renewed walls at the base of the tower stood a massive 79 inches thick, and tapered to a thickness of 20 inches at their uppermost. Atop this renovated tower, a new gallery with a cast iron hand railing was installed, and a ten-sided prefabricated cast iron lantern installed at its center. Within this new lantern, a Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Sautter of Paris equipped with six bulls-eye flash panels was installed on a cast iron pedestal and equipped with a clockwork rotating mechanism. This new improved illuminating apparatus provided a characteristic fixed white light varied by flashes, and its enhanced focal plane of 59 feet provided an increased range of visibility of 14 miles at sea.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile the renewed tower continued to serve admirably, over the ensuing years the condition of the rubble stone dwelling deteriorated badly, and even though frequent repairs had been made, the Board recommended an appropriation of $8,000 to replace the aging structure in its annual report of 1866. Congress responded favorably with the requested appropriation on March 2 of the following year, and a crew arrived on the island in 1868 to demolish the old structure and build a new two-story dwelling of the same Cream City brick used in the 1857 tower reconstruction. On completion, the hip-roofed dwelling stood 43 feet by 28 feet in plan, and was connected directly to the tower by an enclosed brick passageway, affording the keepers with welcome shelter during their frequent trips to the tower on cold and stormy nights, along with additional storage space for the many cleaning and maintenance supplies used in the day to day maintenance of the station's illuminating apparatus.

Click to view enlarged imageAlthough the Board stated that the station was good condition in its 1858 annual report, the lighthouse reservation's location on low land still represented some problem for the station's keepers, as it was reported that the floor of the new covered way was frequently covered with water, and as a result, plans were drawn-up to elevate the floor above the water level during the following year.

While the fog bell installed on the island in 1855 represented the state of the art in fog signal technology at the time, great strides had been made in steam-operated systems over the ensuing years. The ear shattering screams emitted by these steam-powered whistles carried infinitely further through thick weather than the largest of bells, and as a result of the great importance placed on the Thunder Bay Island station by mariners, the decision was made to replace the old bell with duplicate steam whistles in 1870.

Click to view enlarged imageA work crew and materials were delivered on the island in 1871, and construction began on a wooden frame fog signal building covered on the interior and exterior with iron sheets, and the installation of the "screaming demons" themselves. The power plant consisted of a pair of horizontal locomotive-type boilers, each plumbed into its own ten-inch steam whistle located on the exterior wall of the signal building. As was the case with the light at each station, each fog signal was set up to sound-out a pattern of blasts and silence unique to that station, allowing mariners to be able to pinpoint their location in thick weather from the unique sounds around them. The Thunder Bay Island fog signal's characteristic was set to provide a repeated one-minute cycle consisting of a blast of 8 seconds followed by a silent interval of 10 seconds, then a blast of 2 seconds, followed by 40 seconds of silence. This cycle was repeated endlessly as long as the keeper determined that visibility dictated its activation during fog, snow squalls or periods of smoke resulting from the frequent forest fires of the time.

While the Thunder Bay Light served as an adequate warning to mariners, it could not completely prevent vessels from running into distress, and after a number of wrecks occurred in the area, a lifesaving station was established 3/8 of a mile west of the Light in 1876.

In another vindication of Moors' claims that the site selected for the station over forty years previous was unsuitable, Eleventh District Inspector Joseph N. Miller reported in 1880 that the tower was constantly wet and the original rubble stone, which still constituted the lower section of the tower, was difficult to maintain. Miller was evidently sufficiently concerned for the long term viability of the tower that he recommended that $10,000 be appropriated for its complete replacement.

Click to view enlarged image1884 was a year of welcome improvements at the island, as a crew from the Detroit depot arrived to construct a storm house around the door into the keepers dwelling, and to built an iron-tracked tramway from the boat landing located a half mile west of the station to the fog signal building. Equipped with a small cart, this arrangement was no doubt considered a real boon by the keepers, who previously been forced to laboriously transport tons of coal and supplies by wheelbarrow or hand cart the half mile from the landing. While District Inspector Commander Francis A Cook reported that he found the base of the tower to be in deteriorated condition, and reiterated Miller's previous recommendation that it be replaced as soon as possible, no action was taken on the request.

