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Great Lighthouses

Split Rock, Lake Superior Marblehead, Lake Erie
Grosse Point, Lake Michigan Fort Niagara
Charlotte Genessee, Lake Ontario Pier Light: St. Josephs
Grand Haven, Lake Michigan Shoal Lights: Spectacle Reef
Round Island, Lake Huron Stannard Rock Rock of Ages


Split Rock Lighthouse,Two Harbors, Minnesota, 1910 Lake Superior

Perched on a 120-foot cliff over Lake Superior, Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors, Minnesota has attracted tourists since its construction in 1910. It is one of the most visited and popular lighthouses in the country. The Split Rock Lighthouse is an octagonal yellow-brick structure, with a 54-foot tower. It also sits on the cliff, so it is one of tallest lighthouses in the Great Lakes area.

Commerce boomed on the Great Lakes in the early 20th Century, and lighthouses like this one were built as a result of the large traffic of iron ore across lake Superior. Minnesota became the leading iron ore producer. Eastbound shipments of iron ore from Minnesota’s Mesabe Range escalated at spectacular rate from the first order of 2,000 tons in the fall of 1892 nearly 25 million by 1910. The traffic of iron ore transformed America into an industrial giant. The U.S. Steel Company owned the largest fleet of ships in the country.

The lighthouse also owes its existence to the terrible winter storms of 1905, when 116 lives were lost to three violent storms. One record gale on November 28, 1905, damaged nearly 30 ships on Lake Superior alone.

Story of Construction:

  • All the materials were shipped in and had to be lifted 120 feet to the top of the cliff, using a 12,000 pound steam hoist.
  • Construction started May 1909, and went through November. Workers hiked through woods and took a logging train to Duluth. Work resumed the next spring, and the light station was completed and ready for occupancy by midsummer of 1910.
  • The steam hoist first had to be lifted into place, and then pulled up the steep slope with lines and tackle attached to trees.
  • Once it was in place, a derrick was erected on top of the cliff and secured to rock’s surface.
  • Then all materials and personnel were lifted in a box crate, called a skip.
  • In 1916, a tramway was completed that replaced the derrick to bring supplies up to the station from lake shore. 

Keepers & Life at the Lighthouse:

  • Pete Young served as keeper from 1910 to 1928.
  • There was an early tragedy in 1910 when two assistant keepers drowned while sailing to Beaver Bay for mail.
  • Franklin Covell served as keeper from 1928 to 1944 and retired at the mandatory age of 70.
  • Lightening hit the station in 1932.
  • Franklin Covell and his assistant had to turn the lens by hand for two nights and had to buy eight pounds of mercury from a local druggist to fix the lens when they assessed the problem. Instead of receiving a commendation, Covell was forced to justify the purchase to his superiors in Detroit. 

Although the Split Rock Lighthouse is isolated in the winter, it is still possibly the country’s most visited and photographed lighthouse:

  • A transition came in 1924, when a road was built, so it was no longer isolated.
  • In 1926, brochures feature Split Rock as a prominent attraction.
  • Keepers’ logs reflected their dual responsibilities. They handled tourists by day and tended to the lights at night. Keepers wanted to fence off private gardens, but were only allowed to put up "Keep Off" signs.
  • By 1940, when the Coast Guard absorbed Split Rock, it had the reputation of being the most visited lighthouse in the nation.

Present use:

  • The Split Rock Lighthouse was deactivated in 1969.
  • The Minnesota Historical Society administers to the station as a historic site.
  • It is restored to its original pre-1924 appearance.
  • Lee Radzak, an excellent interpreter, is also a trained anthropologist.
  • The light is no longer lit regularly so as not to confuse mariners.
  • On November 10, Lee Radzak lights the lamps to commemorate the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sailed out of Duluth Harbor on November 9 and passed Split Rock. There is also a memorial reading of the names of the 29 sailors who died and, visits to the tower at night (Whitefish Point and Duluth also conduct memorials).

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Marblehead Light, Bay Point, Ohio, 1821, Lake Erie

This is the oldest active light tower on the Great Lakes. It was authorized in 1810, but not built until 1821, after the War of 1812. General Perry won a decisive battle against the British just a few miles away. This victory gave the U.S. control of these states and the inland waterways that became so important to shipping.

