Marquette Harbor Light Seeing The Light

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With an increase in passenger traffic throughout the lakes at the turn of the century, Marquette became a frequent stopping point along the way for vacationers, with Lighthouse Point a popular place to spend a sunny afternoon walking the beach and touring the lighthouse. Weekend crowds on the Point frequently numbered in the hundreds, and Carlson found himself spending more time policing the reservation to prevent damage by the careless and rowdy. After discovering a number of picnic parties lighting fires on the Point in June of 1903, Carlson was concerned that such a fire might burn out of control and threaten the station itself. Bound by policy to make visitors welcome at all times, Carlson sent a letter to Eleventh District Inspector Herbert Winslow, seeking his guidance. Winslow's letter of reply arrived on July 1, stating simply that "picnic parties and camp fires would hereafter not be allowed."

Click to view enlarged imageWhile walking the property on the evening of July 6, 1903, Carlson came across a group of picnickers among which was David Shelton, the number two surfman at the Marquette Life Saving station. Seeing that the group had lighted a bonfire among a grove of trees, Carlson informed the group that bonfires were forbidden on the lighthouse reservation, extinguished the fire and dispersed the group. At 10 o'clock the next morning, Carlson and Assistant Alfred Evensen were on their way to the breakwater when surfman Shelton appeared on the scene and brutally assaulted Carlson. Confined to bed for the following two weeks, it was questionable as to whether Carlson would regain his sight, since he was so severely beaten around the head. Since Evensen apparently stood by and observed the beating without lifting a finger to assist him, Carlson feared that Evensen was complicit to the beating, and appointed his wife to fill in as Keeper during his recovery.

Evidently Carlson was effected deeply by the incident, as an unusual "station swap" was arranged to get him away from the station. On October 16, 1903, Carlson left Marquette for Whitefish Point, and the following day Charles Kimball, the former Keeper at Whitefish Point arrived in Marquette to take over in Carlson's place.

Kimball was 49 years of age, and a seasoned keeper with 32 years of distinguished service under his belt. After entering the service at 18 years of age on September 26, 1872, he took his first assignment at Pointe Aux Barques Light Station on Lake Huron where he served six years as the station's 1st Assistant. In September of 1878, he accepted the promotion to Acting Keeper at the newly established Port Austin Reef Light, whereupon he was appointed as the permanent Keeper in June of the following year. After four years at Port Austin, he accepted a transfer to Whitefish Point at the opening of the 1883 navigation season. Life for Kimball was relatively uneventful in his first years at Marquette, although the dramatic increase in the amount of visitors likely took some getting used to after the relative isolation of Whitefish Point.

Click to view enlarged image1908 marked the beginning of an exceptionally busy three year period for Kimball. With the Army Corps of Engineers working in the harbor completing an extension to the breakwater, the old breakwater tower now stood isolated in the middle of the structure, and plans were underway for the erection of a new cast iron beacon at the revised terminus. To enable vessel masters to better locate the end of this revised breakwater in thick weather, plans also included the installation of an electrically-operated fog bell. On hearing of this plan, the Marquette power company proposed that for $33 it could run a cable from the light and bell up to the dwelling, thereby allowing Kimball and his Assistant Charles Ceary to remotely activate either the bell or the light without having to make the trip out the breakwater. With sufficient funding available, approval was obtained from District Engineer Major Charles Keller, and the cable was installed. With completion of the breakwater light and fog signal imminent, Kimball received official notice on July 8, 1908 that henceforth his title would change from "Keeper of Marquette light station" to "Keeper of Marquette light station and Marquette breakwater light."

On July 15, the lighthouse tender AMARANTH delivered a number of wooden crates containing a new Fourth Order lens for the main light, and on August 17, Eleventh District Lampist Thomas H Miller arrived at Marquette, and set about preparing the main lantern for installation of the new lens. After disassembling the old lens and lowering its components from the gallery, Miller carefully placed the sections in crates for safe keeping until he could install the old lens in the new breakwater tower. After lowering the heavy cast iron fixed pedestal from the main tower, Miller set about preparing the lantern floor for installation of the new pedestal. Equipped with a revolving carriage mechanism, the pedestal was hoisted to the gallery and bolted at the center of the lantern floor on August 19, 1908. Miller began the installation of the new lens on August 22, completing the work three days later. Designed to rotate on the carriage at a precise speed, the new lens displayed a characteristic fixed white light punctuated by a single .04 second red "lightning flash" once every 5 seconds.

Click to view enlarged imageHis work on the main light complete, Mr. Miller then turned his attention to installing the old main lens in the breakwater tower. Miller completed the work with the installation of a red incandescent electric bulb on September 12, with both the breakwater light and fog bell placed into commission that same day. With Kimball and his current Assistant Oliver St. André now responsible for the main Harbor Light, a first-class steam fog signal, two breakwater lights and a breakwater fog bell, plans were being formulated in Detroit for the addition of a 2nd Assistant keeper to the station's roster. However, with only the main dwelling and the small assistant's dwelling available, it was clear that additional accommodations would be required before such a step could be taken.

