Duluth South Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

Duluth, Minnesota Home Back

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Historical Information

Minnesota Point is a natural wonder. Stretching 7-miles across the expanse of the bay in front of the St. Louis River, from whose mouth its sands were long-ago deposited, it is the longest freshwater sand bar in the world.

The bars' location offshore created a natural breakwater protecting the waters of St. Louis Bay, and with the river established as the border between the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the rival ports of Duluth and Superior grew separately on each side of the river. In the early 1850's, there was but a single opening in the bar, known as Superior Entry, and all vessels entering either harbor were forced to negotiate this single void.

With the new locks at Sault Ste Marie planned for completion in 1855, both cities on either side of the river were looking forward to a dramatic surge in commerce. Realizing that traffic through Superior Entry would increase dramatically as a result of vessel traffic being opened up to the lower lakes, Congress appropriated $15,000 for the construction of a station on Minnesota Point to light Superior Entry on August 3, 1854.

As Duluth grew through the 1860's, a strong rivalry began between the two towns at the opposite ends of Minnesota Point. Resenting that vessels making for Duluth had to pass through the Point at its Wisconsin end, the people of Duluth attempted to build docks on the outer side of the sand bar, to avoid having to use the Superior Entry. However, the docks were no match for Lake Superior's fury, and they quickly deteriorated.

The citizens of Duluth petitioned the Government to construct a canal through Minnesota Point at its Duluth end, and while the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study in response, they advised against its construction, fearing that water levels behind Minnesota Point would be adversely affected.

Click to view enlarged imageUndeterred, a consortium of Duluth businessmen arranged financial backing from Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke, and began excavation of the canal independently in 1870. In an attempt to stop the work, representatives of the town of Superior obtained a court injunction to end the works. However, when Duluth Mayor J B Culver learned of the decision by telegraph, he organized a flurry of activity at the site, and managed to bring the project to completion before the official documentation could be delivered. Thus, vessels bound for Duluth were able to gain direct entry into Duluth's wharves.

With the completion of the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad connecting Duluth to St. Paul, it was plain that Duluth would take on an even greater role, as trainloads of produce from the west began making their to the Duluth docks to be loaded onto vessels bound for the industrial centers of the lower lakes. While entry through the new canal was relatively easy during daylight hours, locating the narrow channel was virtually impossible under the dark of the Lake Superior night. In response to a request from the Lighthouse Board, Congress appropriated $10,000 for the construction of a light at the canal's entrance in March 1870.

Deciding that the best location for the new light would be on the outer end of the new south breakwater, construction had to wait until 1872 when the new breakwater was planned for completion. A contract for construction of the station was issued by the Detroit Depot, and work began late in the summer of that year. After the construction of a keepers dwelling on shore at the inner end of the pier, the crew had turned their attention to the construction of the elevated walk when a violent storm ripped a large part of the wooden breakwater apart, forcing work to be abandoned for the season.

Work on reconstructing the breakwater began the following spring, and with its completion the lighthouse contractors returned to Duluth and work resumed on the new station. The tower that took shape at the end of the breakwater was of the standard pyramidal wooden pierhead design being used throughout the lakes at that time. Capped with an octagonal cast iron lantern housing a Fifth Order Fresnel lens, the tower's 40-foot focal plane provided the fixed red light a range of visibility of 12 ˝ miles during clear weather. A wooden elevated walk stretched across the top of the breakwater from near the keeper's dwelling to the tower, allowing the keepers to make their way out to the tower above the waves which frequently ripped violently across the breakwaters surface. While construction of the station was expected in January of 1974, less than stellar performance on the part of the contractor delayed the initial exhibition of the light to the night of June 2, 1874. With Duluth's  increasing in importance as a maritime port, at an as yet unidentified date, the Fifth Order lens was upgraded to a fixed red Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier & Fenestre of Paris in 1877.

Click to view enlarged imageThe western end of Lake Superior had for years been renowned for the "pea soup" fogs which enveloped the area, and to help guide mariners in such periods of thick weather, an automated fog bell was installed in the tower in 1880. However, it soon became evident that the bell was not up to the task, and a wooden fog-signal building housing duplicate Daboll steam-powered fog whistles was constructed in 1885.

1895 in Duluth was the foggiest on record, and the station's keepers were doubtless kept busy feeding 45 tons of coal into the station's insatiable boilers in order to keep the whistles screaming a record 1,048 hours. The citizenry of Duluth was less than enamored with the seemingly constant cacophony, and lodged numerous complaints that the noise was making life unbearable as the sound echoed through the city streets and hills on which the city was built. In reaction, a crew was dispatched to Duluth to relocate the horns to the roof and shrouded them with a large wood and iron parabolic reflector in an attempt to direct the sound out to sea, and away from the city. The experiment was apparently a success, since it not only diminished the ambient sound heard in Duluth but almost doubled the audible range of the signal across the lake.

Click to view enlarged imageIn a move designed to eliminate redundant requests for funding from the feuding twin ports, Congress combined the Duluth and Superior ports into one entity in 1896 and appropriated three million dollars for the Army Corps of Engineers to begin major harbor improvements at both ends of Minnesota Point. As part of these improvements, the depth through the canal was increased to twenty feet, and work began on replacing both wooden piers at the canal entrance with longer and more sturdy structures of reinforced concrete. To better mark the new canal entrance, the Detroit Lighthouse Engineers began planning an integrated fog signal and tower structure to be constructed on the outer end of the south breakwater. As construction of the new south breakwater reached the area of the existing fog signal and tower, a temporary structure was built some distance closer to Minnesota Point, one of the fog signals was relocated into the new building, and a 25-foot tall wooden skeletal tower was erected to temporarily house the light at the end of the pier. With temporary structures thus installed, the old tower, fog signal and the 700-foot long elevated walk were removed, and construction of the breakwater continued. As the Army Corps of Engineers work on the new south breakwater wound to a close in June 1900, contractors hired by the Detroit Depot began work on the new integrated fog signal and tower.

