Duluth Rear Range Light Seeing The Light

Duluth, Minnesota Home Back

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Historical Information

With the establishment of the Duluth South Breakwater Light in 1874 the task of locating Duluth harbor was much simplified. However, with only 300 feet between the north pier and the south breakwater, identifying the correct entry course that would place a vessel smack dab between them was somewhat risky.

Click to view enlarged imageTo rectify this situation, in 1880 the Lighthouse Board recommended that the sum of $2,000 be made available for the construction of a light on the inner end of the south breakwater. By constructing this new tower with a focal plane higher than that of the existing breakwater light, the two lights would combine to serve as a range, and by maintaining a line in which these two lights were constantly oriented one above the other, a direct course could be followed to the opening between the two piers.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter receiving a Congressional appropriation on March 2,1889, construction began on a timber pyramid tower surmounted by a frame watch room. Topped with an octagonal cast iron lantern, and equipped with a flashing red Fourth Order Fresnel lens emitting a single flash every six seconds, the "sweet pot" of which was situated at a focal plane above that of the South Breakwater Light.

Work on the new structure continued through the summer, and the new rear range light was exhibited for the first time on the night of September 1. Sixteen days later, on September 17, the steamer India was encountering some problems making her way between the piers, and smashed into the breakwater at the foot of the new light, damaging the light's foundation. Repairs were made quickly at the expense of the vessel's owners.

Click to view enlarged imageBy 1897, Duluth had grown to become one of the Great Lake's preeminent ports, and the town was expanding rapidly to envelope the hills surrounding the natural harbor. With the resulting proliferation of city lights, mariners voiced concern that the lights of the range were becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate from those of the city, and the Lighthouse Board contemplated increasing their visibility by substituting lenses of a higher order, or changing their characteristics to something more readily identifiable.

Click to view enlarged imageIn the summer of 1901, the iron work for the permanent tower was delivered, and work began with the installation of two large concrete blocks within the breakwater to serve as its foundation. The structure itself consisted of an eight foot diameter iron cylinder containing a spiral cast iron stairway. Atop this cylinder, a galvanized iron gallery with circular watch room was supported by four tubular legs radial to the central cylinder, and diagonally braced with struts and tension rods. Capped with an octagonal cast iron lantern, the structure stood seventy feet from the base of the cylinder to the top of the ventilator ball, and provided the Fourth Order Fresnel lens with a focal plane of 68 feet. To provide a measure of visual contrast and improve the station's function as a day mark, the lantern and watch room were painted black, with all remaining components painted a bright white.

Click to view enlarged imageWith two lights and a frequently active fog signal, a head keeper and two assistants were assigned to the Duluth Light station. However the only dwelling available to the crew was the small frame house built for the keeper in 1874. As a result, the two assistant keepers were forced to rent their own dwellings in town, at a cost of $10 and $15 per month, a considerable cost to those earning the less than princely sums that the position afforded. Thus, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $10,000 for the purchase of land and the construction of a duplex dwelling in the area of the rear range for the assistants and their families in its 1903 annual report.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress ignored the request, however the Board did not give up easily, reiterating its request every year until an appropriation of $2,000 for the purchase of land was finally made on March 4, 1907, with an additional appropriation for the actual construction of the dwelling on May 27 of the following year. While an empty lot directly across Lake Avenue from the head keepers' dwelling was selected, there was some wrangling required in order to obtain Government title to the property, and the structures were thus not completed and occupied until February, 1913. As completed, the building consisted of a two story brick duplex structure with a roof of asbestos shingles. Replete with all conveniences of the day, the first floor of each apartment consisted of an entry vestibule, living room, dining room, kitchenette and pantry. With two bedrooms and a bath on the second floors, the entire structure was heated by a hot-water heating system located in the cellar. Both dwellings are still standing, and can be seen flanking Lake Avenue immediately to the east of the aerial lift bridge.

In 1995, an inspection of the Fourth Order Fresnel lens showed that it was in dire need of repairs, and thus the Coast Guard decided to replace the old lens with a modern acrylic optic, and donated the Fresnel to the Maritime Museum. The lens was subsequently restored and the pedestal and clockwork rotating mechanism were removed from the tower to be reunited with the lens. Today, both may be seen on display in the Knowlton Gallery within the Museum. Today, the colors of the rear range light have been reversed, with the central cylinder and support legs now painted black, and the watch room white.

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 these Lights

Duluth turned-out to be the big surprise of this yearís 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. 

All three lighthouses are on piers on either side of a canal that was cut through a huge sand spit which protects the harbor on which the city is built. The road across the canal is accommodated by the Duluth lift bridge, which was built in 1902, and being one of Superiorís busiest ports, both Lakers and Salties are coming and going throughout the day.

While on the North pier, we visited the Canal Park Maritime Museum, which is run by the Army Corps of Engineers, and located tight against the lift bridge. We found this to be a fascinating museum, and is the current location of the Fourth Order Fresnel lens formerly located in the rear range lantern. 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 a long sand bar which protects the Port of  Duluth, and are all 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. The lighthouses are a short walk from the bridge. The North Breakwater Light is located at the end of the pier on the North side of the canal, and both South lights are (naturally) located on the South side of the canal, which can be reached by walking across the lift bridge. If the horn sounds followed by a message to "clear the bridge" is heard, be sure to get off the bridge quickly, as they do not give.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1880-1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Establishment, various,1910-1939
Annual report of the Lake Carriers Association
, 1908
Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994.
The Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 19995
Observation during visit to Duluth Harbor on 09/06/1999
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 12/02/2007

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