Thomas H Miller returned to Marquette on June 28, 1909 and installed a new incandescent oil vapor lamp system within the main light lens. This new technology represented a significant improvement over the old kerosene wick lamp, and increased the light's range of visibility to 16 miles. The engineer's tender AMARANTH arrived in the harbor on September 11, 1909, and over the following six days unloaded tons of building materials for a major reconstruction of the main dwelling planned for the following season. Kimball oversaw the draying of the materials from the City dock to Lighthouse Point, where they were safely covered and stored for the coming winter.

Click to view enlarged imageOn May 24, 1910, AMARANTH returned to Marquette and landed Construction foreman Young and a working party to begin preparing the main dwelling for conversion into a duplex dwelling. The following day, Kimball began moving all of his family's worldly belongings out of the dwelling and into the old breakwater watchman's cottage, which would serve as his temporary quarters until the completion of the renovation. While one half of the crew worked on the interior of the building, a second crew set to the exterior. By mid June, the entire roof had been removed and the tender WARRINGTON arrived in the harbor and deposited a load of bricks for the project. Masons then set about vertically extending the side walls of the dwelling to create a complete second story, with the apex of the roof almost three feet higher than the gallery. Over July, electricians were working in the building, wiring for lighting and electrical outlets throughout. The masons completed their work on August 11, and the exterior crew set about installing the new hipped roof. By October the hard construction work was complete, a new steam heating system was being installed in the cellar, and the carpenters were putting the finishing touches on the interior trim work. Kimball moved back into the dwelling on October 26 along with 2nd Assistant Frank Otto, who had been assigned to the station since May 26, and had been living in rented quarters in the city. 1st Assistant Oliver St. André was the least inconvenienced by the construction, staying in his quarters throughout the move.

With work complete on the breakwater and main dwelling, attention turned toward the aging thirty-year old fog signal buildings. On June 9, 1911. AMARANTH again put into Marquette Harbor, and unloaded piping and supplies for the construction of a new brick fog signal building. The vessel returned again on August 9 with District construction foreman J. W. MacDonald, a work crew, and a huge load of construction materials and tools which took eight days to unload. On August 16, MacDonald began blasting rock at the end of the point for the foundation of the new signal building. The keepers helped out by delivering innumerable bags of cement to the work site in station launch. After receiving orders from District Engineer Major Charles. S. Bromwell late in August, the Keepers painted all brick surfaces of the main dwelling and tower with two coats of bright red paint, hiding forever the creamy yellow brick. By November 15, work on the fog signal walls and roof was drawing to completion, when MacDonald received word from Detroit to discontinue work for the season. Materials and equipment were covered and secured for the onset of winter, and foreman MacDonald left for Detroit.

Click to view enlarged imageIn February 1912, Kimball received word from Detroit to hire a team and men to place the gasoline engines, compressors and tanks in the new signal building in preparation for the resumption of work. Kimball made the necessary arrangements, and over the remainder of the month transported and placed the machinery in the new building, and stowed the remainder of the mechanical equipment in the old fog signal building, which was being kept operational until the completion of the new plant. Foreman MacDonald and a small crew returned to resume work on March 26. Over the following month, the engines and plumbing were connected, radiators installed and the final concrete floor poured. The Keepers painted both the interior and exterior of the building, and helped unload twenty eight barrels of diesel fuel and emptied them into the fuel tanks. On May 20, the diesel engines were test fired, the compressors activated and the diaphones tested for the first time. After minor adjustments, the new fog signal station was officially placed into commission on May 22, 1912. As was the case with the previous steam system, the new plant consisted of duplicate diaphone systems, with one unit always standing at the ready in case the primary system failed to function. MacDonald and his crew dismantled the remaining wood-framed signal building, and departed for their next assignment at Whitefish Point on May 31.

Click to view enlarged imageOn November 23 of that same year, a gale accompanied with heavy snow blew in from the Northeast, with the heavy sea crashing over the protective wall, ripping shingles from the fog signal roof and tearing away part of the dock. Attempting to sound the signal the following day, Kimball found the mechanisms filled with sand and the resonators cracked from the force of the waves, and completely disassembled the system to remove all of the sand. It was not until January 13, 1913 that Kimball received permission from Detroit to hire a local crew to repair the damage to the signal building roof.

With the major station upgrade complete, life at the station settled into a busy routine that would basically remain unchanged through the remainder of the station's active years, with only minor changes and repairs being undertaken. At the age of 66, Keeper Kimball retired from lighthouse service on April 20, 1925 after 43 years of service. Frank Sommer, a 55 year-old who had entered lighthouse service at age 33 as Assistant at Big Bay, and spent the past 14 years as Keeper of the Detour Light, was transferred-in to take over the station.

