Harbor Beach Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Harbor Beach, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

While the stretch of coastline between the St. Clair River and Saginaw Bay had been lighted at both ends by the Fort Gratiot Light since 1825 and at Pointe Aux Barques since 1848, there was no safe harbor to be found along the 115 mile stretch between the two points. Thus, captains encountering foul weather along this busy stretch of coastline were forced to ride at the mercy of the open sea until safe shelter could be made in either the Bay or River.

After a number of wrecks occurred in the area at the turn of the 1870's, The Federal Government realized that the construction of a harbor of refuge close to the midpoint along this important stretch of coastline was imperative. A Board of Engineers was assembled in Detroit on October 20, 1871 with instructions to identify the best location for the new harbor. After an initial survey failed to identify a preferred location, Brevet Brigadier General Orlando Metcalfe Poe instructed of Captain Jarad A Smith to conduct a second survey, focusing on  Sand Beach and Port Hope. After completion of the survey, a second Board of Engineers was convened on October 9, 1872, and after identifying that 7,000 feet of breakwater would be required at Sand Beach, while 10,000 would be required at Port Hope, Sand Beach was selected as the site for the new harbor. As it turned out, Sand beach was likely the preferable of the two points as a result of its location at the approximate mid point between Port Huron and Tawas Bay. 

A contract for the construction of the piers was awarded to a private contractor, and work begin in 1873 with the construction of ten timber cribs as a foundation for the center pier. The rectangular hemlock cribs were erected on shore, towed out to the line specified by Poe, and sunk in place with loads of stone. Many local residents and farmers subcontracted to provide this stone, which was gathered along the shore in private boats, or hauled to the lakeshore from the fields inland, and loaded onto barges for transport out to the pier line. By 1875, two contractors were working at the site. The first continuing work on the 1,580-foot long main pier and the second on the north pier.

Click to view enlarged imageWith work on the piers progressing well, the first Light was erected at the elbow of the main pier in 1875. Of typical pierhead beacon style, it consisted of an open timber frame, pyramid tower, with its upper level immediately beneath the gallery enclosed to create a combination watch and service room. An octagonal cast iron lantern housed a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens, which sat at a focal plane 44 feet above lake level. The Light was exhibited for the first time on the evening of October 25, and was visible for a distance of 13 miles. It is likely that this Light was tended by the contractor through the remainder of the 1875 navigation season, as Acing Keeper Thomas M Wallace and Acting First Assistant Willis P Graves do not appear on official payroll records for the station until January 8, 1876. Evidently Wallace and Graves were less than suited for lighthouse service, as they were both removed from service on September 18, 1878, and replaced by Keeper Loren J Trescott and First Assistant Peter Dues. By the end of 1878 season of navigation work on the piers had progressed to a point that three quarters of the piers were complete, and enough of the protected harbor had been dredged that the first vessels were allowed to seek refuge in the harbor.

In 1880, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $5,000 for the construction of a dwelling for the Sand Beach Keepers, having neglected to construct such a building when the Light was established, causing Trescott and Dues to find housing in town at their own expense. Eight more cribs were placed in 1881, and the breakwall had reached a total length of 5,205 feet, and enclosed over 150 acres of harbor over 12 feet in depth. By the following year, the piers had been lengthened to 8.200 feet, and with continued dredging and blasting, over 300 acres of water over 12 feet in depth had been protected. By this time, this immense construction project had consumed over one million tons of iron, fifteen million board feet of lumber an 48,000 cords of stone, with costs totaling in excess of $900,000.

With an ever increasing number of vessels tying-up to the breakwall and laying anchor within the harbor's protection during storms, there were frequent accidents and arguments as a result of the haphazard mooring of so many vessels. With over 1,000 vessels using the harbor in 1882, and the numbers expected to grow, it became clear that some type of order would need to be brought to the harbor. To this end, Captain Robert M Wagstaff was appointed as Harbor Master in 1882. Armed with a set of harbor use rules, Wagstaff found vessel masters willing to pay little attention to his directions. After Wagstaff made arrangements with the local judge to levy fines against transgressors, word of Wagstaff's strict enforcement practices spread quickly throughout the maritime community and order was brought to the harbor. Peter Dues accepted a promotion to the position of Acting Keeper of the Ludington Pierhead Light on October 12, 1882. With no fog signal at the station, Eleventh District Inspector Commander J. Crittenden Watson made the decision to leave replace the Assistant Keeper position unfilled, and thus Trescott was left to maintain the Light alone.

