Whitefish Point Light Station Seeing The Light

North of Paradise, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

On the recommendation of Representative Chipman, the Commerce Committee was instructed to investigate into the feasibility of erecting a Light at Whitefish Point on January 13, 1846. After the Commerce Committee provided positive feedback relative to the importance of establishing the Light, Congress appropriated the sum of $5,000 for the stationís construction on March 3, 1847. Assistant Land Surveyor James Piper was immediately dispatched to Whitefish Point to select a site for the new light, and arriving at the point on April 3, 1847, laid-out 115.5 acres site consisting of cranberry bog and sand dunes for the station. With the selected reservation officially recorded in July, work began on laying out the plans and specifications for the stationís structures.

That summer, the irascible Horace Greely sailed into Lake Superior on his renowned "go west young man" tour of the western frontier. On seeing first-hand the dangers to maritime commerce represented by Whitefish Point, and on learning of the fact that the planned lighthouse had yet to be constructed, Greely penned a scathing article in the New York Tribune, in which he reported that "On the whole lake there is not a lighthouse nor any harbor other than such holes in the rock-bound coast as nature has perforated. Not a dollar has been spent on them. Congress has ordered a lighthouse to be erected at Whitefish Point and has provided the means; a Commissioner has located it; every month's delay is virtual manslaughter; yet the executive pays men to air uniforms at the Sault in absurd uselessness, and leaves the lighthouse till another season."

Whether Greeleyís article had any influence on the timing of construction is unrecorded. However, it appears unlikely since the contract for the stationís construction was not awarded to Sandusky Ohio contractor Ebenezer Warner until August 21, 1847, and construction did not begin until the summer of 1848 with the delivery of stone from Tahquamenon Island by 40-ton Astor-owned schooner FUR TRADER, one of the earliest large commercial vessels to ply Superiorís waters. Warnerís crew toiled through the remainder of the navigation season, with the work finished on November 1.

On completion, the new stone tower stood 65 feet tall, with an outside diameter which tapered from 30 feet at the foundation to 14 feet below the stone deck. Six windows illuminated the tower interior, and a yellow pine spiral stairway wound its way up from an entry door on the ground level to an iron ladder which led the final 8 feet to the scuttle door in the stone deck. An octagonal iron lantern centered on the stone deck housed an array of thirteen Lewis lamps, each equipped with a 14-inch silvered reflector. A simple detached stone dwelling stood 1 Ĺ stories in height, and contained two rooms on the lower level and a sleeping area within the attic. At completion, costs of construction at such a remote location were found to be much higher than expected, with the total costs for the station coming in at $8,298, which was $3,298 over the original estimate and appropriation.

While James A Starr was appointed as the first Keeper of the Whitefish Point Light on October 10, 1848, with construction completed so late in the year, the decision was made to postpone exhibiting the new light until the opening of the 1849 navigation season. Evidently Starr must have had second thoughts about serving as Keeper of the Light, as he resigned his commission on May 2, 1849, to be replaced by James B Van Rensalaer. During his 1850 inspection of the station in 1850, District Superintendent Henry B. Miller noted that Ransalearís conduct was good, and recommended that a fence be erected around the reservation in order to keep "the cattle and Indians away from the buildings." Regardless of Millerís observations on the Keepersí performance, Rensalaer resigned his position on May 8, 1851 and was replaced by Amos Stiles. Evidently living conditions at the remote station were less than ideal, as a succession of keepers would resign the position, with seven keepers resigning their positions over the following decade.

Click to view enlarged imageAt the dawning of the mid century, the maritime community rose in anger at the dismally poor administration of the nation's aids to navigation by the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. Congress reacted in 1852 by forming the Lighthouse Board, to which it simultaneously transferred responsibility for the management of all lighthouses. Made up of individuals with maritime and engineering experience, one of the Board's first priorities was to undertake a system-wide upgrading of illumination technology, switching over from the universally adopted Lewis Lamp to the vastly superior French Fresnel lenses. To this end, a work crew arrived at Whitefish Point in 1857 to supervise the replacement of the station's Lewis lamp array fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens, thereby increasing the station's visibility range to 13 miles in clear weather.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the opening of the new lock at the Sault in 1855, a major boom had been experienced in St. Maryís River and Lake Superior maritime traffic, and a cry arose in the maritime community to improve a number of the Lights marking critical points along the course. To this end, Senator Chandler submitted a Bill before Congress on February 10, 1859 requesting that the Commerce Committee be instructed to investigate that feasibility of improving the lighthouses at Whitefish Point and Manitou Island in Lake Superior, and at Detour at the Lake Huron entry into the St. Maryís River.

