Algoma Pierhead Light Seeing The Light

Algoma, Wisconsin



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Historical Information

Ahnapee, an Indian name for "land of the great gray wolf" was a growing fishing town in 1871 when a fire swept from Green Bay, destroying thousands of acres of land. Local residents prepared for the worst by waiting beside boats on the lakefront with their valuables, planning on venturing out into the lake to avoid the approaching flames. Fortunately, torrential rains doused the fire at the last minute and saved the town.

Revitalized after their narrow escape, Ahnapee’s city fathers began lobbying the Federal Government for funds to enlarge the town’s harbor, which was home to a growing number of commercial fishing vessels. Responding with back-to-back $25,000 appropriations in 1870 and 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers was dispatched to Ahnapee to construct improved protective piers and begin dredging the river mouth. As a direct result of these improvements, by 1879, Ahnapee’s commercial fishing fleet had grown to become the largest on Lake Michigan, and the town was formally renamed "Algoma," another Indian name, meaning "park of flowers".

After pleas to the Federal Government for the erection of aids to navigation at the harbor entrance went unheeded, local maritime interests took matters into their own hands, establishing and maintaining a couple of post lights at the outer ends of the piers. Finally realizing the need to provide official illumination at Ahnapee, Ninth District Engineer Major William Ludlow requested a surprisingly low appropriation of $2,500 in his annual report for 1890 for the construction of a pair of range lights on the north pier. In order to keep the cost as low as possible, Ludlow’s plans called for a the erection of a simple post light at the outer end of the north pier, and the erection of a taller timber framed beacon approximately 200 feet along the pier. Congress made the requested appropriation on March 3, 1891, however, with the Corps of Engineers in Algoma erecting a new piers, work could not begin on the new ranges until completion of the piers in late 1892.

Click to view enlarged imageThe new north pier on which the range was to be erected was of a unique design, being both split and offset at its mid point. Since the ranges were to be located on the detached outer pier section, construction would necessarily begin with the erection of an elevated bridge across the gap to provide access to the outer pier. A contract for furnishing the prefabricated timber bridge was awarded to a ship builder in Manitowoc, while work began on preparing the pier for the installation of the bridge components on their arrival. Since the pier would frequently be battered by waves over its surface, it was imperative that the new timber components be anchored securely to the piers. To this end, some of the stone within the pier cribs was removed, and 12" square timbers were bolted to the crossties within the cribs to serve as anchoring points for the bridge bents. On the arrival of the bridge components from Manitowoc, the 10-foot tall bridge was erected across the gap, and work began on the erection of the lights themselves.

To form the Front Range, an eighteen-foot tall post was erected at the outer end of the pier, and a lens lantern placed atop the pole at a focal plane of 22 feet. Thirty-three yards behind the front range, the rear range light consisted of a typical timber framed skeletal pyramidal pierhead beacon with its upper section enclosed to serve as both a workroom and as shelter for the keeper during inclement weather. Capped with a square timber gallery, a cast iron decagonal lantern was centered on the gallery, also containing a lens lantern similar to that installed on the Front Range. Standing 34 feet in height from the top of the pier to the ventilator ball, the 80 candlepower rear range light sat at a focal plane of 34 feet, and was visible for a distance of 9 miles at sea in clear weather. Work on the new lights continued into December, with the lights finally tested on December 23. With ice clogging the harbor, the decision was made to delay exhibition of the lights until the opening of the following navigation season.

Ole Hansen, a veteran of ten years lighthouse service who had most recently been serving as Keeper of the Chicago Harbor Light was appointed as Keeper of the new Light. Arriving in Ahnapee on February 14th, 1893, Hansen was likely surprised and dismayed to find that no dwelling had been included in constructing the new station, and thus he was forced to find rental housing in town. After moving into his new "home," Hansen made his way out the pier to exhibit the new lights for the first time on the evening of March 1, 1893.

Click to view enlarged image1894 saw the erection of a small wooden oil storage shed on shore at the foot of the pier, and the rear range light was upgraded to a Fifth Order Fresnel lens on June 5, 1895, with a resulting increase in its range of visibility to 11 miles. Perhaps as a result of the lack of real accommodations afforded by the station, Hansen accepted a transfer to the Grassy Island Ranges in November of that same year. Hansen was replaced by Charles E Young’ who transferred-in from Chambers Island Light, and likely viewed stewardship of a station so close to town as an improvement over the loneliness of island life, even without the availability of proper quarters. While both Hansen and Young almost certainly would have mentioned the lack of a dwelling to the District Inspector during his visits to the station, their protestations were ignored, as no steps were taken to improve the accommodations. To make passage along the north pier safer during high seas, 400 feet of elevated walk was installed on the pier in 1897. Charles Young accepted a transfer to Menominee Pierhead in November 1899, with Nelson Knudsen transferred-in from Beaver Harbor as is replacement.

