Sand Hills Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Ahmeek, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

With the 1845 bonanza copper strike at the nearby Cliff Mine, the natural harbor at Eagle River quickly boomed as the shipping point for the mine's bounty. With a seemingly endless parade of vessels delivering immigrant miners and supplies and shipping copper though the Sault locks to the company's smelters in Pittsburgh, it was clear that an aid to navigation was necessary to guide the growing vessel traffic safely into the bustling harbor.

At the Fifth Auditor's recommendation, Congress appropriated the sum of $4,000 for the construction of the Eagle River Light Station in 1850, with the station illuminated four years later.

Together, the Cliff Mine and Eagle River continued to flourish, with the construction of huge stamping mills, warehouses, and streets lined solidly with boarding houses, saloons and miner's homes to serve the burgeoning population.

With every boom, there is an inevitable bust. Declining copper prices slowed the Cliff Mine's output, and by the late 1860's Eagle River had become a virtual ghost town. With the mine's closure in 1873, Eagle River's once busy docks sat rotting, and without maritime traffic, the river mouth became silted to a point that the harbor became inaccessible to all but the shallowest draft vessels.

By 1890, virtually the only vessel making its way into the harbor was the lighthouse tender on its annual supply trips, and the Lighthouse Board was well aware of the futility of continuing to maintain a light to protect a non-existent harbor.

In its 1892 annual report, the Lighthouse Board noted that traffic patterns on the lake had changed, and that eastbound vessels were making a turn off Sand Hills, some twelve miles to the west of Eagle River, and approximately midway between the coast lights of Ontonagon and Eagle Harbor. With the treacherous Sawtooth Reef located just offshore at this point, the Board recommended to Congress that $20,000 be appropriated to decommission the light at Eagle River, and construct a new coast light at Sand Hills.

Congress responded with an act authorizing the construction of the new station on February 15, 1893, but failed to make an appropriation for the necessary funds. While the Board reiterated the need for the appropriation in each of its' annual reports for the following seven years, no moneys were forthcoming. Citing rising costs, in its 1899 annual report, the Board increased its estimate of the necessary funds to $25,000, an amount which subsequently grew to $38,000 in its 1902 report, and yet Congress still failed to authorize the necessary funds.

The Board continued to request the $38,000 in every subsequent annual report through 1907, when it finally abandoned the project, and ceased to mention the planned station. The Eagle River Light Station was decommissioned in 1908, and with no light between Ontonagon to Eagle Harbor, mariners making their way along the coast were forced to run blind at night.

Click to view enlarged image With the elimination of the Lighthouse Board in 1910, responsibility for the nation's lighthouses was transferred to George R. Putnam who was appointed to the newly formed position of "Commissioner of Lighthouses" under the Treasury Department. In his 1911 annual report to Congress, Putnam again picked up the call for the elimination of the Eagle River light, and the erection of a new light station at Sand Hills. Reporting that ten vessels had stranded on Sawtooth Reef over the past decade with resulting losses in excess of a million dollars, Putnam's revised proposal for the Sand Hills light station called for an appropriation of $75,000 for the construction of both a coast light and fog signal station.

Once again, the pleas for this station echoed unheeded through the halls of Congress, and Putnam repeated his request in each of his subsequent annual reports until Congress finally responded favorably with an appropriation of $70,000 for the project on June 12, 1917.

Click to view enlarged imagePutnam acted quickly, with a forty-seven acre site selected, surveyed, and purchased that summer. By the close of navigation for 1917, contracts had been issued for virtually all of the materials required for construction, the site had been cleared, and the concrete foundation for the structure was poured. 

Work resumed the following spring, with the establishment of a temporary lens-lantern light and electrically-operated fog signal. The work crew then turned its attention to the simultaneous construction of both the fog signal building and the lighthouse proper, which lasted through the end of that year and into 1919.

The fog-signal building was erected on a solid concrete slab, with its walls constructed of hollow tile with an exterior stucco coating. In order to ensure that the fog signal would always be operational, a redundant system of dual type "F" diaphone fog signals with duplicate compressors and oil engines was installed. Such a dual installation ensured that one unit was always operational when maintenance was being performed on the other. Each diaphone fed its signal through a cast iron "trumpet" resonator protruding through the wall of the building, which concentrated the sound and projected it seven miles across the lake. Work on the fog-signal was completed in May 1919, and was officially put into service on May 15.

