Legendary Lighthouses: Geography-Western Great Lakes
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lighthouse Legendary Lighthouses  Geography: Western Great Lakes PBS Online

Geography: Lighthouses of the Western Great Lakes

The five Great Lakes -- Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan -- are enormous inland seas hundreds of miles in length, covering 12,000 miles of shoreline. They are a heavily traveled commercial thoroughfare. Freighters on the Great Lakes carry raw materials and finished products -- iron ore to steel mills, metal parts to auto assembly plants, oil and chemicals to refineries and grain from Midwest farms for worldwide distribution. The Great Lakes are a driving force in the American economy. For more than a century, the lake sailors have been guided by a linked chain of navigational lights for more than a 1,000 miles from the St. Lawrence River to Duluth.

Located on precipitous bluffs, low sandy coasts, at the end of dramatic piers and on shoals in a storm-angered sea, the beacons dotting these lakes have always played a major role in lighting the scene and showing the way.

For the mariners of the Great Lakes, November is the time of year that sailors dread -- a time when deadly storms plague the inland seas, threatening their lives as they attempt final voyages before the ice and frost of winter shut down their enterprise. The lakes take on an unpredictable character, with sudden storms churning the waters into towering waves. Among Great Lakes sailors it is sometimes said that "Thanksgiving comes only if you survive November." (see Bibliography: Bruce Roberts, p. 55-57)

"November is the archfiend, who in his glowering, dismal thirty days is certain to be harboring with his own horrid mockery a northeast gale." -- Mary Ellen Chase

Historically, winter brought an early end to the year’s shipping season on the Great Lakes. Waterborne transportation routes would freeze over and ports became inaccessible. Ships that attempted to force passage in these conditions would often become wedged in ice and be blown about by fierce gales of wind, endangering crew members and cargo. From November to February, lakeborne commerce was at a virtual standstill. Many lighthouses in isolated areas would be closed for the season and their keepers given leave to find more congenial surroundings.

The lighthouses of the Great Lakes take on a different look than their coastal counterparts because these great bodies of water freeze over and in spring break into giant floating masses. Viewed from the air, the ice masses create magnificent tapestries. Off shore lighthouses withstand terrible battering from the breaking ice.

Lake Michigan

Fast-changing weather conditions make Lake Michigan a treacherous body of water to navigate. In a matter of minutes, bright sunlight and calm waters can give way to clouds, rain, gale-force winds and high waters.

Lake Superior

This is the largest fresh water lake in the world; large enough to have tides. Adventure writer James Oliver Curwood early in 1905 said that Lake Superior is "the most dangerous piece of water in the whole world. Here winter falls in the autumn, and from then until later spring it is a region of blizzards and blinding snowstorms. The coasts are harborless wildernesses with ...reefs and rocky headlands that jut out like knives to cut ships in two."

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