Au Sable Point Light Seeing The Light

Near Grand Marais, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

The Lake Superior coastline between Whitefish Point and Grand Island stands as one of the most beautiful stretches of shoreline in all of the Midwest. Centered in this stretch of coastline, towering sandstone cliffs stand sentinel, their multicolored faces painted with rich streaks of vivid color, and their surfaces carved into otherworldly forms by the ceaseless action of the lake over the millennia. Small wonder that the Federal Government would eventually select the area as its first National Lakeshore in 1966, to ensure that the area's natural beauty would remain unspoiled for generations to come.

Today, this shoreline is a haven for tourist, with pleasure boaters, tour boats and kayakers making their leisurely way along the coast to soak up the natural beauty. It is difficult to imagine that during the 1800's this stretch of seemingly bucolic coastline was known to mariners as "The Shipwreck Coast," with the hulks of innumerable vessels pushed onto the rocks by violent storms out of the north, or lost in the pea soup fogs which frequently enveloped the area.

While a Light at Whitefish Point had marked the eastern end of this stretch since 1849 and the western limit had been marked by the North Light on Grand Island since 1856, the 1860's found mariners forced to blindly navigate the intervening 80 miles through some of the most treacherous waters in all of the Great Lakes. Bowing to increasing pressure from the maritime community, the Lighthouse Board finally took up the mariners call in its 1867 annual report, requesting a Congressional appropriation of $40,000 for the construction of a new coast light at a point between the Grand Island and Whitefish Point Lights. With no positive response from Congress, the Board reiterated the need in each of its annual reports for the following four years.

Congress finally responded with the requested appropriation in 1872, and under the direction of Eleventh District Engineer Brevet Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe, a site for the new Light was selected at Big Sable Point, approximately 12 miles west of Grand Marais. The state of Michigan deeded 326 acres to the Federal Government reservation, and Poe began work on the design for the new station. At this time, Poe was also charged with creating a plan for a new station on Outer Island in the Apostles. Since both new stations were to perform similar coast light duty, Poe elected to use the same plan at both locations.

Prior to this Poe's influence, Eleventh District Lighthouse designs had been largely utilitarian, of basic "shoe box" design with little ornamentation or thought as to the quality of life for the station's keepers. Poe's design for the two new lights was unique, in that they were designed not only to be thoroughly appropriate for the need, but also included design elements normally reserved for major public buildings and stately homes. Poe's plans called for a cut stone foundation sixteen feet six inches in diameter supporting an 80-foot double-walled brick tower, gracefully tapering to twelve feet in diameter below the gallery, which was supported by a series of 16 ornate cast iron corbels. Immediately below the gallery, a watch room was incorporated into the tower, and featured four arch-topped windows surmounted by matching curved stone pediments. The three-story brick dwelling was to be built over a full basement, and featured a gable roof with partial hips at each end. To provide the keepers with shelter during their numerous nightly trips to the tower to tend the light, the dwelling was connected to the tower by way of an enclosed passage. A spiral cast iron stairway wound its way up the cylindrical inner core of the tower to end in a paneled circular service room at the gallery level, atop which was the prefabricated cast iron decagonal lantern was installed. A narrower gallery encircled the lantern itself provided a platform from which keepers could clean the storm panels, aided by grab handles located midway up the vertical astragals. As witness to the strategic importance placed upon this station, plans called for the lantern to be outfitted with a fixed white Third Order Fresnel lens. By virtue of tower's location atop the sand cliff, the light boasted a focal plane of 108 feet, and would be visible for a distance of 18 miles at sea.

Click to view enlarged imageConstruction began at Big Sable in July of 1873, and a year later was complete with the exception of plastering in the dwelling and whitewashing of the tower. Keeper Casper Kuhn reported for duty at the station on July 7, and with completion of construction climbed the stairs to exhibit his new light for the first time on the evening of August 19, 1874. Kuhn spent his first month at the new station alone until his Assistant Paul Happold arrived on September 29. With the erection of a boat house and wood storage shed the following year, work at the station was complete.

While the Big Sable Light was a major coast light, duty at the station was as isolated as if the station had been built on an island. Other than supply visits made by the lighthouse tender, the station's only link to civilization was a winding, narrow foot path which made its way across the top of the dunes to Grand Marais. In may places the path was impassable during stormy weather when waves crashed smashed over the dunes. Life in such isolated conditions required a keeper to have special characteristics, and it was evident that Kuhn and Happold were both ill-suited for the task as they both resigned from lighthouse service on July 8, 1876.

