Grand Marais Light Seeing The Light

Grand Marais, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

"Big Marsh" is the direct translation of the French "Grand Marais." While the name was given by Voyageurs in the early seventeenth century, many subsequent observers were puzzled, since no marshes have ever been known to exist here. However, it is believed that the Voyageurs had their own unique vocabulary, and it is likely that "Marais" referred to a cove, or harbor of refuge. However, the historical importance trapping to the area is indisputable, since both the Hudson's Bay Company and John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company maintained a presence in the area over two centuries. But it was not until Peter Barbeau established a trading post on the bay in 1861 that a permanent settlement began to appear.

While the fur trade declined, lumber camps began to spring up along Superior's south shore, and Grand Marais soon found itself in the center of a lumbering boom, with stacks of lumber on its docks awaiting the arrival of vessels to carry the forest's bounty to the southern lakes.

With the associated increase in maritime traffic through the late 1870's, the absence of a safe haven for mariners coasting the treacherous waters between Whitefish Bay and Grand Island became a matter of grave concern to maritime interests. Deducing that the natural harbor could be modified to serve as an excellent harbor of refuge, the Army Corps of Engineers embarked on an ambitious harbor improvement project at Grand Marais in 1881. Work continued over the following ten years, with the construction of a 5,770-foot timber pile breakwater stretching across the bay from Lonesome Point to a dredged channel at the western shore. Two protective piers were constructed on each side of the channel, and the protected harbor area dredged to a depth of 40 feet, allowing access to the protection of the harbor by the largest vessels of the day.

As the forests close to the shore were lumbered-out, operations moved west where timber could still be harvested easily, and the Grand Marais mill ceased operations in 1884. With the closing of the mill, the town's population decreased dramatically, and turned to fishing to support itself, with Grand Marais eventually becoming one of Superior's leading bluefin fisheries.

With the Corps of Engineers work on the harbor of refuge nearing completion in 1892, the Light-House Board determined that inbound navigation would be improved significantly with the erection of a light and fog bell on the west pierhead. To this end, the Board's annual report to Congress of that year included a request for an appropriation of $15,000 for such a light.

The Manistique Railroad was completed to Grand Marais in 1893, and with the resultant conduit for transporting lumber from the virgin forests of interior, the town experienced another period of rapid growth. The old mill was reactivated, enlarged and outfitted with the latest equipment, and the harbor was once again filled with lumber hookers, their decks stacked perilously high to transport the lumber to feed the insatiable appetite of the rapidly growing industrialized cities to the south.

Click to view enlarged imageThe wheels of the government machine turned typically slowly, and the Congress was not forthcoming with the requested appropriation for a pierhead light until March 2, 1895. However, the Board reacted quickly to the appropriation, with plans and specifications for a skeleton iron tower and elevated walk drawn-up, and the awarding of contracts for fabrication of the tower's components. The original estimate of cost included funds for the purchase of a new fog-bell and striking mechanism, however with the upgrading of the fog signal at Point Iroquois from a bell to a steam-whistle being undertaken that same year, the old Iroquois bell and mechanism was shipped to Grand Marais for use in the new tower.

Construction on the pierhead began that same summer with the bolting of the tower's framework to the pier, and upon completion in November, the new white painted tower stood thirty-four feet tall, its octagonal iron lantern housing a sixth-order fixed white Fresnel lens. Samuel Rodgers was transferred-in as the station's first keeper, and he exhibited the light for the first time on the night of December 10. Since no dwelling had been constructed to accompany the station, Rodgers found himself forced to construct a temporary shanty on Corps of Engineers property at the inner end of the west pier.

Click to view enlarged imagePerhaps as a result of the cost savings resulting from the use of the old fog-bell machinery, or perhaps due to the oversight of not building a keeper's dwelling, the project was brought-in significantly under budget. Realizing that a second light to form a rear range for the pierhead light would further improve navigation into the harbor, the Lighthouse Board requested that the unexpended portion of the appropriation be applied to the construction of a rear range light to be located at the inner end of the west pier.

Congress approved the redirection of the balance on June 4, 1897, and District Engineer Major Milton B. Adams awarded the contract for the fabrication of its components on September 27th. The contractor delivered the ironwork at the Detroit depot that November, however with winter setting-in, work did not begin at site until June of 1898 when the lighthouse tender Amaranth delivered a work crew and materials on the pier at Grand Marais.

After the installation of strengthening timbers at the inner end of the pier to support the additional weight, the prefabricated tower was erected and painted white to match the pierhead light. Standing 55 feet in height, its octagonal iron lantern with a focal plane of fifty-four feet, and the Rodgers exhibited the lights together for the first time on or about July 15, 1898.