An additional 338 feet was added to the elevated walk in 1900, with Knudsen now able to use the walk to make his way from the relative protection of the harbor all the way out to the range. However, this improvement was insufficient inducement to convince Knudsen to make Ahnapee his long-term home, as he managed to arrange a swap of assignments with Gustavus Umberham the Keeper of the Cedar River Light after only a year and a half in Ahnapee.

Click to view enlarged imageUmberham arrived in Ahnapee with his wife Anna on July 1, and grew to be one of the best known and respected of all the Keepers assigned to the Ahnapee Pierhead Light. Born in Green Bay on July 4, 1862, Gus entered Lighthouse Service at the age of 19, after growing up working in his father's commercial fishing business. After serving on Beaver Island and Cedar River, he willingly accepted the transfer to Ahnapee, as it put him within easy distance of his old home, and provided him the opportunity to fish more often. Being a decent, hard working man, Gus became both respected and liked throughout the community.

Evidently, Umberham had greater success in convincing the District Inspector of the dire need for a dwelling at the station. In 1902 the Lighthouse Board requested that $3,500 be appropriated for the construction of a dwelling at the station, reporting that "The station is at quite a distance from any available dwelling, and on the opposite side of the entrance to the harbor. A dwelling should be provided for the keeper, that he may reside sufficiently near the lights to give them proper care."

Click to view enlarged imageUnfortunately for Umberham, the request fell on deaf ears, as Congress ignored the request, despite the Boards restatement of the need for the appropriation in each of its annual reports for the following six years. By 1907, the old wooden beacon was found to be in significantly deteriorated condition, And while funds continued to be unavailable for a new dwelling, the old wooden beacon was demolished, and replaced by a cast iron cylindrical tower in 1908. Constructed of 5/16" steel plates, the tower was eight feet in diameter at the base and tapered to seven feet in diameter beneath the gallery, and stood twenty-six feet high to the top of the ventilator ball. The new tower was capped by a decagonal cast iron lantern room, and outfitted with the Fifth Order Fresnel lens from the old rear range beacon.

Finally, sixteen years after the establishment of the station, an appropriation was made for the construction of a dwelling, and a compact hip-roofed house was erected on the hill on the north side of the river overlooking the pier.

On February 3rd 1913, Gus and three other acquaintances accepted a ride with a William Anderson who was taking his gasoline-engined boat "RELIANCE" on a business trip to Kewaunee, where they planned on stopping to eat supper before heading back to Algoma.

Click to view enlarged imageLeaving Kewaunee shortly after 7.00pm, they headed out into the cold black night, staying offshore in order to distinguish the Kewaunee and Algoma lights, and maintain their bearings. The weather quickly worsened, and with ice forming over the windows, they found it increasingly difficult to see. When an unexpectedly large wave hit the vessel, Gus must have lost his balance and fell on the side door. Breaking the hooks holding the door closed, and falling overboard and into the freezing blackness. Adamson heard the crash as the door broke open, and yelled "is Gus there?" The others, also hearing the crash, were unable to find Gus.

Click to view enlarged imageBy the time Adamson managed to bring the RELIANCE about, Gus was nowhere to be seen. They circled several times, and stopped the engine to listen, but to no avail. After an hour of searching in the seething lake, it was plain that Lake Michigan had claimed another victim in its icy grasp. After returning to Algoma, Adamson had the enviable task of informing Gus' wife Anna of the fate that had befallen her husband. The people of Algoma were stunned by the news, and it was reported that a "pall of gloom fell over the city."

Eugene V Kimball, a close acquaintance of Umberham made what was likely a difficult decision to accept a transfer to Algoma from Kewaunee, where he had been serving as keeper for twelve years to take over for Umberham, assuming responsibility for the Algoma Light on February 4.

Click to view enlarged imageIn order to render the light visible for a greater distance, a twelve-foot tall cylindrical steel base was brought in from Muskegon in 1932, and installed on the pier. The old 1908 tower was then lifted and secured on top of the cylinder, effectively increasing the tower's focal plane to its current forty-two feet. Also at this same time, a $100,000 harbor improvement project was undertaken, which included capping both the North and South piers with concrete, and the installation of remotely controlled electrically operated diaphone fog signal on the pier.

As can be seen from the photograph at the top right, the fixed clear Fresnel lens still shines from the tower, surrounded by a red glass panels to impart a red signature.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Ahnapee and Algoma keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Finding this Light

From Highway 42, turn right (east) on to Clark Street. Take Clark Street to Lake, and turn south on Lake. Turn into the parking area on the left, and walk to the shore. The pier and light can be seen across the Ahnapee River.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 
Algoma Public Library, Lighthouse vertical file.
Green Bay Press Gazette, 02/02/1983, 06/17/1993.
Algoma Record Herald, 06/14/1978.
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1995
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Personal observation at Algoma, 09/10/2000
Information obtained from USCG MK1 Sabo during visit to tower.
09/26/00 Email from MK1 Sabo
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 01/29/2007

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