Click to view enlarged imageContracts for the iron work and building materials for the new station were awarded in 1861, and a work crew dispatched to the island with the materials that summer. The tower was built of prefabricated numbered cast iron sections which were assembled in a manner similar to that of a giant erector set. The tower featured a six-foot diameter cylindrical cast iron center cylinder of ľ inch plates, with its interior wall lined with wood paneling to help reduce condensation. Within this cylinder, a series of 57 cast iron stairs spiraled from the entry at the lower end to the lantern, which was also fabricated of cast iron sections. The center cylinder and lantern were supported by four tubular iron legs which were bolted to concrete foundation pads. The four legs were in turn supported by horizontal cross members with the entire assembly provided rigidity by way of diagonal iron braces equipped with turnbuckles. Interestingly, the central cylinder did not reach the ground, but was suspended approximately 17 feet above ground level, with entrance gained from the second floor of the two story wood frame dwelling through an elevated covered passageway. As witness to the importance placed upon the station, the tower was capped by a lantern outfitted with a fixed white Third Order Fresnel lens

Click to view enlarged image Construction of the new station continued through the arrival of winter in 1861, and then resumed with the opening of the navigation. After the entire tower structure was given a coat of dark brown paint, the new tower was placed into service late in 1862. While the old tower was demolished immediately, early photographs the new station show that the old dwelling was left standing for a number of years. However, we have yet been able to ascertain into what use it was placed, or when it was finally demolished.

During his annual inspections of the station in 1868 and 1869, the Eleventh District Inspector reported that he found the tower and illuminating apparatus condition to be "excellent," however, he also observed that some plastering in the dwelling needed replacing and that the station could benefit from the installation of a cistern in the cellar into which runoff from the roof could be diverted as a supply of drinking water. Also in 1869, it was first mentioned that maritime commerce in the area would benefit greatly from the addition of a fog signal at the station. While an appropriation for the establishment of a number of fog signals throughout Lake Superior had been made, the Congressional act of July 12, 1870 recalled all unexpended appropriation balances back to the treasury, and thus no movement had been made on the establishment of such a signal at Whitefish Point. 

Click to view enlarged image With a new renewed appropriation in 1871, contracts were awarded for furnishing a horizontal locomotive boiler and 10-inch steam whistles for the station. The fog signal building was erected towards the lake from the lighthouse that year, and took the shape of a twenty-two foot by forty-foot wood-frame building sided with corrugated iron sheathing. The inner walls were lined with iron sheathing to reflect the heat generated by the boilers, and the walls packed with a mixture of sawdust and lime to provide insulation and to act as a fire retardant.

The decision was made to change the stationís characteristic from fixed to flashing in 1892, and flash panels were ordered to effect the change. Also this year, a contract for furnishing the metal work for a circular iron oil storage building was awarded, and delivered at the Detroit lighthouse depot. The following spring, the flash panels and iron work were loaded on the lighthouse tender AMARANTH, and carried to Whitefish Point, where a crew erected the oil house and the District Lampist installed the flash panels and rotating mechanism in the lantern. In accordance with a previously published Notice To Mariners, the characteristic of the Whitefish Point lighthouse was changed from fixed white to fixed white with a red flash every twenty seconds on the night of June 15, 1893. On May 15 of the following year, the intensity of the light was increased through the installation of a second order kerosene lamp within the Third Order lens.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the increased workload represented by the fog signal station, plans were underway in 1894 to add a Second Assistant Keeper to the stationís roster the following year. To accommodate the additional keeper, a construction crew arrived at the station on the opening of the 1895 navigation season, By June, the crew had modified the original single family dwelling into a mirrored duplex layout, with separate entrances and stairways for the Keeper and First Assistant, who lived on each side. A small frame dwelling for the Second Assistant was also built to the east of the main building. With the departure of the work crew at the end of July, the crew had also laid concrete walkways connecting the station buildings, and repainted the tower white in order to help it serve as an improved day mark. Later that year, the ball bearings on which the lens rotated were replaced by a mercury flotation system. Through this system, the lens floated in a bath of mercury, virtually eliminating friction. This change allowed the lens to be rotated at four times the previous speed, and allowed the characteristic of the Light to be changed on the opening of the 1896 navigation season to a red flash every 5 seconds.

After 25 years of service, the fog signal building and steam plants were showing significant signs of wear, and a sub contractor crew arrived to begin rebuilding fog signal building on July 7, 1896. Replacement boilers and machinery were delivered by the lighthouse tender AMARANTH in September, and by October, all pipe connections were made, the equipment painted pressure tested, and the new signal was placed into service. Over the following years, a number of additional improvements were made at the fog signal, with a tramway erected from the fog signal to the shore in 1900, and the iron smokestacks replaced by 40-foot tall brick chimneys in 1905. Two years later, 1907 would be the Whitefish Point fog signalís busiest year, with the keepers shoveling 43 tons of coal into the hungry boilers to keep the fog signals screaming for 694 hours.

