Point Iroquois Light Seeing The Light

Bay Mills, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

With the planned opening of the new lock at the Soo in 1855, large vessels would Finally be able to sail directly from Lake Superior to the lower lakes, and it was evident that the increase in maritime commerce would be both dramatic and immediate. While the Light at Whitefish Point served well to guide vessels around the Point after which it was named, the location of the entrance to the St. Mary's River remained unmarked, and it was evident that a light was needed to help funnel vessels into the river mouth at the southeast end of Whitefish Bay. Congress appropriated $5,000 for the project on March 3, 1853, and a site was selected for he station that same year at the northern tip of Iroquois Point. Iroquois Point had received its name in 1662 after the local Ojibwa encountered a band of intruding Iroquois encamped on the Point. The following morning both groups were in a full-pitched battle, and by the end of the day, the entire band of Iroquois had been wiped-out and the Point named for eternity.

Plans for the station were drawn-up and arrangements commenced for the purchase of the selected reservation. Construction began in 1855, and was completed the following year. Consisting of a 45 foot tall rubble stone tower with a wooden lantern deck, the tower was outfitted with a flashing white Fourth Order Fresnel lens. As a result of its location on the highest ground on the Point, the Light had a 63-foot focal plane, and a range of visibility of 10 nautical miles in clear weather. Little is known about the dwelling at this station, however it is likely that it too was of rubble stone construction, and was detached from the tower, as was frequently the case with such stations built at this time. Charles Caldwell, who had served for a year as the assistant keeper at Whitefish Point, was transferred-in as the station's first keeper, and exhibited the light for the first time on the night of June 8, 1856.

It would appear that the materials and workmanship employed during construction were less than desirable, and after only twelve years the District Inspector reported that he found both the tower and dwelling to be in poor condition in 1867, making special note that the wooden lantern deck on the tower was in danger of collapse, and needed to be replaced with a more substantial and durable iron gallery. In his report for the following year, he found the situation had deteriorated even further, and while he ordered some necessary repairs, he went on to state that it was his belief that the only viable remedy for the situation was the complete replacement of both structures. However, feeling unqualified to make such an expensive engineering judgment, he recommended that no decision be made until "the structures are examined by competent persons."

After a visit to the site in 1869, the Eleventh District Engineer concurred with the Inspectors previous observations. Finding that the deterioration of both the tower and dwelling were so advanced that he recommended that no repairs be made beyond those required to make the buildings habitable until both buildings could be replaced, since replacement would be more cost effective than repair in the long run. Estimating that the two new structures could be built for $18,000, the Lighthouse Board recommended that Congress make the necessary appropriation in its annual report for that same year. Congress evidently concurred, since a work party arrived at Point Iroquois with the necessary materials the following spring, and worked throughout the season of navigation building the new tower and dwelling.

Click to view enlarged imageWith construction drawing to completion in the fall of 1870, the new brick tower stood seventeen feet in diameter at the base, and 50 feet in height from the limestone foundation to the bottom of the iron gallery. A prefabricated cast iron spiral stairway with 72 steps wound within the tower, supported by a hollow central iron column. Capped with a decagonal cast iron lantern housing the Fourth Order Fresnel from the original tower, exhibiting the station's characteristic white flash every 30 seconds. The tower's location atop high ground on the Point provided the lens with a focal plane of 72 feet, and a resulting 15 mile visible range during clear weather. The two-story single family brick keepers dwelling was built over a full basement, and attached to the tower by way of a narrow covered brick walkway to provide the keeper with welcome shelter as he tended the light during foul weather. A wood frame barn and brick outhouse completed the station's complement of buildings.

Click to view enlarged imageIn order to allow the station to serve during periods of thick weather, a stand-alone bell tower was erected at the station in 1885, with the bell struck by a Stevens automatic bell striking apparatus. However, the bell was not destined to serve long at Iroquois Point, since plans were drawn up to replace it with a pair of 10-inch steam whistles in early 1890. Contracts for the materials for the new fog signal building and machinery were awarded, and the materials delivered to the Detroit lighthouse depot by the supplying contractors. The materials were then loaded onto the lighthouse tender AMARANTH along with a work party and transported up Lake Huron and through the Soo lock to Point Iroquois. Construction of the new fog signal building, and the installation of the steam power plants and whistles was completed that fall. The whistle controls were adjusted to ensure that the whistles conformed to the station's prescribed repeated characteristic of a five-second blast followed my twenty-five seconds of silence, and the new signal was officially placed into service on October 31, 1890. With a significant increase in the workload represented by the new fog signal, James Lasley Jr. was appointed to the position of acting assistant keeper on November 20, moving into the cramped dwelling with head keeper Edward Chambers and his family.

Click to view enlarged imageSince the construction of the new station, lamp oil had been stored in a room designated for the purpose in the basement. This had been a wholly acceptable practice when whale oil was used as the primary illuminant, since it was not particularly volatile. However, with the conversion to the more flammable kerosene, a number of fires were experienced in dwellings around the country, and the Lighthouse Board embarked on a project to install stand-alone fireproof oil storage buildings at all stations throughout the system. To this end, a circular prefabricated iron oil storage building was shipped to the station, and erected a safe distance from the dwelling in 1893. No longer serving any purpose, the bell tower was disassembled in 1896, loaded on the lighthouse tender AMARANTH and shipped to Grand Marais, where it's mechanism was in the Front Range Light currently under construction. The following year, 448 feet of new concrete walkways were poured to link the various station buildings, and the landing dock was rebuilt.

