Ludington North Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

Ludington, Michigan



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Historical Information

Although Pere Marquette Lake and River had been named in honor of the renowned French missionary Father Jacques Marquette, who was buried on its shore in 1675, it would be almost 200 years until any settlement in the area was undertaken with the arrival of Bur Caswell in 1847. As the insatiable quest for lumber to feed the cities at the south end of the lake spread northward, lumber barons of the like of Charles Mears and James Ludington set their sights on the area, and soon lumber camps deep in the woods were feeding saw mills which had been established along the shores of Pere Marquette Lake.

As the output of the sawmills grew through the 1850's, an increasing number of vessels attempted to make their way into the river to load with lumber at the sawmill docks. However, the entry into Pere Marquette Lake was frequently clogged with sand deposited by waves pushing along the shore of the big lake. With entry thus frequently barred to vessels but those of the shallowest draft, the mill owners were forced to begin dredging the entry and lightering out to waiting vessels anchored in deep water off the harbor mouth. While a number of memorials were presented before Congress on behalf of Pere Marquette businessmen during the early 1860's, no Federal action would be forthcoming until an Engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers was dispatched to conduct a feasibility study of undertaking improvements to the river mouth in 1866.

Fearing that the survey would languish without prodding, Representative Thomas White Ferry introduced a unanimously supported resolution in the House on February 2, 1867 requesting that the Department of Commerce be instructed to recommend a course of action relative to the Army Corps of Engineers evaluation. Evidently the evaluation from the Department of Commerce was positive, as Congress appropriated the sum of $50,000 for harbor improvements on March 2, 1867, and the Army Corps of Engineers was dispatched to Pere Marquette soon thereafter. Typical of river mouth harbors around Lake Michigan, the initial work at Pere Marquette would take the form of timber crib piers at each side of the river mouth to reduce the deposition of sand, dredging the river entry to a navigable depth, and installing revetments along the river banks to reduce further caving sand into the channel.

Click to view enarged imageWith the Engineers' work well underway, the Lighthouse Board determined that the establishment of a beacon on the outer end of one of the piers, along with a small dwelling on shore would serve the needs of the harbor, and an appropriation of $6,000 was requested to fund the project in the Board's 1869 annual report. Congress appropriated the requested funds on July 15, 1870, and with the completion of work on the piers, the beacon was established on the outer end of the South Pier at the end of the 1870 season of navigation. Taking the form of a simple white painted timber-framed pyramid structure standing 25 feet in height, the upper section was enclosed to serve as both a service room and as shelter for the keeper during inclement weather. Above this service room, an octagonal cast iron lantern was centered on a square gallery with iron handrails, and outfitted with a fixed red Fifth Order Fresnel lens standing at a 33-foot focal plane. An elevated timber walk led from the shore to a door in the rear of the service room, allowing the keeper to walk out to the light, high above the waves which frequently crashed across the surface of the pier during stormy conditions.

While the beacon was established without incident, difficulties were encountered in obtaining title to the selected property for the dwelling, and thus Keeper William Gerard was forced to erect a small shack at the foot of the South Pier in which to take up temporary residence until the matter of establishing a proper dwelling could be resolved. However, with no title in hand at the end of the 1870 fiscal year, the unexpended $4,000 portion of the appropriation allocated for construction of the dwelling was recalled to the Treasury Department, and the Board was forced to request a new appropriation for the a dwelling in its annual report for 1871.

Research has shown that while Congress was relatively forthcoming with funding for the establishment of pierhead lights in the vicinity of towns around the Great Lakes, it frequently dragged its feet in appropriating funds for the construction of keepers dwellings for such stations. This turned out to be the case at Pere Marquette, with the Lighthouse Board reiterating its plea for funding for the establishment of a dwelling to closed Congressional ears in each of the subsequent five years.