In one of the Great Lake's infamous November storms, Huron unleashed her fury across Thunder Bay on November 27, 1889, and huge sweeping waves crashing across the island's surface, scouring the surface of the island and carrying away everything that was not permanently attached, including the tramway and cart. With other construction projects taking precedence, a work party was not dispatched to the island to make the necessary repairs until September 20, 1891, at which time they also deepened the station's well and rebuilt the fog signal machinery. With falling water levels throughout the lakes in the mid 1890's, the boat ways along which the station's boat was hauled into the boat house no longer reached into the water, and the ways were extended in 1895 to once again allow the boat to be pulled to the safety of the boat house during rough water.

Click to view enlarged imageThe dawning of the new century brought a few years of relative peace at the station, with no significant maintenance or construction projects being reported at the station until 1906, when a work party arrived on the island to replace the old wood framed fog signal building with a new red brick structure. At the completion of the work, the boilers and machinery were rebuilt and transferred into the new structure. The following year, a work crew poured 1,200 feet of cement walks connecting the station buildings, and the underground wooden cistern in which rainwater was captured from the roof was replaced with a concrete structure. It was also during this year that station's fog signals were active for a station record of 444 hours, to the chagrin of the keepers who were required to shovel the 25 tons of coal required to keep a head of steam in the hungry boilers.

The District Lampist was dispatched to the island in 1913, and on May 21 upgraded the illuminating apparatus in the Fourth Order lens from a kerosene-fueled lamp to a more efficient incandescent oil vapor system, resulting in an increase in the light's intensity to 5,600 candlepower and an increase in its visible range to 19 miles. At this time the light's characteristic was also changed to flashing every 30 seconds. Things at the station remained steady for the next ten years, with only minor maintenance being performed by the keepers themselves. As a component of a system-wide upgrade, the station's 30-year old steam whistles were removed from the signal building in 1921, and replaced with "Type C" Diaphone fog signals, and the fog signal characteristic changed to a 30 second cycle, consisting of a 2 second blast followed by 2 seconds of silence, a second blast of 2 seconds followed by 24 seconds of silence.

Click to view enlarged image1932 saw the upgrading of the Diaphones to the larger "Type F" to increase their effective audible range, and after a surface coating of Portland cement was applied to help weather proof the exterior of the tower in 1938, the tower was given a coat of white paint, hiding the Cream City brick, and leaving the station appearing virtually the same as it appears to this day.

Responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation was transferred to the Coast Guard in 1939, with the civilian keepers given the option of either maintaining their existing position, transferring into the Coast Guard, or resigning. Keeper William De Rusha and his assistants James Mac Donald and Russell Perry all appear to have chosen the resignation route, since their names disappeared from the station's payroll records within a year of the takeover, their responsibilities taken over by Coast Guardsmen.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1983, the Thunder Bay Island Light was one of the last on the lakes to be automated through the installation of a 190 mm acrylic optic in the lantern, powered by an array of solar cells located on the ground at the base of the tower and a bank of storage batteries in the tower. After 151 years of hard and faithful service the busy sound of keepers at work disappeared from the island forever.

The station sat empty for almost fifteen years, its buildings quickly falling victim to the ravages of the weather and mindless vandalism. While vandals did a considerable amount of damage to the station's structures, their remote location offshore likely served as the major reason that they were not completely destroyed.

A group of local citizens concerned with the survival of the historic structure gathered together to form the Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society, and in 1997 signed a 10-year lease with the US Coast Guard for responsibility for the light station's grounds and buildings. Members of the Society are currently involved in restoring the station's buildings, and collecting information on the island's history. They are in need of funds, and anyone wishing to make a donation to assist them with their continuing efforts is urged to contact the Society at the address provided below.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

We expect to visit Thunder Bay Island personally at some time during 2003. For information on any tours being offered to the island, or to make a donation to help with the restoration effort, please contact the Thunder Bay Lighthouse Preservation Society at the following address:

Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society
PO Box 212
Alpena, MI 49707
Click here to email the society with any questions

Reference sources

Journals of the US House and Senate, various, 1831-1867
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board
. 1853-1909
Annual reports of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, 1910-1929
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, 1907-1940
Great Lakes Light Lists, Various 1861-1977
Great Lakes Pilot, US Army Corps of Engineers, 1958
Great Lakes Pilot, NOAA, 2000
The Northern Lights, Charles K Hyde.
Recent photographs courtesy of Jeff Shook of Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy
Photo courtesy of the US Coast Guard Archives.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

This page last modified 12/02/2007

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