Ontonagon Light Seeing The Light

Ontonagon, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Even in the early seventeenth century, Voyageurs traversing Lake Superior heard word of a massive solid copper boulder lying in the Ontonagon River. In 1667, the redoubtable Jesuit missionary Father Dablon made his way up the Ontonagon and confirmed the existence of the fabled rock.

A century later, under the guidance of a party of Chippewa, trader Alexander Henry laid eyes on the rock, and reported that he found it to be so pure and malleable that he was able to easily remove a large piece, and estimated the boulder's weight at ten tons. In 1819, during his geological survey of the area, Henry Schoolcraft reported that he found the rock to be scarred by the chisels and axes of Native Americans, and estimated its copper content at one ton.

In 1841, Michigan State geologist Douglas Houghton wrote an account of the boulder, and in the summer of 1843, Julius Eldred, a prospector from Detroit purchased the rock from the local Chippewa for the princely sum of one hundred and fifty dollars. Hearing of the sale, the Federal Government decided to lay claim to the boulder, and sold the rock that he had already purchased it to Eldred for thirteen hundred and sixty-five dollars.

With great difficulty, Eldred hauled the rock to the river mouth with skids and rollers, where he was surprised to find representatives of the War Department awaiting him. With instructions to impound the rock and ship it to Washington, they delayed long enough to allow Eldred to hoist the rock onto the deck of a waiting schooner in the dead of night, and set sail down the lake. Eldred dragged the rock across the Sault portage, hoisted it onto another schooner and once again set down Lake Huron with his prize.

Arriving in Detroit, Eldred placed the Ontonagon boulder on public display, charging a cash admission to curious onlookers. However, the government was not to be easily dissuaded, and once again claiming eminent domain, ordered that the boulder be shipped to Washington.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1847, after a court decision that Eldred had an unquitted claim on the rock, the Government paid Eldred five thousand six hundred and forty-four dollars and ninety-eight cents for "his time and expense in purchasing and removing the mass of native copper." Thereafter, the boulder was placed on public display in the Smithsonian Institution

The legend of Ontonagon copper carried throughout the growing nation, and even to the courts of Europe. As a result, European nobility financed a number of copper mines in the Ontonagon area, with the Empress of Russia developing one and the Duke of Gloucester controlling another. Perhaps the most famous of Ontonagon's mines was the Minesota, which became renowned for its' lode of mass copper. It was here that the largest complete mass of native copper was ever found. With an estimated weight of five hundred tons, it netted the company one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

Mining in the area expanded rapidly, and vessel traffic in and out of Ontonagon harbor increased accordingly. Incoming vessels brought workers from Finland and Great Britain along with the supplies to support the growing community, while outbound vessels set sail from the harbor laden with copper.

Click to view enlarged imageRealizing that a navigational aid to guide the growing vessel traffic safely into the harbor was vital, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury received permission from Congress to purchase land for the purpose on April 3, 1847, and thereafter petitioned Congress for the funds required for the Light's construction. Congress responded with an appropriation of $5,000 on September 28, 1850, and the Board awarded the construction contract to Detroit contractor C. F. Chittenden. Work began on the Light in 1852 and continued throughout that year. With construction completed in 1853, Samuel Peck was appointed as the station's first keeper on August 26, 1853, and displayed the station's Lewis lamp array for the first time that shipping season.

As part of a system-wide upgrading process, the Lewis lamps were removed from the station's lantern room in 1857, and replaced with a Fifth Order Fresnel lens at a cost of $600.

In 1860, the Army Corps of Engineers made significant improvements to the harbor, a major component of which was the construction of two piers flanking the dredged and widened river entrance. When complete, the east pier was seven hundred feet in length and the west pier stood at six hundred and fifty feet. 

Click to view enlarged imageBy 1866, the condition of the original wooden lighthouse had deteriorated significantly, and the Lighthouse Board decided to replace the old station. Constructed close to the shoreline of the western bank of the river, the new station was built at a cost of fourteen thousand dollars. Completed in 1867, the structure was built of Cream City brick in the "schoolhouse" style used frequently throughout the Western Great Lakes during this time period. Some other examples of this style structure may be found at Bois Blanc Island, Escanaba, Huron Island and Peninsula Point. The Fifth Order Fresnel lens was removed from the old station and relocated into the new tower, and thereafter the old structure was demolished.

A story and a half structure, with an integrated thirty-four foot tall square tower at the western end, the cast iron spiral staircase within the tower providing access to the basement beneath the dwelling, the first and second floors, and to the lantern room itself.

Click to view enlarged imageWith falling copper prices during the seventies, Ontonagon's mines began to fall on hard times. Thirty years earlier, prospectors had hacked their way through the red and white pine forests surrounding Ontonagon in their search for copper. With the mining boom days drawing to an end, business interests began to turn their attention to the bounty of surrounding forests.

Original estimates of standing pine were estimated at 4,000,000,000 board feet, and while there were some early logging operations, it was not until the Ontonagon Lumber Company began large-scale logging and milling in 1881 that lumbering began in the area in earnest. Capitalized at a total cost of a quarter million dollars, the operation purchased thirteen thousand acres of pine forest and began producing at a daily output of two hundred thousand board feet of lumber and three hundred thousand shingles.