1912 saw the establishment of an electrically operated submarine bell 2,187 yards from shore in 1912. Designed to take advantage of the high sound transmission properties of water, the new bell was designed to be heard through the hulls of approaching vessels to inform them of their proximity to the station during thick weather. On September 5 of the following year, the lamp was upgraded to an Aladdin incandescent oil vapor system with a remarkable increase in intensity from 320,000 to 3,000,000 candlepower. Yet another in a seemingly endless changes in the lightís characteristic was undertaken in 1918, with the removal of the red flash panels and a change to occulting white every 2 seconds.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1923, the United States Coast Guard erected a life saving station on the light station reservation. To serve this new crew, a number of new buildings were erected, including an observation tower from which a 24-hour watch of the waters off the point could be conducted. The steam power plant and 10-inch whistle were removed from the fog signal building on August 15, 1925, and replaced with a more powerful compressed air powered Type F diaphone sounding a group of 2 short blasts and 1 long blast every minute. With the increased use of radio on lake vessels, two months later on October 13, a radiobeacon transmitter was installed in the fog signal building. Transmitting from a tall steel tower, the transmitter emitted a single dash every 60 seconds during thick weather, allowing mariners to easily fix their position by triangulating from other such radiobeacon equipped stations on the lake.

In a vicious storm on October 11, 1935, the thirty year old corrugated iron fog signal building was irreparably destroyed. The following year a new cream city brick fog signal building was erected immediately in front of the light tower. As one of the last shore-based fog signal buildings erected, electricity had been installed at the station and the building was designed specifically for diaphone and radio operation, and featured a tall brick tower at the end facing the lake from which the diaphone resonators protruded, allowing their sound to carry above the dune and out into the lake.

With constant wave action threatening to erode the shoreline immediately in front of the station, a number of protective piers were erected along the shoreline in 1937. After assumption of responsibility for the nationís aids to navigation in 1939, operation of the Whitefish Point lighthouse came under the auspices of the Coast Guard. However the lighthouse and life saving stations crews continued to operate independently until April 9, 1947, when the two crews were consolidated, and a six man crew was stationed full time to operate the light. Fog signal, radio beacon and weather bureau station which had also been established.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Fresnel lens was finally removed from the lantern in 1968, and replaced with a DCB224 aerobeacon, which with its simple and reliable electronic motor and automatic bulb changer almost eliminated the maintenance associated with the old Fresnel lens. With advances in RADAR and LORAN, the old station no longer served its previous importance, and the station was completely automated in 1971. The station buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and five years later, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society was formed as a non-profit, educational institution, dedicated to preserving the history and artifacts of the Great Lakes. With Whitefish Point becoming the focal point for the organization, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum was established in 1985. As part of their involvement at the Point, the GLSHS has completely restored the keepers dwelling and coast guard buildings, and most recently has been working on building an accurate replica of the life saving boat house that used to sit on the site.

Although 1983 saw the replacement of the diaphones in the fog signal building with an electronic horn mounted on the tower, the Coast Guard still maintains the lDCB224ís as an active aid to navigation with maintenance performed by the crew from Coast Guard station Sault Ste Marie.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We arrived at Whitefish Point after eating lunch in Paradise.

This lighthouse complex is one of the most beautifully restore of all the lights we have visited, and with the addition of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, has become one of the most visited. We toured the lighthouse keeperís residence, which as is the case in many lights, is set up in duplex fashion. All of the oak woodwork and trim has been replaced, and is now likely looks better today than it did when originally built.

After visiting the museum, we went into the theater, located in a secondary residence, and watched a video of the retrieval of the brass bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank 17 miles Northwest of Whitefish Point November 10, 1975. It was a very moving presentation, and some of the sequences gave a very dramatic view of just how tempestuous Superior can become.

Walking on the beach afterwards, it was very hard to conceive that such a peaceful place can become so incredibly violent.

Finding this Light

Take Wire Road North out of Paradise, and continue approximately eleven miles to the lighthouse parking area at the end of the road.

Contact information

For information about visiting the Whitefish Point Light Station, contact:
Whitefish Point - Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
400 W Portage Ave
Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
(906) 635-1742

Reference Sources

Congressional records, various, 1846 - 1872
Annual report of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, 1850
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1853 - 1909
Annual reports of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, 1910 - 1939
History of Whitefish Point, Janice H Gerred, Inland Seas, 1984
Whitefish Point Lighthouse, unpublished chronology, Donald L Nelson
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1861 - 1972
Draft Management Plan for Whitefish Point, Michigan Land Use Institute, 2002
Foghorns Saved Lives, Too, Vivian DeRusha Quantz, 1999
Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast, Frederick Stonehouse. 1985
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 03/06/2009

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