In May 1883, a vicious storm whipped across Lake Huron, ripping large portions of the three inch plank facing from the breakwall, twisting iron brackets and snapping the 12-inch square breakwall timbers. Keeper Trescott, who was held captive within the beacon reported that the noise of the storm was deafening, and with the pier foundation moving with the force of the smashing waves, feared that both he and the beacon would be swept away. Fortunately, Trescott made it through the ordeal unscathed. However, it was clear that the existing tower was not up to the task. With the completion of pier construction expected within the next two years, District Engineer Major Godfrey Weitzel draw up plans for the erection of a more substantial cast iron tower and duplicate stem fog signals on a stand alone foundation crib at the north side of the main harbor entry. Contracts were awarded for the construction materials and mechanical components that summer, and delivered to the Detroit depot in October. With the close of the navigation season close at hand, the decision was made to delay construction of the new light until the following spring.

Construction of the timber part of the foundation crib began on May 19, 1884 and was completed on June 25. The crib was then filled with stone and decked over with planking to prevent the stone from being washed-out. The upper level of the crib was laid in concrete, with a circular brick-lined opening cast within to serve as a cellar for the tower. Around the upper level of this cellar, a circular cast iron ring secured to the concrete with 17 inch bolts was installed to serve as a mounting flange for the tower walls. Ten feet to the north of this cellar, a rectangular opening was formed in the concrete to serve as a coal storage bin for the fog signal building which was to be erected above. Construction of the fog signal building was underway with the arrival of winter, and construction was ended until the beginning of the 1885 navigation season.

Click to view enlarged imageThe work crew returned in May 1885, and resumed work on the fog signal building and the erection of the cast iron tower. The tower was constructed of prefabricated cast iron segments, each 5/8 of an inch in thickness, with each segment bolted to the adjacent segments. The tower contained four decks, with stairways installed around the outer wall of each room to allow privacy to the room within. The first deck served as a kitchen and common area, the second deck as living quarters for the Assistants, the third deck as living quarters for the Keeper, and the fourth deck as a work area and watch room. Click to view enlarged image The watch room was surmounted by a small cylindrical machinery room surrounded by a spacious gallery deck with an iron handrail. Atop this gallery, an octagonal cast iron lantern was installed, and encircled by a narrow gallery to provide the keepers with access to the exterior of the lantern. The new lens, which was manufactured by Barbier & Fenestre in Paris, featured 8 bull's eyes around its circumference, four of which were fitted with red panels to impart alternating red and white flashes. A clockwork motor rotated the lens around the lamp at a precisely controlled speed that would alternately place the red and clear bull's eyes between the light and the viewpoint of a mariner at sea every 90 seconds. On completion, the entire tower was given a coat of dark chocolate brown paint.

Click to view enlarged imageThe fog signal building was of timber frame construction, and sheathed with corrugated iron on its exterior which was painted with the same brown paint used in the tower. Smooth iron sheeting on the interior walls was painted white in order to reflect the light entering through the five small windows. Twin boilers and fire boxes were installed on elevated pads on the concrete floor, and plumbed into a pair of 10-inch steam whistles, which were mounted at the gable of the building. A pair of iron stacks which exited on each side of the roof ridge served to exhaust the smoke and excess steam from both boilers. Since the new station would include responsibility for the main Light, the steam fog signal and three ancillary lights located on the breakwaters, it was clear to Eleventh District Inspector Commander Francis A. Cook that two Assistants would be needed at the station. Keeper Trescott managed to pull some strings to have his younger brother Alva appointed as the station's First Assistant, and local resident Ira W Goodrick appointed as Second Assistant, with both of them appearing on station payroll records on August 20. As the work drew close to completion at the end of September, The Trescott's and Second Assistant Goodrick moved into the new tower. As the work crew continued to put the finishing touches to the station around them, Keeper Trescott exhibited the new Light for the first time on the night of October 1, 1885. Their work complete, the construction crew departed for the Detroit depot seven days later. Now complete, the breakwaters protecting the harbor stood over 8,000 feet in length, and sheltered deep water area encompassing 650 acres. Completed at a cost of $1,205,781, the harbor of refuge quickly became known by the nickname "million dollar harbor."

To render the Light more visible, the speed of lens rotation was increased on the opening of the 1886 navigation season to create alternating read and white flashes every five seconds. The following year was almost certainly a memorable one for the Sand Beach Keepers, as the fog signal was kept in operation for a total of 465 hours, which turned out to be an all time high for the station.

