Grand Island East Channel Light Seeing The Light

South shore of Grand Island, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Grand Island stands at the entrance to Munising Bay, with its south shore long serving as a natural harbor of refuge to vessels seeking shelter from the fury of Superior's late season storms. So critical was the area considered by mariners that one of the big lakes' first lighthouses was built on the north tip of Grand Island in 1856, to both warn coasting captains of the northern point of the island and to indicate the safe harbor located to the south. While the lighthouse served both purposes well, it did little to provide assistance to captains making their way through the harbor passages one the east and west sides of the island, through which entry was difficult under conditions of good visibility, and next to impossible under the cover of darkness.

To this end on February 27, 1860, Senator Chandler presented a petition signed by masters, pilots and owners of vessels sailing through the area "praying the erection of two light-houses upon the entrance to Grand Island bay and harbor."

Congress responded with an appropriation of $6,000 in June of that same year for the construction of a pair of lighthouses to guide the passages. However, the Lighthouse Board found the funds insufficient for the job at hand, and requested an additional $10,000. The additional funds were finally appropriated in July 1866, and work on the Grand Island East Channel Light began the following year with the the clearing of the reservation on a sandy peninsula on the southeast shore of the island. As a result of the chosen site being both on low ground and close to the water's edge, a considerable amount of cribbing was installed along the shore line to help stave-off erosion and undermining of the station's foundation. Plans for the station building called-out a typical "schoolhouse" style combination dwelling and tower similar to that used frequently throughout the lakes. However, in order to minimize cost the building was to be of timber frame construction with wood siding, as opposed to the more common brick or stone materials used in such structures elsewhere. Painted white to increase its value as a daymark, the 1 story dwelling incorporated a forty-five foot tower its southern end, and was outfitted with an oil-fired steamer lens with a focal plane of 49 feet.

Click to view enlarged imageWork on the station was completed through that summer, and the station's first keeper Frederick Giertz climbed the tower and officially exhibited the Grand Island East Channel Light for the first time on the evening of August 15, 1868.

It quickly became evident that the steamer lens was insufficient for the task, and the Eleventh Lighthouse District lampist arrived at the station in 1869 and replaced the steamer lens with a fixed white Fifth Order Fresnel lens, and modified the lantern's ventilation system to accommodate the hotter burning lens. With this modification, the effectiveness of the light was significantly increased, now being visible for a distance of 13 miles in clear condition.

The combination of a wooden structure in such an exposed location, and its location on the low sandy area close to the water's edge created an ongoing maintenance nightmare for the district engineers, with the station listed as one at which considerable repairs were taken every year for the following thirty years. Finally, after some significant storms in 1899, the cribs were found to be so damaged that the station's foundation was in imminent danger of becoming undermined. The following year 262 feet of new cribbing, 8 feet high was installed and backed-up with 28 cords of stone. Finally, 311 feet of beach protection consisting of brush and stone were also added to further stem the incessant erosion.

Click to view enlarged imageBy 1905, the deteriorating condition of the structure and the increasing size of vessels entering the harbor made it clear that the station was no longer effectively serving the needs of the maritime community. As a result of its location at the southernmost point of the island, the light remained completely invisible to vessels entering through the eastern passage until they were almost abreast of the light itself.

To rectify the situation, 1904 the Lighthouse Board recommended that the sum of $13,200 be appropriated for the construction of a set of range lights in the town of Munising in its 1904 annual report. Expecting that lights so situated would serve as a direct guide through the eastern passage and lead vessels directly into the harbor of refuge, the Board further recommended that the old Grand Island East Channel Light be extinguished and abandoned on completion of the new range lights.

With the receipt of Congressional approval in 1907, work began on the new Munising Range Lights the following year, and with their establishment on the night of October 30th, 1908, George Prior, the last keeper to serve at the East Channel Light removed his belongings from the station, and left the venerable structure to the elements.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1915, the 44 acre lighthouse reservation was sold to consortium of 20 individuals who in turn broke the entire reservation into individual parcels, with each member maintaining part ownership in the lighthouse structure. Over the ensuing years, this multiple ownership has served as a dual-edged sword in relationship to the structure's survival. While the lack of single ownership prevented any individual to step forward to restore the structure, it also prevented any single individual from tearing it down in order to make alternate use of the property.

Without any care throughout the years, the structure deteriorated rapidly. Without regular scraping and repainting, the once bright white structure had turned a dismal driftwood gray, and the cribs installed a hundred years previously had disintegrated completely, with the waters of Munising Bay lapping directly at the stones of the structure's foundation.

Click to view enlarged imageAlthough a mere shadow of its original glory, the Grand Island Harbor Light became one of the most photographed lights on the Great Lakes, since the thousands of tourists taking the Pictured Rocks cruises out of Munising pass in front of the structure, and most visitors cannot resist taking a "snap" of the venerable structure.

Concerned that without some immediate action, the historic structure would be undermined and fall, a group of local citizens came together to form the "East Channel Lights Rescue Project," and began the process of identifying sources for funds to construct some sort of shore protection. Among others, the American Lighthouse Foundation stepped up to the plate, and with sufficient funds to purchase materials, members of the Rescue Project began the painstaking process of sinking cedar posts and gathering rocks to form a protection in front of the lighthouse. This work continued into 2001, and as a result of the relentless action of waves and ice, will likely continue in perpetuity if the historic structure is to be saved.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Grand Island East Channel Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

We have yet to make the trip out to Grand Island to view this Light, however we wish to take this opportunity to thank Michael Bippley, Dennis O'Hara and Larry Bell for sharing their photographs with us. The East Channel Lights Rescue Project is in constant need of funds if they are going to be able to save the East Channel lighthouse. If you would care to offer any financial assistance to their cause, please contact either:

Light Rescue Project
c/o Alger Historical Society
P.O. Box 201
Munising, MI 49862
The American Lighthouse Foundation
East Channel Lighthouse Fund
P.O. Box 889
Wells, Maine 04090.

Finding this Light

From Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend, the East Channel Lighthouse can be seen from the boat tours offered by either Pictured Rocks Cruises or the Lake Superior Shipwreck tours, which both leave from Munising and pass right by the light. For schedules and information contact:

Pictured Rocks Cruises
P.O. Box 355
Munising, Michigan 49862
Phone (906) 387-2379
Lake Superior Shipwreck tours
1204 Commercial St.
Munising, MI 49862.
Phone: (906) 387-4477.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1865-1908.
Great Lakes Light List, 1876.
Northern Lights,
Charles K Hyde, 1986.
Photographs courtesy of Michael Bippley, Dennis O'Hara, and Larry Bell.
1953 Great Lakes Coast Pilot
, US Army Corps of Engineers, 1953.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 12/02/2007

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