The Marblehead Light remains relatively unchanged in appearance. Its tower height, however, was raised from 55 feet to 65 feet in the late 1900s. It seems to have survived because of the quality of the limestone from which it was built, and because the walls at its base are five feet thick.

During the Civil War, 10,000 Confederate prisoners were housed on nearby Johnson’s Island, within sight of the Marblehead Light. There, residents of nearby Ohio communities taught the Confederates to play a new sport called baseball. After the war, the Confederates took the new sport back to the South. In 1864, a daring rescue attempt took place when a group of Confederate partisans commandeered a passenger steamer Parsons in an apparent attempt to free some or all the prisoners. They were eventually overpowered by the Union ship Michigan and escaped into Canada.

A dramatic rescue happened in 1875 when the ship Consuela sank during a violent storm on May 1. The Clemons brothers, Lucien, Hubbard, and Ai, rescued two crewmen and were awarded the first medal for heroism at sea. They were the first civilians to receive the award. The following year, a Life Saving Station was established with Lucien as its commander.

The first keeper at the Marblehead Light was Benjamin Wolcott. He served from 1822 until 1832, when he died of cholera. His wife became keeper for two years, and when she remarried, her husband became keeper. In 1903 Charles "Cap" Hunter became keeper until he retired in 1933. Edward Herman became his assistant keeper in 1913, and became keeper in 1933 until he retired in 1943.

The present light was installed in 1969. Keeper’s house and grounds were turned over to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Grosse Point Light, Evanston, Illinois; built in 1873, and lit in 1874

One of the most beautiful and spectacular lighthouses on the Great Lakes, the Grosse Point Light is a complete station including a tower, keepers’ quarters, oil house, and fog signal buildings. This historic property is adapted for educational purposes with interpreted shows and a complete restoration.

The Marblehead Light is located in the Chicago area on a historic site where Marquette camped overnight on his second voyage to the Chicago region in 1674. Today, the light station is on a street lined with fine old lake front homes, near Northwestern University (founded in 1851), thus distinguishing the Marblehead Light as a coastal light in a city, which is very unusual.

This lighthouse was built as the lead navigational marker to guide ships into Chicago Harbor, which is located 13 miles to the south. By 1870, Chicago accounted for 75 percent of all of Lake Michigan’s exports, making her one of the busiest ports in the world. There were more ships arriving and leaving the Chicago port every year than in New York and San Francisco combined.

Early Shipwrecks:

  • The Lady Elgin, crashed on September 8, 1860, in waters near Grosse Point. Nearly 300 passengers were on the excursion boat. They were returning from Chicago after a rally in support of Stephen A. Douglas who was in contention for the U.S. Presidency against Abraham Lincoln. The U.S. Life Saving Station, established at Northwestern University, was constructed in 1876 and it was largely the result of heroic rescue efforts of the Lady Elgin passengers by students. Not only was it the first federal life saving equipment on the Great Lakes, but it was also unique in that it was staffed by undergraduate students at the university. In its 45-year existence, more than 500 rescues were credited to this station.
  • A tragic disaster in 1915 actually occurred while the steamer ship Eastland was still docked. It had just picked up 2500 passengers (most of whom were Western Electric employees and families) for a holiday. As a tug was pulling the steamer away from the dock, the ship began to list to her port side. Someone had forgotten to release the ropes on the stern side. As the tug pulled, it increased the tension on the lines. The passengers, sensing danger, all crowded on the port side. The weight, combined with the force of the tug, caused the ship to settle into the water, throwing passengers into the 20 foot- deep harbor. 835 passengers died in the crush of people in the water.

A second-order Fresnel lens, one of the most powerful on the lake, is the last remaining second-order lens that continues to operate on the Great Lakes. There is no first-order lens on the Great Lakes, and there were only five Second-order lenses on the Great Lakes. It is currently run by electricity, but all the working parts are still in place and work. There is an interesting folklore story connected to the lens. Apparently during the Civil War, a light keeper in Florida buried his Fresnel lens in the sand to keep it from falling into Confederate hands. After the war, it was excavated and sent to the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment in Washington, DC and from there it was sent on to the new Grosse Point Light.