Click to view enlarged imageLocated atop the pier at its outermost end, the single-story Cream City brick building stood 22 feet wide by 45 feet in length, and was capped by a tower located on the eastern peak of the roof. The Fourth Order Fresnel from the old tower was installed in the new circular cast iron lantern with helical astragals, and the structure's 44-foot focal plane provided the lens with a 12-mile range of visibility during clear weather. With the twin Daboll Steam whistles and boilers installed, and a new steel parabolic reflector installed to once again placate the citizens of Duluth, work on the new structure was complete, and the new light was exhibited for the first time on the night of September 1, 1901.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile three keepers were assigned to the South Breakwater lights, the small 1874 wood-frame keeper's dwelling was the only housing provided by the Lighthouse Board, forcing the two assistants to rent housing in the city at considerable expense. To remedy the situation, the Board requested an appropriation of $10,000 for the purchase of land and the construction of a duplex assistant's dwelling in its 1902 annual report. Receiving no response, the Board reiterated it request in each of its four subsequent reports. Congress finally responded favorably with an appropriation for the purchase of land only on March 4, 1907. While land was purchased across Lake Avenue from the Head Keeper's dwelling, a lack of additional funding delayed the construction of the large brick duplex building until 1912, with the keeper's unable to move into the new structure until February, 1913.

Click to view enlarged imageThe steam whistles were replaced by more efficient locomotive whistles in 1915, however the change was short-lived. With the successful installation of 53 of the more efficient and considerably louder diaphone fog-signals at various locations throughout the nation, the infamous Duluth fogs made it a natural location for the installation of one of these improved noise makers. Thus it was that the locomotive whistles were ripped from the building in October, 1923, and electrically-powered duplicate Type "F" diaphones were installed in their place.

Click to view enlarged imageAlmost immediately, Duluth residents were "up in arms" at the noise emanating from the diaphone, writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper, the Chamber of Commerce, the US Bureau of Lighthouses, and even to Herbert Hoover, who was serving as that Secretary of Commerce at the time. Taking a lesson from the past, the Lighthouse Bureau installed a sound deflector on the building. Whether this solved the problem, or whether the people of Duluth grew used to the sound in the same manner as did the keepers of the signal cannot be determined. However the furor dissipated, and the diaphone served faithfully until October 1968 when the diaphone was replaced by an electric signal known as a "peanut whistle.

Surprisingly, over the ensuing years, the citizenry of Duluth grew to miss the "Bee-Oh" sound of the old diaphone, and a number of newspaper articles began appearing in which people waxed longingly for a return of the old diaphone sound. In response, a group of interested citizens gathered together in 1976 to form TOOT (an acronym for ReTurn Our Old Tone,) and after conducting considerable in-depth research, managed to work an agreement with the Coast Guard to allow the reinstallation of a diaphone on the South Breakwater. Locating a pair of Type "F" diaphones which had been previously removed from the Kewaunee Pierhead Light, the diaphones were shipped to Duluth where they were completely rebuilt and installed in the South Breakwater fog signal building. With a large crowd on the piers to witness the event, the diaphones were reactivated on April 1, 1995.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all keepers of the Duluth Lights compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

Duluth turned-out to be the big surprise of this year’s trip. We expected a dismal & dirty port city, with nothing to keep our attention beyond the three lights on the harbor pier. Were we in for a real surprise! The entire downtown and waterfront area has been through a major renovation, and there was a ton of things to do. 

There is a "skyway" consisting of enclosed walkways between all of the downtown blocks, and this skyway system is surrounded by various types of retail establishments. The old harbor area features restaurants and hotels built in the old warehouse buildings, and is adjacent to spreading civic center featuring convention center, Imax theater, hockey arena, and concert hall. 

While in the area, be sure to visit the the Canal Park Maritime Museum which is run by the Army Corps of Engineers, and located on the north side of the canal tight against the lift bridge. We found this to be a fascinating museum, with various displays relating to Great Lakes shipping history, and highly recommend including a visit during any visit to Duluth. Museum hours vary by season. Summer hours generally are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; Spring and Fall hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, and Winter hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. For more information, call the museum at (218) 727-2497

Finding these Lights

Hwy 61 slices through Duluth parallel to the lakeshore. All three Duluth lighthouses are located on piers protecting the canal through Minnesota Point which protects the Port of  Duluth, and all are located in an area known as Canal Park, which is well signed. From Hwy 61, take Canal Park Drive into Canal Park drive, and find a place to park before crossing the famous lift bridge to the South Breakwater. The lighthouses is a short and enjoyable walk along the breakwater from the bridge.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1870 - 1903
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, 1904 - 1913
Lake Superior, Grace Lee Nute, 1944
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1995
Photographs courtesy of Jeff Laser.
History of fog-signals at Duluth, TOOT.
Email correspondence with Jeff Laser, various
Personal visit to Duluth Harbor on 09/06/1999
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 12/07/2003

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