Click to view enlarged imageAs impressive as the Ontonagon Lumber Company was, it's output was soon eclipsed by the Diamond Match Company, which also began operations along the river. With an annual output of seventy-five million board feet and thirty million shingles, the Diamond Match Company was soon one of the largest employers in the Upper Peninsula.

Ontonagon once again found itself in a major boom period, and the Army Corps of Engineers undertook a series of harbor improvements to support the huge number of vessels using the harbor. The two filled wooden crib piers were extended, and the river entrance was dredged to greater depth. The lighthouse was now too far from the harbor entry to safely guide vessels between the extended piers, and a hexagonal timber pierhead light was installed at the end of the west pier. In order to keep costs low, responsibility for operation of this new pierhead light was added to the list of duties of the Ontonagon lighthouse keeper. Over the years, this process was continued, and with each pier extension, wave action along the outside of the western pier deposited sand along the pier, in effect moving the shoreline and the river mouth further out to sea. As a result, over time the Light station appeared to be located further and further inland

In 1890, a square single-story brick kitchen was added to the eastern fašade of the light station building, and the station took on the appearance that still can be seen to this day.

The lumbering boom reached a crescendo in the middle nineties, and everything seemed set for Ontonagon's continued growth, when on August 27, 1896 the area would face a catastrophe that would forever change the town's ranking in the Upper Peninsula.

Eyewitness accounts recall that "Smoldering forest fires had burned in the swamp south of the Diamond Match Co.'s big mills for two weeks. At noon the wind freshened. At I o'clock the first mill caught fire, despite a fire department creditable to the town, and of the special firemen and apparatus of the Diamond Match Co. The west side mill speedily became a seething mass of flames. The automatic sprinklers deluged the whole interior with water, but the gale from the southwest drove the flames into the lumber along the river, where 60,000,000 feet of pine lumber was stacked in piles as high as a three-story building. "The fire leaped across the river from the lumber and attacked the second mill, the planing mill of the Match Co., and the towering lumber piles stacked along the eastern banks. From there on it was a race for life. Quickly the flames spread. The firemen were compelled to abandon their apparatus and flee for their lives."

Click to view enlarged image"During the fire the sky was brilliantly lighted for miles around, but as night began to settle over the burned district the situation became a startling one. With the hope that the flames had attracted attention in some of the adjacent towns, the men and women wandered aimlessly over the black heaps which once had been their homes while their little ones, frightened almost to death clung to them, crying for food."

While relief efforts came from far and wide, the entire city was left a charred mess. With the surrounding forests burned to a crisp and copper price still too low to justify the reactivation of the mines, Ontonagon was destined never to regain its' glory of the early nineties. 

Use of the lighthouse was discontinued in April 1963 after an automatic foghorn and battery-powered, light were installed at the end of the east pier. The lighthouse was officially closed in January 1964, and the building was leased as a residence to its' last keeper Arnold Huuki and his wife. A Coast Guard crew removed the Fifth Order Fresnel from the tower, and presented it to the Ontonagon Historical Society, where it remains proudly displayed to this day.

Click to view enlarged imageIn October 1975, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places helping to ensure its long term survival. After seven years of political wrangling, in 2003 Congress passed an Act transferring ownership of the lighthouse to the Ontonagon County Historical Society. The structure was officially handed-over to the Society on August 6, 2003, paving the way for a complete restoration of the venerable structure.

By way of an epilogue, soon after it's removal to Washington, Government geologists conducted a complete analysis of the Ontonagon Boulder. After deliberation, it was determined that the total value of Its' copper content was a mere six hundred dollars!

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

The Ontonagon lighthouse sits tight against the west bank of the Ontonagon river. Unfortunately, all the surrounding land on that side of the river is owned by a huge pulp mill, and thus access to the old light station is impossible.

We stopped-off across the river and took the photograph on the left, assuming that it would be the only shot that we would get, and then drove into town to visit the Historical Society.

Arriving at the museum, we struck-up a conversation with John, the curator, and found that from time-to-time he takes people for guided tours of the building. Since there were two former residents of Ontonagon who also wished to see the lighthouse, he suggested that we follow him with our vehicle, and he would get us into the lighthouse.

After a winding trip through pulp mill property we found out that the building is being used for Coast Guard storage, but the Historical Society is attempting to lease the property to serve as a museum, if they can work out a safe access route with the pulp mill.

Finding this Light

 As you head Northwest toward the Lake, M38 in downtown Ontonagon turns into River St. When River St. takes a sharp curve to the left to cross the Ontonagon River, continue straight toward the Lake, and look for a parking area on the left of the road by the river. From this area the lighthouse can be seen directly across the river as in the photo on the left above.

The Ontonagon County Historical Society gives two tours of the Lighthouse every day during the summer. For information about these tours, contact the Society at the address and phone number below.

Contact information

Ontonagon County Historical Museum
422 River St.
Ontonagon, MI
(906) 884-6165.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1852 - 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various, 1909 - 1939
Historic Stories of Ontonagon County, Fred Dreiss, Publication date unknown.
The Detroit Evening News, August 27, 1896
The Long Ships Passing, Walter Havighurst, 1945
Ontonagon Lighthouse Essential to US Development, Lighthouse Digest, July 2000
Lake Superior, Grace Lee Nute, 1944
Scott's New Coast Pilot for the Lakes, 1904
Personal observations made during visit to Ontonagon on 09/07/1999 and 07/18.2002
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 06/02/2005

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