Click to view enlarged imageWith traffic exploding along the south shore, the frequency of maritime accidents increased proportionally. To help guard the safety of mariners, 1898 also saw the beginning of construction of a life-saving station at the foot of the west pier. On its completion the following year, the station was considered one of the finest in all of the Great Lakes, boasting 2 surf boats, a 34-foot self-righting life boat, and a full complement of beach apparatus. Doubtless, keeper Rodgers must have felt some resentment, as he watched this fine new building take shape a few feet from the shanty that had been his home for the past five years.

In 1902, the Lighthouse Board finally acknowledged the dismal conditions under which Rodgers was living, and requested an appropriation of $5,000 for the construction of a proper dwelling. The request was repeated for the following two years, however Congress continued to turn a deaf ear to the request.

The Corps of Engineers continued their work on the harbor, and as part of the ongoing improvements, the west pier's length was extended an additional 612 feet in 1904.

Click to view enlarged imageThe combination of additional work created by the second light, the dismal conditions under which he had been living for the past nine years, and no indication that a dwelling would be built at any time soon may have been more that Rodgers could stand, since he resigned from lighthouse service on April 5th 1904. George Barkley officially assumed responsibility for the station the following day and was likely dismayed to find that he had to take up residence in Rodgers' old shanty.

Click to view enlarged imageThe following year, the front range light was unbolted from the pier and moved 550 feet towards the newly extended pierhead, and additional elevated walkway was installed to connect the two lights. In concert with this move, the characteristic of the lights were changed from white to red in order to better distinguish them from the lights of the town behind the range. Again the Board requested $5,000 for a dwelling, and again Congress ignored the request.

Finally in 1908, Congress responded with an appropriation of $5,000 to build the keepers dwelling, and a contract was quickly awarded for the dwelling's construction. Work on the structure began on June 10th of that same year, and was completed on September 5, and was a duplicate of the dwelling constructed for the Munising range lights the previous month. Doubtless, Barkley was happy to move into the new dwelling, and abandon Rodgers "temporary" shanty which ended-up serving the Grand Marais keepers for thirteen years.

Click to view enlarged imageLumbering and commercial fishing waned on the south shore over the next twenty years, and the number of commercial vessels entering Grand Marais harbor steadily declined. The construction of the MacArthur Lock at the Soo in 1943 allowed larger vessels to enter Lake Superior, and able to stay at sea in foul weather that would have sent the smaller vessels of the past scurrying for shelter, Grand Marais harbor became of decreased commercial importance. The Corps of Engineers stopped maintaining the breakwater during the 1940's, and without constant care the wooden structure quickly rotted away. Thus unprotected, the harbor began to fill with sand making entry possible only for smaller vessels.

Today, the Grand Marais Harbor is frequented by pleasure craft, and the town is undergoing a resurgence as it gains popularity as a four-season resort area. Both ranges are still in place, however the lantern has been removed from the front range, to be replaced by a modern acrylic lens. The keepers dwelling now serves as a museum operated by the Grand Marais Historical Society, and is open to the public from June to September.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Grand Marais Range Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

We returned for our third trip to Grand Marais during our July 2002 field trip to find the harbor full of sea kayaks, which were holding some type of festival that weekend. It was a beautiful day, and we walked the full length of the pier to obtain close ups of both lights. Since our previous trips to see these lights had been in September, we were happy to see the keeper's dwelling museum was open, and we took the opportunity to tour the beautifully restored building. 

Finding this Light

From the junction of M77 and County Road 702 in downtown Grand Marais, take CR702 northeast approximately 1/2 mile. The rear range light can be seen on the right of the road before the road ends in the parking lot of the old Grand Marais lifesaving station. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Nautical and Maritime Museum is located in the lifesaving station, and is well worth a visit. The pier is a pleasant walk, and both lights are easy to see during good weather.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1892 - 1908
Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994
Personal observations and photography at Grand Marais, July 2002.
Photograph courtesy of Brian Malone.
Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast, Frederick Stonehouse, 1986.
6/21/2001 email from Thomas Tag on the keepers of Grand Marais.
History of the Great Lakes, J.H. Beers Company, 1889
Great Lakes Pilot, First Station on Coast Guard Point, Fern Erickson, 2000.
Email from Wayne Sapulski, 02/12/02
Lake Superior, Grace Lee Nute, 1944.
Historic postcard courtesy of Cathy Egerer.
Michigan State Archives lighthouse photograph collection.
Grand Marais, Website 
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 02/03/2004

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