Click to view enlarged imageNapoleon Beedon, a seasoned Lake Superior Keeper with twenty years of lighthouse tending experience was selected to replace Kuhn. Arranging to have his wife Mary appointed as his Assistant, it would appear that the husband and wife team experienced somewhat of a baptism by fire, as that first winter's storms were particularly violent. On December 8, 1876, the day started with a light northerly breeze which by 5 PM had churned into a frightful storm which blew down 50 trees around the station. In his station log book, Beedon recorded that he feared "the lighthouse and tower would be blow down as they shook like a leaf the wind was NN West , snowing and freesing (sic). It was the worst storm I ever saw on Lake Superior." After three years at Big Sable, the Beedon's had their fill of life at the station, tendering their resignations from lighthouse service, and departing the station for good on July 19, 1879.

Perhaps believing that a father and son team might fare better with Big Sable's isolation. Eleventh District Inspector Commander Joseph N. Miller appointed Frederick W Boesler and his son Frederick Jr. to the positions of Acting Keeper and Acting Assistant to replace the Beedons. For reasons that we have yet to determine, the First Assistant position was abolished on October 1, 1882, and the older Frederick continued on at the station alone until April 1884.

After ten years of operation, Eleventh District Inspector Commander Horace Elmer noted that the entire station was showing signs of age and use, and a work crew was dispatched to the station in the summer of 1890 to spruce things up, and to ensure everything was in perfect operating condition. That same year, it was estimated that vessels out of Marquette carried a total of 1,772, 400 tons of ore past the station on their down-bound trip to the Soo locks. Noting that since this traffic was forced to hug the southern shore during northerly gales, the Eleventh District officers determined that the establishment of a fog signal station at Big Sable would be of great value to mariners during thick and foggy weather. To fund the project, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $5,500 in its 1892 annual report, and while Congress agreed with the need, and passed an Act approving the establishment of the signal on February 15, 1893, it neglected to make the necessary appropriation.

Click to view enlarged imageWhen the new station had been built in 1874, lard and sperm oil ware used for fueling the lamp. Relatively non-volatile, the oil was stored in a purpose-built room in the dwelling's cellar. 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 embarked upon a program of erecting separate oil storage buildings at all US light stations. To this end, a work crew arrived at the station in 1895 and erected a fireproof brick oil storage house with metal roof and shelving, approximately 50 feet to the rear of the station.

Remaining convinced of the need for the fog signal, the Board continued to push for the appropriation, and funding was finally approved by Congress as part of the Sundry Civil Appropriations Act of June 11, 1896. Plans and specifications for the new plant were drawn up that summer, and contracts awarded for furnishing the needed boilers, fog signal machinery and tramway. The materials, with the exception of the tramway, were delivered at the Detroit depot in September, and being so late in the season, it was decided to postpone construction until the opening of the 1897 navigation season. The following spring, the materials and a working party were loaded onboard the lighthouse tender AMARANTH and delivered at Big Sable Point. The brick fog signal building was built to the standard design used throughout the district, and was outfitted with twin 10" locomotive steam whistles fired by horizontal boilers. To supply water to the boilers, a water pickup tube was placed in a timber crib sunk offshore, and the water raised to the station by way of a force pump. While on site, the work crew also erected a sea wall in front of the new signal building to prevent erosion, extended and raised the boat dock, and replaced the wooden sidewalks with more substantial poured concrete walks. The work moved to completion at the end of August, and the new fog signal was tested and placed in operation on September 1, 1897.

Click to view enlarged imageThe machinery and materials for the tramway arrived at the Depot after the work party's return, and they were loaded on the tender AMARANTH and delivered to Big Sable where they were covered by the keepers until a work crew arrived the following year to install them. With the increase in workload resulting from the establishment of fog signal plants at most stations, a second Assistant was usually added to a station's roster, however for some reason this was not to be the case at Big Sable Point, and then Keeper Herbert Weeks and his Assistant Nelson Martin were forced to man the busy station alone.

After three years of wave pounding, the water supply crib had become severely damaged and a crew arrived in 1901 to replace the structure. While on site, they also rebuilt the tramway and the dwelling roof. 1904 saw the replacement of the iron smokestack in the fog signal building with a more substantial 40 foot tall brick chimney. Also in 1904, the decision was finally made to add a Second Assistant at the station, and Garfield Sweet arrived on April 11 and moved into the dwelling with Keeper Otto Bufe First Assistant Orrin Young and their families. One can only imagine the tight living accommodations the old 1874 dwelling must have provided for this group of people, since the dwelling represented cramped quarters for two keepers and their families, let alone three

Click to view enlarged imageNo doubt to the keepers great satisfaction, a roadway was finally cut through the woods from the two-track public highway to the lighthouse in 1905, affording them some short-term escape from the close confines of the dwelling. This was also a year in which they probably needed to escape in order to get a break from the screaming fog signals which operated for a station-high 382 hours, consuming 18 tons of coal - all of which had to be shoveled into the boilers by hand.

