Ashland Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

Ashland, Wisconsin Home Back

Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged image

Click thumbnails to view enlarged versions

Historical Information

By the 1880's much of the white pine had been clear-cut from the shores of the lower lakes, and many lumbermen turned their attention to the as yet untouched bounty of Lake Superior's forests. Soon, a fleet of lumber hookers were making their way along the southern shore, hungry for lumber produced by the growing number of mills being constructed in the area's natural harbors and river mouths.

As the mills came, so did the workers, and soon such towns as Grand Marais, Marquette, Ontonagon and Ashland sprang up around them. However, while lumber was the seed from which Ashland sprouted, it would be another natural bounty from deep within in the forest that would really put the town on the map.

Though iron ore had been discovered in the Gogebic range in 1848, exploration did not begin until the 1860's. By virtue of being the closest natural harbor, the first shipment of Gogebic ore was made from Ashland in 1884. With the construction of railroads from the range to the harbor towards the end of the decade, vessels began lining-up to load ore at the increasing number of docks being built along the shore, and Ashland's boom times were on.

By virtue of its location at the foot of Chequamegon Bay, Ashland's docks were directly exposed to the full fury of Superior's violent northeast winds. In 1889 the US Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a massive breakwater stretching across the entire bay to protect the exposed docks.

Click to view enlarged imageBeginning at a point approximately 2,000 feet from the southeast shore, by 1893 the slab and rock breakwater had grown to a length of almost a mile-and-a-half. The breakwater thus protecting almost 1,600 acres of water, and a total of three miles of harbor front. Construction on a second parallel breakwater to protect the southern opening began in 1900, while work continued on the original structure with the addition of rip rap on both sides and granite capping to provide additional durability.

Click to view enlarged imageBy 1910, the breakwater was well-serving its intended purpose, however its uninterrupted length was itself creating a problem to vessels masters who were finding it difficult to locate the northern entrance to the harbor in the dark of night. Responding to the problem, the Lighthouse Board installed a temporary fixed red lens-lantern on a pole ten feet above the western end of the breakwater, with care of the light assumed by the Army Corps of Engineers while they continued with the harbor improvements.

In 1912, with the final ending point of the breakwater established, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $25,000 for the construction of a crib at the breakwater's northwestern end, on which it was proposed an acetylene light and fog bell would be installed. Congress responded favorably with the requested appropriation on October 22, 1813, and plans for the station drawn-up at the Detroit lighthouse depot that same year.

Click to view enlarged imageThe plans for the proposed station called for a unique design. Constructed of steel-reinforced concrete, it was to be poured in place with the use of sectional forms. Illumination was to be provided by an electrically operated lamp, with power supplied from the Ashland generating station by way of a submarine cable to be laid across the harbor floor. To keep costs low, the keeper's quarters and boat house were to be built on shore in Ashland, with the keeper servicing the light by boat.

Construction began on the structure in the summer of 1914 and continued through the year until the storms of winter made conditions intolerable. Resuming on the opening of navigation in 1915, the station gradually took shape through that summer.

Click to view enlarged imageBy October, the completed white-painted concrete tower stood fifty-eight feet in height. Based on an octagonal lower section seventeen feet square, the tower tapered gracefully to fourteen feet square at its uppermost. Atop this concrete section, a prefabricated circular iron watchroom thirteen feet in diameter an eight feet in height was capped by an iron gallery, with a circular iron lantern with helical astragals at its center. The lantern was equipped with a Fourth-Order Fresnel lens, with illumination supplied by a single 1,600 candlepower electric lamp, displayed at a focal plane of sixty-five feet.

The light was exhibited for the first time on the evening of October 15, 1915, its characteristic one second flashes followed by two-second eclipses visible from a distance of sixteen miles at sea.

The station was also equipped with an electrically-powered fog siren, programmed to provide repeating 4 second blasts followed by 16 seconds of silence. The compressor and air tank powering this horn were located in the tower's first floor, with compressed air piped to the diaphone horn, located on the offshore side of the watchroom.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile the keeper's dwelling was located onshore some two miles away, minimal living quarters were provided on the second and third floors of the tower for those situations in which weather conditions made travel across the harbor too dangerous, and the keeper was forced to stay on station to ensure continued operation of the light and fog signal.

The harbor improvements contributed significantly to Ashland's growing prominence as an ore shipping port, and as a result the first ore dock was constructed from 1916. At 900 feet in length, it was increased toe 1,800 feet in 1925, and was soon joined by four similar massive structures along the waterfront, each shipping in excess of a million tons of ore each year.

Click to view enlarged imageAshland Breakwater Light stood faithful vigil over the harbor through the halcyon years of the first half of the twentieth century, and in turn stood silent witness to the declining years of the 1950's and 60's. By the latter decades of the century, the docks stood empty and decaying, and many of the people who came to Ashland to support the iron boom moved on to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

In an ongoing system-wide effort to reduce ongoing maintenance costs, the Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens from the lantern in 1980, and installed a 12-volt DC solar-powered 250mm acrylic optic in its place.

While the Breakwater Light still functions as an active aid to navigation today, the harbor no longer serves the commercial importance it did in the first half of the twentieth century. Though the light no longer guides the huge ore boats into the harbor, it serves is a welcome sight to the many pleasure boaters returning to the harbor.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Our information stated that Ashland Breakwater light was situated at the end of a mile-long breakwater, which protects the once-busy port of Ashland. The weather was sunny and warm, with a light breeze, so we were looking forward to a pleasant walk along the breakwater to the lighthouse.

A park just west of the small downtown area afforded us our first glimpse of the structure, approximately a mile out in the lake, so we pulled-off and walked to the lakeshore to get a better look. There were remnants of an old shipping dock hutting from the park, and we walked out onto part of the dock in order to get a better overall shot of the lighthouse. From this vantage point we could see that the pier was not joined to the land at either end, and thus we would have to be satisfied with the picture of Ashland light behind some of the old dock piling seen above.

We will be returning to Ashland during our 2001 fall field trip, and have made arrangements to take a boat tour which will pass close to the tower, and thus expect to have greatly improved photographs of the structure when we return from that trip. If you would like to receive an email when these new images are posted, return to our home page, and click on the "Mailing List" button.

Finding this Light

Hwy 2 runs right through Ashland along the bay shore. Views of the lighthouse can be frequently seen. As indicated above, without a boat the lighthouse is inaccessible, since the breakwater upon which it sits is not attached to land. Bayview Park can be found on the bay side of Hwy 2 just Southwest of town, and offered the best view of the lighthouse that we could find.

Reference Sources

Lake Carrier's Association Annual Reports, 1907 - 1914
Lighthouse Board Annual Reports, 1907 - 1909
Bureau of Lighthouses Annual reports, 1910 - 1920
Great Lakes Light List, 1924.
The Northern Lights, Charles K, Hyde, 1986
Lake Superior, Grace Lee Nute, 1944
The Long Ships Passing, Walter Havighurst, 1942
Personal visit to Ashland on 09/07/1999
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Photograph from the USCG Historian's office.
Photograph from the Lake Carrier's Association.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

Page last updated 12/12/2003

Home Back

This p