The most famous keeper at Grosse Point was E.J. Moore, who held the post from 1888-1924 when he died at age 73 (seven months after the light at Grosse Point was electrified). Although keepers were admonished by the Lighthouse Board to keep personal comments out of their logs, his notes on December 26, 1889, included: "T.J. Donlof, second assistant, resigned today. The Service is now rid of one villain." On Jan. 6, 1890: "God help the next keeper at this station if he has no better assistants than I have had here." E.J. warmed to the press, but was stern and distant with the public.

Decommissioned by Coast Guard in 1935, the Grosse Point Lighthouse still operates as a private navigational aid by the city of Evanston, as well as a historical museum.

There are even modern ghost stories about cold spots and unexplainable noises in the night attributed to "bad energy." One such story is about the spirit or ghost of an assistant keeper who hung himself in the boat house at Grosse Point. This man was the son of Aaron Sheridan, a one-armed Civil War veteran who was the keeper at South Manitou Light. Sheridan was rowing with his wife and one son to the lighthouse and they all drowned. The other son was watching from the mainland, along with four of his siblings, and he became mentally ill as a result of this tragic accident. Steve Sheridan, lawyer and judge in the Saugatuck area, is the great grandson of Aaron Sheridan. (See LIVING AT A LIGHTHOUSE p. 23 -32).

The Worlings’ experience as modern day keepers at Grosse Point 1975-1983 is also an interesting story. Their son was born there, and Diane Wordling was Superintendent of the LH Park district. Her primary job was restoration and about 25 percent of the lighthouse keeping. Some things still had to be maintained the old-fashioned way, such as cleaning the 141 stairs leading to the tower. Also, she climbed to the galley and up a ladder to clean the outside windows. She enjoyed sleeping where the old keepers slept to see the light flash every night. Whenever the Wordling family went away, they had to get a house sitter to make sure the light was on. The present-day experience is not as romantic as it used to be. The romance is in the link to the past, when modern day keepers maintain old keepers’ traditions. Living at the lighthouse was actually a love-hate experience. There was no privacy, and although she had a "No Visitors" sign in her passageway, on many occasions she’d discover people peering in the window, or she would find footprints in the snow. One time, there were even strangers in the kitchen. Raising a child was a difficult task.

Prime resource: GROSSE POINT LIGHTHOUSE by Don Terras

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Fort Niagara Light, Youngstown, New York, 1781, 1823 and 1872, Lake Ontario

Located at the juncture of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, about 10 miles north of Niagara Falls, the Fort Niagara Light is a very handsome limestone structure. It has a vertical line of arched windows, and was originally a French castle.

History dates back to the 18th Century and involves the early struggles of three nations for dominance in North America:

  • Fort Niagara was built by the French in 1726, and it came to be known as "French Castle."
  • It was captured by the British in 1759, and this was one of the most valued prizes of the French and Indian War.
  • By the early 1780’s, the British placed a beacon on top of the castle, which was actually a fort and served many functions.
  • When the U.S. occupied Fort Niagara, the fortress lighthouse was discontinued in 1796.
  • In 1823, a new beacon was built on top of "French Castle" for several years.
  • During the 1870’s, the U.S. Army found the beacon inconvenient, and they built a new tower just south of "French Castle." This present tower still exists.

Edward Giddings, keeper from 1823 until the 1880’s, participated in the William Morgan Affair, a major political incident. Giddings and others were suspected of murdering Morgan, a disgruntled Freemason, who threatened to reveal Masonic secret rites.

Presently an automated light station, the stone building attached to the tower serves as a museum. The Fort contains many mounted cannons, a drawbridge and pre-revolution buildings. The site includes the only fortified French castle in the U.S., and it is restored and furnished to create its stark 18th century atmosphere. Fort Niagara State Park contains living history exhibits and many military reenactments in the summer. Nearby Niagara Falls affords spectacular views and many natural attractions.

Charlotte-Genesee Light, Rochester, New York, 1822, Lake Ontario

Built in 1822 and deactivated in 1881, the Charlotte-Genesee Light is now the second oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes. It is about to celebrate its 175th birthday. The tower and brick dwelling, built in 1863, are two of the Lakes most historical structures. The station is a beautiful structure built from glacial stone.