Eleventh District Inspector Commander James T. Smith finally acknowledged the cramped living conditions at Big Sable, and plans were drawn up for the construction of a second dwelling for the Head Keeper, and for conversion of the original dwelling into an improved duplex layout. Work on both structures began early in 1909, and by July the work on the duplex was complete, with the building now sporting an addition at the east gable end and a full width porch with two separate entrances. The foundation for the new building had been excavated, concrete footings laid, and the buildings walls erected to the level of the first floor joists. Construction of the new dwelling continued to completion in late 1909, when keeper James Kay moved his family and belongings down the concrete walk into the spacious accommodations afforded by their new home.

Click to view enlarged imageOut of the blue in 1910, official government documents stopped referring to the station as "Big Sable," and began listing it as "Au Sable." While we have seen numerous references to this name change being made to eliminate confusion with Big Sable Point on Lake Michigan, we have yet to verify this through official documentation.

As part of a general upgrading throughout the nation, the lamp at Au Sable was changed from oil wick to an incandescent oil vapor system on August 29, 1913 with an increase in output from 1,200 to 28,000 candlepower, and a corresponding increase in the visible range to 19 miles. In 1928, the steam whistles were removed from the fog signal building and replaced with a pair of Type F diaphones, which was sequenced to emitted a repeated characteristic pattern of a two blasts of 1.5 seconds duration followed by 25.5 seconds of silence.

A rough road connecting the station to Grand Marais was finally constructed in 1928, providing access to the station by wagons, and opening the station to civilization for the first time. This road was significantly improved in 1943. With access to the station now open to automobiles, a double garage was erected to the south of the head keeper's dwelling in which the keepers could keep their automobiles.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter the Coast Guard took over the station in 1939, the quarters were modernized and a diesel powered generator installed to provide electricity in the dwellings. With advances in radio communication and radar allowing vessel masters to find their way through the darkest night or thickest weather, in 1958 it was determined that the Au Sable Light could be automated, eliminating the need for full-time staff. Thus, the Third Order lens was disassembled and shipped to district headquarters in Cleveland, and a battery powered optic was installed in the stations lantern. The buildings were boarded-up, and the station placed under the responsibility of Coast Guard station Grand Marais, who made regular checks of the station to ensure that the light was operational and that no damage had been done to the buildings.

With the creation of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in 1966, the station reservation became a virtual island surrounded by park property. On January 12, 1968 the station reservation and buildings were incorporated into the park to open the area up to the public. While the NPS took ownership of the buildings, the Coast Guard continued to maintain ownership of the tower in order to be able to service the 300 mm solar optic which had been installed on the gallery handrail. As a result of ten years of abandonment, the structures were found to have deteriorated considerably as a result of vandalism and non- maintained exposure to the elements. While NPS planned to completely restore the station at some time in the future, time and resource restrictions limited initial work to stabilization and securing the building against further vandalism.

Arrangements were made to return the Third Order lens from Cleveland, and with the lantern not yet restored, the lens as temporarily displayed at the Grand Marais Maritime Museum, which is located in that station's restored keeper's dwelling. Finally in June, 1996, the lens was returned to Au Sable, and reassembled in the lantern where it still be seen to this day.

Click to view enlarged imageReal restoration of the station began in 1998 with the renovation of the 1876 duplex. Plaster walls were replaced, hardwood flows and trim work stripped and refinished, and missing parts of the staircase which had been stripped by vandals to build fires were duplicated and replaced. Most recently, work has begun on the tower itself, including restoration of interior woodwork, and restoration of much of the brass and copper work in the lantern.

Work is now underway in the 1909 head keeper's dwelling, which was found to be in much better condition than the 1876 dwelling. The first floor will be restored to function as a visitors center, and the second floor will be converted into an apartment for volunteers who will staff the visitor's center during the summer season.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

Take County road H-58 from the Hurricane River Campground, which is 12 Miles west of Grand Marais. From the Campground the lighthouse is a 1.5-mile walk along a hard-packed sand trail.

Contact information

Au Sable Point Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Munising, MI 49862
(906) 494-2669 or (906) 387-3700

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994.
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1867 - 1909
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, various, 1906 - 1940
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1901 - 1950
Michigan Lighthouses, Penrose, 1992
Personal visit to Su Sable Point on 09/11/1999
Pictured Rocks Shipwrecks, Frederick Stonehouse and Daniel R. Fountain, 1997
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 01/03/2005

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