With an increasing reliance on radio technology in navigation and communication, a number of steel towers were built on Lighthouse Point in 1927, with radiobeacon and radiotelephone transmitters installed in the fog signal building and placed into service on April 20, 1928. The advent of radio presented the keepers with new and unique problems. While in the past, a good "backyard" mechanical sense would hold a keeper in good stead in repairing mechanical light mechanisms and steam and diesel engines, radio was something completely foreign to them, and the mystery represented by the glowing vacuum tubes something for which their experience left them completely unprepared. Combined with the unreliable nature of the early equipment itself, the equipment was in a constant state of breakdown. Radio technicians were dispatched from the Soo and Duluth on an almost daily basis to assist the frustrated keepers in keeping the transmitters humming. With traffic patterns changing in the lake, the Lighthouse Bureau made the decision to automate the Granite Island Light station at the opening of the 1938 navigation season through the installation of an acetylene illuminating system equipped with a sun valve. With live-in keepers no longer assigned to the island station, responsibility for the maintenance of the automated system was placed with the Marquette Keepers. On May 4, 1938 Frank Sommer and 3rd Assistant Michael Salata boarded AMARANTH for Granite Island to receive instruction on maintaining the new acetylene light. With the addition of this responsibility, the Marquette Keepers began making nightly trips to Presque Isle harbor, from where they could verify the operation of the light on the horizon. While the acetylene system was equipped with a bank of acetylene canisters, and expected to operate for months without recharging, the Keepers frequently found the light extinguished or burning poorly, and were forced to make the 12 mile trip out to the island in the station launch to effect repairs. When seas were particularly rough, station logs show the Life Saving crew frequently rendered assistance by transporting the keepers to and from the island.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the transfer of responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation to the Coast Guard in 1939, a barely documented flow of Coasties operating out of the life saving station were assigned to assist the remaining lighthouse service keepers. With the outbreak of World War II, the station became a Coast Guard training station with up to 300 recruits living in the various station buildings. The main dwelling became the primary Coast Guard station housing in the 1950's and to provide easier access, an addition enclosing a stairway was added at the rear of the building.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the universal adoption of RADAR and LORAN providing mariners with a succinctly identify their position relative to the shore and other obstructions at night or in the thickest weather, the fog signal no longer served its original purpose. Oblivious to the historical value that the structure for future generations, the Coast Guard destroyed the structure in the 1980's. leaving only the concrete foundation and dock stairs remaining as evidence of the existence of this once vital building.

In 2002, the Marquette Maritime Museum obtained a 30-year lease on the lighthouse building and approximately 2 ˝ acres of Lighthouse Point. Already in their first year of ownership, the first floor of the building has been restored with the help of High School Shop students, with the floors stripped and varnished and the walls patched and painted. The Museum plans to develop the main floor of the lighthouse as an extension of the main museum, and plans to restore and furnish the second floor to reflect the way it might have appeared at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Marquette Harbor Light still serves as an active aid to navigation, its lantern now housing a 300 mm Tideland Signal acrylic optic, which emits a white flash every ten seconds.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

Take Front Street North into Marquette, and turn right toward the Lake on Main St. Take Main St. down the hill to the Lake, and turn left on Lakeshore Drive. Follow Lakeshore Drive around the bay. At the point where Lakeshore Dr. sweeps to the left, you will see the Coast Guard building and the brick Maritime Museum to your right. Pull in and park at the Maritime Museum. The property on which the lighthouse sits is owned by the Coast Guard, and "no trespassing" signs are posted conspicuously around the area. As described in the Observations section above, we suggest that you enter the  museum, and find out when tours will be given, in order to gain close access to the light.

Contact information

For information about the museum and tours of the lighthouse visit the Maritime Museum website at or contact the museum at:

Marquette Maritime Museum
300 Lakeshore Boulevard
Marquette, Michigan 49855
Telephone: (906) 226-2006

Reference Sources

History of the Great Lakes, J H Beers Co., Chicago, 1899
Long Ships Passing, Walter Havighurst, 1948
Annual reports of the US Lighthouse Board, various, 1853 through 1909.
Annual reports of the US Lighthouse Bureau, various, 1910 through 1939
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1873 through 1999
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, various, 1902 through 1950.
Station log books of the Marquette Light Station, 1873 through 1940. 
Email correspondence with Don Nelson, various, 07/02 - 08/02
Email correspondence with Frederick Stonehouse, various, 02/01 - 08/02
Personal observations made at the station in September 1998 and July 2002
Instructions to Light Keepers, US Lighthouse Board, 1902.
Northern Lights, Charles K Hyde, 1986
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/02/2007

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