In 1965, when it was rumored that the lighthouse was going to be torn down, the students at nearby Charlotte High School, who had made the light their symbol, mounted a successful campaign to save the structure. The station has been restored and its museum is operated under a permanent charter from New York State. In 1974, the Charlotte-Genesee Light was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As part of the 1852 renovation, a pier was built to a second tower. During a Nor’ Easter in 1853, keeper Samuel Phillips could not reach the tower to light the beacon. A former keeper, Cuyler Cook, took him by boat to the tower. While Phillips was lighting the beacon, waves at the shore swept Cook out to sea and drowned him.

There are several very beautiful and strikingly visual pier lights in the Great Lakes. St. Joseph’s North Pier Light is one example, as well as the Brand Haven and South Haven Lights, located along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Additional pier lights include the Michigan City and Holland lights. Pier lights were used by vessels traveling closer to land on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, while larger ships used shipping lanes further out in the water.

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St. Joseph North Pier Lights

St. Joseph’s is an example of both a pier light and a range light system.

Three lighthouses were built, and for a period of time, all three were working:

  • First, in 1832, a lighthouse was built at a bluff overlooking the lake.
  • About 14 years later, a pier was built into the water and a light was built at its end. In 1886, a Fresnel lens was added and it became more effective.
  • Then in 1907, the pier was extended; a steel lighthouse was added at its end. The shore lighthouse operated until 1924, and was torn down in 1955.

Today, both the St. Joseph North Inner Light, and Outer Light are operating. There are only a few remaining pier range light systems on the Great Lakes. This unique system employs two lights; when the lights are lined up so that a sailor can only see one light, he knows to turn. The outer light is on a simple steel structure, while the inner light is in a much larger building with two stories above the pier. The Inner Light building has a red roof and white siding topped by a an octagonal tower and black iron parapet.

The pier extends about 1,000 feet into the water. A catwalk extends from the shore to the second story of the lighthouse and continues to the outer light so that the keeper could access the light in bad weather.

Grand Haven South Pier Light, Lake Michigan

This system also operates with two pier lights. There is a south pier-head light and inner light. The lights are both painted red and a catwalk connects them above the pier. The Grand Haven South Pier Light is at a State Park with access to campgrounds and a swimming area.

South Haven South Pier Light, Lake Michigan

This light is also perched at the end of a concrete pier extending several hundred feet into Lake Michigan, and it has a catwalk extending to the second story of the lighthouse. The South Haven South Pier Light is a favorite subject for photographers, who shoot it at sunset silhouetted against the setting sun. (see Bibliography: Penrod, GUIDE TO 100 MICHIGAN LIGHTHOUSES p.1-4 and Hyde, THE NORTHERN LIGHTS p. 126-9).

Straits of Mackinac, Lake Huron

The Straits of Mackinac were an important battleground in the struggles between the French, British, and American forces for control of the upper Great Lakes. The strategic importance of this area was reflected in the two forts built here in the 17th century, on Mackinac Island and west of Mackinaw City. Since the early 19th century, the area has been a busy and dangerous bottleneck for shipping between Lake Michigan and the other lakes. The Straits of Mackinac on the Lake Huron side are one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the Great Lakes (and perhaps anywhere); ships must squeeze through an obstacle course of treacherous shallows and reefs.

Spectacle Reef Light, Straits of Mackinac, Michigan, 1870, Lake Huron

Spectacle Reef is really a pair of deadly, claw-like shoals where the water depth ranges from 7 to 11 feet; these shallow waters have caused numerous shipwrecks.

After two large ships were lost in 1867, Congress was persuaded to appropriate $100,000 to build this light. Two hundred men and two lighthouse tenders worked for four years to complete the construction. The final cost was $406,000, but construction of the lighthouse was still worthwhile in preventing future possible shipwrecks.

The underwater foundation, the difficult climate, and the isolated site made this site the greatest engineering feat on the Great Lakes, and one of the most outstanding in the Lighthouse Service.

The Spectacle Reef Light is an impressive monolithic structure, and one of best examples of stone masonry construction. It is an early example of an exposed crib (man-made rock foundation).

Photographs in the winter are especially impressive when waves freeze over the entire structure. Ice has always been a major problem on the Great Lakes. When keepers came in May of 1873, they had to hack away at 30 feet of ice that had built up.

The original lens was removed in 1982 and is now on display at the Great Lakes Historical Society Museum in Vermilion, Ohio.