Click to view enarged imageTo further add insult to injury, the Army Corps of Engineers was planning on opening-up the channel to a navigable width of 200 feet in 1876, and Gerard's shack was located right in the area in which the channel was to be enlarged. Since the shack was not worth the expense of relocation, the Board again pleaded for funds to build a real dwelling for the station. However, attention was quickly diverted from the dwelling when the entire pierhead light and the outer crib on which it was located were completely destroyed during a hell-bound gale that December. With winter stretching its icy grip across the harbor, work on rebuilding the light was impossible until the following Spring, when a new outer crib and pyramid beacon were installed. The larger replacement beacon stood 29 feet tall and featured two small rooms above its open timber framework. With the installation of a Sixth Order lens, the North Pierhead light was reactivated in early May 1877.

With completion of the second phase of the Army Corps of Engineers improvements at the harbor in 1888, the South Pier had been extended 140 feet further into the lake, and the beacon was moved to a point approximately 50 feet from the end of the revised pierhead, and 140 feet of additional elevated walk erected to fill the resulting gap. Three years later, a small timber oil storage shed was erected on the shore end of the pier. To aid mariners in locating the opening between the piers, a fixed red tubular lantern was erected atop an 18-foot post at the outer end of the South Pier in 1890 to serve as a front range to the existing beacon.

Click to view enarged image1891 was a particularly eventful year for Keeper Edwin Slyfield, who had been serving as keeper of the Ludington light for three years. In this year the South Pier was extended an additional 700 feet, the beacon moved 750 feet out to the third crib from the outer end, and the front range post reestablished on the new pierhead. One can only imagine the conditions Slyfield would have encountered while making his way out to the front range with November gales crashing huge waves across the surface of the pier to service the front range light. To provide a modicum of security, a rope was stapled to the mooring posts along the center of the pier between the beacon and the front range post to provide a hand hold. As if the addition of the front range was not enough to test Slyfield's mettle, in this year a second fixed white tubular lantern was also established on a post at the outer end of the North Pier, and Slyfield took on responsibility for maintaining three lights on two piers on opposite sides of the river. A lesser man would likely have thrown in the towel, for after twenty years of repeated pleas for funding by the Lighthouse Board, Congress had still not seen fit to appropriate the necessary funds for building a dwelling for the Ludington keeper, and Slyfield was forced to find lodging in town with an allocation of sixty dollars a year. As if to further test Slyfield's mettle, 1891 was also the year in which the Board determined that the establishment of a fog signal at Ludington would serve as a valuable aid to mariners, and a $5,5000 appropriation be made for its establishment, along with the ritual annual request for $4,500 to build a keepers dwelling.

After 23 years of repeated requests by the Lighthouse Board, Congress finally acknowledged the need for the dwelling on February 15, 1893 with the passage of an Act authorizing the establishment of a fog signal station and the erection of a dwelling at Ludington. However, in what must have seemed to Slyfield a cruel twist of fate, no funds were appropriated for construction of either, and thus no work could begin. While an appropriation for the fog signal station was made on August 18, 1894, the dwelling was again ignored, and over the following three months, a timber frame fog signal building was erected on the landward side of the beacon, and sheathed with corrugated iron. A pair of horizontal boilers were installed and plumbed to duplicate 10-inch steam whistles located on the lakeward gable end of the structure. Work on the structure was completed late in January, and after testing and adjustment to ensure that the signals emitted the predetermined characteristic 3-second blast followed by 17-seconds of silence, the new fog signal station was officially placed into service on January 31, 1895.

Click to view enarged image1897 saw the installation of a parabolic reflector behind the whistles to deflect the sound out to sea and away from sensitive ears on shore. By the end of the following year, the North Pier had been extended to a total length of 1,452 feet and the South Pier to 2,138 feet. Finally, on July 1, 1898 Congress appropriated the sum of $3,000 for the construction of a dwelling for the Ludington keepers after 28 years of quintessential government inaction. In the final year of nineteenth century, the beacon was lifted from the pier and moved closer to the fog signal building, and a short covered way erected to connect the two structures. Plans and specifications for the duplex dwelling were drawn up, and a contract awarded for its construction. The contractor finally began work on the dwelling in May, 1900 and on completion that August, Slyfield moved his family into their new home. In 1902, the sand grounds on which the dwelling was located were covered with a coating of clay and top soil, graded, seeded with grass and a white picket fence erected surrounding the grounds.