Click to view enlarged imageAn example of the import role played by the Sand Beach Harbor of Refuge can be found in the logs of the lighthouse tender DAHLIA for 1891. On October 20 of that year, the tender was headed north out of Port Huron with three new lightships destined for Simmons Reef, White Shoal and Grays Reef in tow. Running into foul weather, she set course for the safety of Sand Beach. Releasing the three lightships just outside the harbor, she stood off and watched as the three lightships made their way between the breakwaters under their own power, before following them through the gap herself. On arriving in the harbor, they found over 90 vessels already tied-up alongside the breakwaters or at anchor to ride-out the storm. The entire sheltered fleet spent the following two days in the harbor's protection until the storm finally let up on the 23rd, and the fleet was able to finally make way in safety.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it was evident that the harbor of refuge was a successful endeavor, as a total of 1,216 vessels sought the harbor's shelter during the year, and in the twenty-five years since the harbor was first opened in 1874, 47,460 mariners had tied up along the breakwaters to ride out rough weather on the lake. In order to allow the tower to serve as a more efficient day mark, the tower was repainted white in 1900, and the wrought iron hand railing encircling the gallery was renewed.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1903, it was discovered that the wooden breakwaters were deteriorating, and the Army Corps of Engineers set about replacing the above water timber structures with a concrete superstructure. Work began in June 1904, with a full-time crew of sixteen men. A shore station was established, where timber forms were erected for casting concrete breakwater sections. Each concrete section consumed 200 barrels of cement and sand, and weighed 380 tons on completion. The wooden breakwaters were removed to a depth of three feet below the water's surface, leveled and refilled with stone, and capped with the pre-poured concrete sections, which were taken out to the breakwall by barge, and hoisted into place by a steel derrick mounted to the barge deck. As part of this renovation, the wooden face of the lighthouse and fog signal crib was stripped to six inches below the water line, and the face was rebuilt with vitrified brick and protected with steel plates and oak fenders.

Click to view enlarged imageThe next few years saw some major turnover at the station after Alva Trescott, the station's First Assistant, resigned from lighthouse service in 1910, to be replaced by George Mahan. Mahan had been serving as Second Assistant since 1888, and was in turn replaced by Andrew Henderson who transferred-in from Thunder Bay Island. Loren Trescott himself resigned in 1912, after 34 years of faithful service as Keeper of the Sand Beach Harbor of Refuge Lights. Trescott was relieved by Archibald Davidson who was appointed directly to the position without any previous lighthouse service.

On June 30, 1914, the illuminating apparatus within the lens was upgraded from oil wick to incandescent oil vapor, with a significant increase in the effectiveness of the light. With the upgrade, the intensity of the white flash was increased from 5,600 to 33,000 candlepower, and the red flash from 1,400 to 10,000 candlepower. On July 15, 1919, the 10" steam boilers and 10-inch whistles were removed from the fog signal building and replaced by a pair of Type "F" diaphones.

1935 saw the installation of a radio beacon at the station, which would allow mariners on the lake to obtain their bearings through triangulation with the Corsica Shoal Lightship.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the Coast Guard's assumption of responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation in 1939, the old civilian "Wickies" were given the option of either maintaining their civilian status, or transferring into the Coast Guard. Keeper Otto Both, who had served as Keeper at the station since 1935, when he transferred-in from the Cheboygan Range Lights, where he had been serving as First Assistant, appears to have elected neither course as he resigned from lighthouse service one year later in 1940. At some time during the 1960's the Fourth Order Fresnel lens was removed from the lantern, and replaced with a 300 mm Vega acrylic optic, which still shines its light across the harbor to this day. The Fourth Order lens is displayed in the Grice Museum, at the entrance to the Harbor Beach marina, where it holds a prime corner of their local history display. 

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

During our first visit to Harbor Beach, we could immediately see that we were going to be unable to get any close-up images of this lighthouse since it sits on a free-standing crib off a breakwater which is detached from land at either end. We made our way out to the end of the fishing pier that stretches into the protected harbor, since the offshore end of this pier would place us at the closest point to the light we could find without the benefit of a boat. Using the 170 to 500mm zoom set all the way out at 500mm, we were able to capture a couple of reasonable shots of the structure.

We then made our way to the Harbor Beach Library, where we nosed through the books and files, gleaning information about the history of the harbor and its light. The library is housed in an interesting appearing building. At some time, a local artist has painted a two-story mural illustrating scenes from the town's past on the old front facade. While the library contains very little information about the lighthouse and the harbor, both the building and the mural are well worth a visit.

In September 2002, we were fortunate to be invited to tour the lighthouse with Skip Kadar of the HBL&BPS, and spent an extremely enjoyable day with Skip exploring the station from top to bottom.

Finding this Light

From m-25, turn East onto Trescott Street, follow the road to the the beach, and park in one of the beach parking areas. The fishing pier is located at the end of the street, and the lighthouse is directly beyond the end of the fishing pier.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various,1876 - 1909
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, 1906 - 1940 
Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service 1994 
Harbor Beach Centennial, Harbor Beach Historical Society.
Harbor Beach Breakwall Lighthouse Preservation Society, photographic archives
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1876 - 1901
ESSAYONS, A history of the Detroit District, USACE, John W Larson, 1981
Email correspondence with Skip Kadar, HBBLPS, various, 5/14/00 - 9/15/02
Personal visits to Harbor Beach, 05/05/00 & 09/14/02 
Photographs from the author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 01/22/2006

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