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Round Island, Straits of Mackinac, Michigan, 1896, Lake Huron

This lighthouse sits in isolation at the end of a sand spit and was built to guide ships through the narrow passage between Round Island and Mackinac Island. At the turn of the century, the Round Island Light guided commercial ships and visitors traveling to the Grand Hotel and other Mackinac Island resorts.

William Marshall was the first keeper (1896-1906); one of the most colorful with his long white beard. Living quarters on second and third floors of the lighthouse. Boiler room for fog signal and coal bin on first floor. When married keepers lived there without their families, wives and children sometimes joined them for the summer. At the end of the shipping season, keepers left the lighthouse until the next shipping season, usually around April.

Prior to 1924, the entire structure had been red brick. In 1924, when an automatic light was installed, it was painted red and white. When the Coast Guard acquired it in July 1939, it whitewashed entire building. It is now repainted in the 1924 red & white.

Restoration Success Story: Abandoned in 1947 by the Coast Guard when replaced by a light and radio beacon extending out from Mackinac; it was still a prominent visual landmark. However, vandalism and lack of maintenance took its tole and in 1955 Coast Guard Committee recommended demolishing it. Instead, it got transferred to U.S. Forest Service in 1958, and continued to deteriorate over the next 20 years.

When a 1972 fall storm opened a large hole in the wall, it looked ready to collapse and prompted a call to action by concerned citizens. Over the next four years, a partnership grew between Mackinac Island Historical Society, The Hiawatha National Forest and Friends of the Round Island Society. They bolstered the foundation and protected the structure from ice and waves. It has been a continuing struggle over the years -- with a 1986 storm tipping the outbuilding and threatening the lighthouse. However, the exterior has been restored and work continues. In 1995 the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and Boy Scout Troop 323 have joined the effort. It recently celebrated its centennial anniversary.

This is the setting for scenes from the feature film Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. This movie has captured the hearts of romantics around the country who have formed INSIGHT (International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts) which has 800 members. Since 1991, enthusiasts gather annually for a weekend at the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island.

Stannard Rock and Rock of Ages Lights, Lake Superior

These lights are in very isolated locations -- remote and romantic, and very difficult to get to.

Stannard Rock is a huge rock submerged in Lake Superior, similar to an underground mountain. From its "peak," which is only four feet below the surface, the water is very shallow 14 - 20 feet for nearly a quarter of a mile. Located near shipping lanes that were very far from shore, it was a particularly dangerous spot before the light was erected.

One of the most remote and isolated light stations; always a stag station.

A propane explosion in 1961 killed one keeper and left the other three stranded on the concrete base three days before a passing ship noticed them and notified Coast Guard. As a result, it was automated in 1962. (see Bibliography: DeWire, GUARDIANS OF THE LIGHTS)

Approaching storms traveling up Lake Superior build up incredible intensity before slamming into Stannard Rock Light. After it was automated, a maintenance crew got trapped in the lighthouse for days in a sudden storm. Gale winds slammed tons of ice against the tower and platform, and when it was over they were trapped by 12 feet of ice. Took two more days of chopping to get out. (see Bibliography: Hyde, THE NORTHERN LIGHTS)

Rock of Ages Light, 1908

Eighteen miles from mainland and 4.5 miles from Isle Royale, also one of the most remote on Great Lakes. Isle Royale is America’s least visited national park and one of the nation’s jewels. Rugged yet approachable shoreline surrounds forests filled with wolves, moose and elk. Campgrounds, cabins and a lodge for visitors that come on government sponsored ferries.

It sits on a barren rock, 150’ long, with a solitary bush growing from it. Its construction was a major engineering feat, because of its isolation. The top of the rock had to be blasted away. When it was built, its beacon was the brightest on Great Lakes.

Manned from 1908-1977. Keepers and three assistants had eight month shifts, with only occasional shore leave. In early years, Lighthouse Service only brought supplies to lightships and crib lights, so keepers had to sail 54 miles to Port Arthur Ontario for supplies and mail.

Story about assistant keeper C.A. McKay, whose boss, Emil Mueller, had fallen from spiral staircase on to McKay’s bed while he was sleeping. He had had a fatal heart attack. McKay’s explanation, "Too may steps. One room on top of another clear to the top. His heart gave out."

In 1933 the steamer George M. Cox ran aground, and keeper John F. Soldenski helped rescue 125 passengers, who had to huddle in the lighthouse for 24 hours until help came.

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