In 1904, the fog signal and beacon were both relocated 200 feet to the outer end of the South Pier and a steel skeleton tower erected on the pier 400 feet to the rear to serve as a rear range to the beacon, and 900 feet of timber elevated walk along the South Pier was replaced with a cast iron catwalk. With the exhibition of these new lights on the evening of November 23, 1904, the North Pierhead light was temporarily discontinued while the Army Corps of Engineers began reconstruction of that pier. With the completion of work on the North Pier completed in 1905, the North Pierhead light was again reestablished on October 12 of that year in the form of a red five-day lantern exhibited from the top of a metal post, with a small lamp house and platform attached to the lakeward side of the structure.

Acting on recommendations of the Army Corps of Engineers, Congress appropriated the sum of $839,000 in 1906 for the construction of a pair of timber breakwaters in arrowhead conformation at Ludington to both protect the harbor entrance and create a large stilling basin to serve as a harbor of refuge. The construction contract was awarded to the Greiling Brothers Company, and work began later that year with the construction of timber cribs on shore at Buttersville, a few miles to the south of the harbor. Starting at the planned outer end of the Breakwater and working shoreward, the cribs were towed into place by the Greiling's steam barge FOSTER, filled with stone, sinking each to the bottom in its designated location. These cribs served as a foundation for the timber breakwater superstructure which was erected on their upper surfaces and secured to the cribs with large bolts. With completion of the outer end of the South Breakwater in 1910,  a reinforced concrete column was erected to serve as a foundation for a pyramidal steel tower capped with an acetylene-powered lantern.

Click to view enarged imageWith work on the new breakwaters nearing completion in 1913, it became clear that the fog signal building's location on the South Pierhead created a dangerous condition, as it would not serve adequately to mark the new opening between the breakwaters for the large number of car ferries entering the harbor. Seeking to remedy the situation, the Lighthouse Service recommended an appropriation of $60,000 for the construction of a new combination main light and fog signal building on the outer end of the South Breakwater.

Work on the breakwaters was completed in the summer of 1914, and a dedication ceremony held on July 4, 1914. While the matter of funding for the proposed new light and fog signal on the South Breakwater languished in Congress over the following six years, the Lighthouse Service made a number of changes to the characteristics of both the breakwater and pierhead lights in order to arrive at the optimum lighting scheme for the harbor.

By 1919, the timber breakwaters were already showing signs of decay, and funding was approved to replace them with more permanent concrete structures. The contract for the work was awarded to Milwaukee contractor S. M. Slesel Company and work began on the North Breakwater the following spring. With a $75,000 appropriation for the new breakwater lighthouse and fog signal in hand in 1923, and reconstruction of the South Breakwater not slated to begin for at least two years, the Lighthouse Service changed its plan for lighting the harbor, deciding instead to build the new structure on the North Breakwater. With this change, it became clear that the keepers dwelling would thus be inconveniently located on the south side of the channel, and a new lot was chosen on the north side of the channel, and arrangements were begun to obtain title. By 1924, work in the harbor had reached a feverish pitch, with crews simultaneously working on completing the concrete work, erecting the new light and fog signal building on the North Breakwater and building the new dwelling on the north side of the channel.