1900 saw the replacement of the iron smoke stacks on the fog signal with brick chimneys, both boilers were re-tubed and the barn was replaced. The crew returned the following year, painted the barn, sunk a new well and installed 550 feet of wire fencing. No doubt 1901 was also a memorable year for keeper Joseph Bishop and his assistant Otto Bufe, since they were kept busy feeding 28 tons of coal into the hungry fog signal boilers in order to keep the whistles screaming for a total of 534 hours, an all-time record for the station.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1902, Eleventh District Inspector Commander Edward H. Gheen finally took up the interests of the Point Iroquois keepers and their families, who had been shoe-horned into the single family dwelling since the first assistant was assigned to the station after the fog signal was added in 1890. Estimating that a second dwelling could be erected for a cost of $5,000, the Lighthouse Board requested that the necessary appropriation be made in its annual report for that year. Congress turned a deaf ear to the Board's repeated requests for three years until 1905, when the funds were finally approved, and work could proceed. However, rather than building a separate structure as was originally planned, the decision was made to expand the existing structure through the addition of a new wing on the east side of the existing dwelling. A new boathouse was also built and 600 feet of new concrete walks were laid, with the work reaching completion on November 11, 1905.

Click to view enlarged imageThe station's illuminating apparatus was upgraded from oil wick to incandescent oil vapor on May 3, 1913, with a resulting increase in intensity from 5,600 candlepower to 42,000 candlepower. At the same time, the characteristic of the light was changed by decreasing the duration of the light's flash to 6.7 seconds with a corresponding increase in the duration of the eclipse. Not content with this change, the characteristic was again modified on June 13, 1922 by a further reduction of the light's cycle to only 4 seconds, with a flash of only 0.8 seconds duration.

Click to view enlarged imageThe 10-inch steam whistles were removed from the fog signal building in 1926, and replaced with a pair of air compressed air operated Type F diaphone fog signals. Twin diesel-powered electrical generators were installed in the fog signal building to provide power for the compressors, and the fog signal characteristic was changed to a repeated cycle consisting of a 2-second blast followed by 28 seconds of silence. The diaphones represented a considerable improvement over the steam whistles, since they were not only louder and easier to maintain, but could be quickly sounded when needed, without having to wait for boilers to build up a head of steam. With the installation of the electrical generators, power was run to the dwelling and the lamp itself, which was replaced with an incandescent electric bulb which boosted the intensity of the light to an impressive 82,000 candlepower.

Click to view enlarged imageWith improvements in RADAR, radio navigation and LORAN-C in the late 1950's many of the nation's lights quickly became obsolete. After Point Iroquois Lighted Buoy 44 was installed offshore in 1962, the Point Iroquois Light was discontinued. In an event to reduce operating costs, the Coast Guard transferred ownership of the station to the U. S. Park Service in 1965, with the property incorporated into the Hiawatha National Forest. No longer serving any purpose, the station's Fourth Order Fresnel was removed from the lantern later that year after more than a century of faithful service to lake Superior mariners. The lens was carefully disassembled and crated-up, and shipped to Washington DC, where it was placed on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

The station buildings were thereafter leased to the Bay Mills-Brimley Historical Research Society, which completed a total restoration of the building in 1983. Much of the station has been converted into an excellent maritime museum, and is open to visitors from Memorial Day through October 15, and is well worth visiting.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We arrived at Point Iroquois at 4.00pm, just before the main building, of which approximately 50% has been carefully restored, was closing for the day.

There is an excellent display of contemporary photographs of the families that called the station home through the years. The display is one of the most interesting that we have encountered, and serves well to bring the former inhabitants to life. if only for the moment.

At the time of our visit, the entire exterior was being painted, and as a result the tower was not open to the public. It took some doing to find vantage points in which scaffolding did not ruin the view!

Finding this Light

Take M221 into Brimley and turn left onto 6 Mile Rd. Continue on 6 Mile Rd. to the lighthouse grounds. Since the lighthouse is part of the Hiawatha National Forest, there is plenty of parking available.

The museum and tower are open to the public every day from Memorial Day through October 15. Hours are 10.00am to 5.00pm, seven days a week. On Friday, Saturday and  Sunday, they reopen from 7.00pm to 9.00pm.

Contact information

Point Iroquois Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
Sault Ste. Marie Ranger Office
4000 I-75 Business Spur
Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
(906) 635-5311 or (906) 437-5272

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994.
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1853-1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various, 1910-1939
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, various, 1906-1940
Rites of Conquest, Charles E. Cleland, 1992
Email from Russ Rowlett, 06/01/2000
Personal visits to Point Iroquois on 09/09/1998 & 07/21/2002
Historical photographs courtesy of the Point Iroquois Lighthouse & Maritime Museum
Aerial photograph courtesy of Marge Beaver of Photography Plus
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/07/2003

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