Click to view enlarged imageThe plans for the Sand Hills lighthouse were some of the most ambitious ever proposed for a light station, and called for a combined yellow brick light tower and triple dwelling, with the 70-foot tall tower centered in the building. The tower itself was built around a steel girder support system with concrete floors and a cast iron stairway, and was designed as a self-contained fireproof central core to reduce the chance of a fire in the tower spreading into the dwellings. The second floor of the tower served as a central office, and each of the three adjoining apartments had its own entrance into the tower.

While directly connected to the tower, each apartment was constructed as a separate entity, with all connecting walls being built of brick, once again designed to stop the spread of a possible fire from one apartment into an adjacent unit or into the tower.

Click to view enlarged imageEach apartment was outfitted with hardwood floors, with all interior walls built of stud construction, and finished-out with hardwood trim and doors. Each apartment sat on its own cellar, and surrounding central basement which housed the equipment for the station's hot water central heating and pneumatic water supply systems. The brick exterior of the building was finished with cut stone balustrades and cornices, and the roofs of each of the dwellings was sheathed with durable copper sheeting.

The tower was crowned with a cast iron deck and a prefabricated circular cast-iron lantern of 7' 1" inside diameter furnished with curved glass and diagonal astragals. The Fourth Order Fresnel lens, manufactured by Henry-Lepaute of Paris was mounted on a ball-bearing race and rotated by a standard clockwork mechanism. Equipped with a 35 millimeter incandescent oil vapor lamp, the lens was designed to rotate at a rate which would show a fixed light with a characteristic flash every ten seconds, and by virtue of its 91 foot focal plane, was designed to be visible for a distance of 18 miles in clear weather.

Click to view enlarged imageA concrete dock was constructed at the waters edge for the unloading of supplies, and a tramway constructed from the dock to the station buildings to facilitate the movement of supplies.

Work on the lighthouse was completed in June of 1919, and Head Keeper William Richard Bennetts exhibited the light for the first time on June 18 of that same year.

Sand Hills remained manned for only twenty years. In 1939, the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation, and automated the light with the installation of an acetylene lamp with automatic sun valve, thus eliminating the costs associated with the station's three keepers. With the closure of the station William Bennetts retired from service, after having served as the station's sole head keeper throughout all of its manned operation.

Click to view enlarged imageThe station stood empty until 1942 when it was temporarily reopened as a wartime Coast Guard training facility, in which guise it served as home and school to over 200 trainees at a time. The buildings were closed and locked the following year, and the station was once again went empty.

In 1954, with improvements in weather forecasting and the adoption of radar, it was determined that the light was no longer necessary. The stationed was decommissioned and the Sand Hills name was forever removed from the official listings of aids to navigation.

Click to view enlarged imageThe lighthouse was turned over to the General Services Administration for liquidation. Offered at public auction in 1958, the entire station property was purchased for the princely sum of $26,00 by H. Donald Bliss, and insurance agent from the Detroit area. Bliss and his family used the structure as their private summer cottage for the next few years. While it was reported that Bliss had plans to restore the structure, they never came to fruition as the property was once again offered for sale in 1961.

Detroit photographer and artist Bill Frabotta purchased the station, converting the fog signal building into a summer cottage where he and his wife Eva spent the following 30 years walking the halls of the station building planning their upcoming restoration. After a comprehensive three year renovation undertaken between 1992 and 1995, the building was reopened as one of the nation's premier bed and breakfast inns.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We have yet to visit this light. However Larry Diegel, who is working with Bill Frabotta in the restoration project, has been kind enough to photograph the station and some of the historical photographs in Bill's station archives for inclusion on our website. A big thanks to Larry and Bill for sharing these images.

Finding this Light

Follow Hwy. 41 North into the village of Ahmeek, and turn left at the first street. Follow the signs directing you to Five Mile Point Road, where you will then continue the eight miles to the lighthouse. There are signs for the lighthouse along the road.

Contact information

Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn 
Five Mile Point Road P.O. Box 414 
Ahmeek, MI 49901 
(906) 337-1744

Click here to visit Bill Frabotta's Sand Hills Bed & Breakfast Inn web site.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1890 through 1910.
Annual reports of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, 1911 through 1929.
Annual reports of the Lake Carriers Association, 1909 through 1919.
Lake Superior, Grace Lee Nute, 1944, 1972
Contemporary Photographs courtesy of Larry Diegel.
Historic photographs courtesy Bill Frabotta's Sand Hills Lighthouse Archives.
Ready for Lighthouse Keeping, Detroit News, 11/16/1958.
The Story of Sand Hills Light
, H. Donald Bliss, 1960.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/07/2003

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