Click to view enarged imageOver the summer of 1924, a unique structure took shape at the end of the North Breakwater. The main tower, fabricated of steel plates over an internal steel skeleton, took the form of a four-sided pyramidal tower with four round porthole windows on each of the three decks within. With plans calling for the installation of an air diaphragm fog signal operated by an electrically powered compressor, there was no need for a large fog signal building, and thus the signal building took the form of a relatively small structure integrated into the base of the landward side of the main tower. In order to help protect the structure from the force of waves crashing across the breakwater, the concrete foundation at the base of the structure was formed with angled surfaces designed to deflect the force of wave action up and away from the building. The white painted tower was capped by a square gallery and an octagonal iron lantern installed at its center. Since the standard lantern design being used by the Lighthouse Service in new construction at this time was of circular conformation with diagonal astragals, it is likely (but unconfirmed) that the lantern used on this new light was transferred from the South Pierhead beacon which the new light was designed to replace.

Cliick to view enlarged imageWhile virtually all Fresnel-style lenses used in US lighthouses had been of Parisian manufacture, the costs of importing such lenses had always been prohibitive. However with no domestic manufacturing sources able to manufacture glass of comparable quality to the French, the premium was necessarily paid in order to obtain the state of the art French optics. In an effort to reduce costs, the Lighthouse Service began working with a number of US glass manufacturers in the early 1900's to identify if comparable optics could be manufactured stateside. Of these US manufacturers, the MacBeth Evans Glass Company of Pittsburgh appears to have had the most success, and one of the few Fourth Order lenses manufactured by MacBeth Evans was installed in the new station's lantern. With the entire structure below the gallery level given a coat of white paint and the lantern painted black to help the structure serve as a more effective day mark, the station was completed and the new North Breakwater light and fog signal were placed into service for the first time on a yet to be determined date in 1924.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile work on renovating the North Breakwater was finished the following year, the rebuilding of the South Breakwater would not be completed until 1931. With completion of the breakwaters, the two piers guarding the channel were also rebuilt in concrete and their length reduced by 400 feet to provide vessels with sufficient maneuvering room align with the piers within the confines of the stilling basin. To better mark the end of the piers during thick weather, an electrically operated siren was installed on the end of the North Pier in 1937. Operated by remote control from the North Breakwater light, the siren emitted a group of two blasts every 15 seconds.

While attempting to gain entry into the harbor during a storm on January 22, 1939, the car ferry FLINT missed the opening and plowed into the concrete crib at the end of the South Breakwater, completely destroying the light. Later that summer, a 31-foot six inch steel tower equipped with an electric light was erected in its place.

Click to view enarged imageThe North Breakwater light was automated in 1972, and the transportation of loads of railroad cars across the lake ended in 1990. Although the SS Badger still carries on the proud tradition, carrying passengers and their automobiles across the lake between Ludington and Manitowoc, the preeminence of Ludington as a harbor has waned considerably over the years. During renovations and reconfiguration of the concrete breakwater in the area of the north light in 1994, the crib on which the 1924 tower was incorporated suddenly settled, and the tower sat at an approximate 4 degree list to the northeast. Determining that the structure was still stable and that the costs required to straighten the tower were excessive, the Army Corps of Engineers made the decision not to verticalize the structure, leaving it with the slight lean which can be seen to this day.

On October 17, 1995 the Fourth Order lens was removed from the lantern and replaced by a Tidelands Signal 300 mm acrylic optic. The Fresnel lens was loaned to the White Pine Village where it is still proudly displayed as part of their maritime history exhibit.

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.

Seeing this Light

From US 31, head west on US 10 approximately 3 3/4 miles to the end of the road at Stearns Park. The North Breakwater can be accessed from the park.  

Reference Sources

Journal of the US Senate, 1858
Journal of the US House of Representatives, various, 1867 1873
Statutes at large of the US 39th Congress
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1869 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various, 1910 1939
Annual reports of the Lake Carriers Association, various, 1908 - 1939
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1873 1999
History of the Great Lakes, JH Beers Co., Chicago, 1899
History of Mason County, HR Page, Chicago, 1882
Ludington Daily News articles on harbor history, 1934
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 07/18/2004

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