Martin Reef Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Off Cedarville, Les Cheneaux Islands, Michigan Home Back

Martin Reef lighthouse by Terry Pepper
Martin Reef Lighthouse by Terry Pepper
Martin Reef Lighthouse - Terry Pepper

Click on thumbnails to view enlarged versions

Historical Information

With less than a foot of water covering the rocky bottom of its shallowest point, Martin Reef lurked menacingly offshore to the east of Les Cheneaux Islands, approximately seven miles east southeast of Cedarville, and had long represented a significant hazard for maritime traffic threading its way between the Straits of Mackinac and the entrance to the DeTour Passage.

With maritime traffic through the area increasing dramatically toward the end of the nineteenth century as a result of the discovery of inexpensive ore along Superior's north shore and the resulting rapid proliferation of steel mills at Chicago, Milwaukee and Joliet, the Lighthouse Board evaluated various aids to navigation at the reef to increase the safety of mariners passing through the area. With the realization that the cost of a permanent station would be prohibitive, in its annual report for 1896 the Board recommended that $15,000 be appropriated for the construction of a wooden lightship to be placed on Martin Reef. While Congress was unresponsive to the request, the Board remained convinced of the need to light the reef, and reiterated its request in its reports for the following three years. In fact, in its 1900 report the Board increased the amount of its request to $35,000 after realizing that the reef's exposed location at the northern end of Lake Huron would subject the vessel to the full fury of wave action building up along the entire length of the lake, and that a steel-hulled vessel would better suit such an exposed location. Congress continued to ignore the Board's repeated annual requests for the vessel until June 20, 1906 when an act was finally passed authorizing a contract for the construction of a vessel at a total cost not to exceed $45,000, with a partial appropriation of $25,000 for the work approved ten days later.

Click to view enlarged imagePlans drawn-up by the engineers at the Detroit depot for what was to be designated as LV89 called for a vessel of unique design, featuring a whaleback forecastle deck designed to easily shed water as she rode at anchor. After submitting the lowest bid, the Racine-Truscott-Shell Boat building Company of Muskegon was awarded the contract for the vessel's construction, and work on the hull began in the spring of 1907. She was to be 88' 3" in length, her hull 21' in beam and her draft 7'. While her single cylinder steam reciprocating engine with 17" bore and 16" stoke would not afford her great speed, it was more than sufficient to allow her to get on and off station under her own power. Her single mast, mounted forward allowed her cluster of three oil-powered lens-lanterns to be raised to a focal plane of 35 feet, and her six-inch steam whistle would allow her to announce her presence in thick weather. With her hull painted a bright red, and "89 MARTIN REEF 89" emblazoned in large white letters on each side, she was completed in the fall of 1908, and officially delivered to Eleventh District Inspector Commander James T. Smith in October of that year. As a result of her delivery so late in the season she was docked in Cheboygan through the winter, and was not placed in her position one mile south of the reef until the opening of the 1909 season of navigation.

With the size and strength of commercial vessels increasing through the 1920's, the season of navigation was beginning earlier in the year as these larger vessels were able to make their way through some of the thicker ice impenetrable to smaller vessels under their own power. However, with pack ice around Martin Reef frequently remaining in place late into the year, and with her diminutive size and power, LV89 was frequently unable to make her way into position on the reef until a considerable number of vessels had already made their way through the area.

To this end, the engineers of the United States Lighthouse Service began working on a design for a permanent light for Martin Reef, to allow the station's keepers to gain access to the station earlier in the season using a smaller boat which could by carried across the thicker ice.

Click to view enlarged imageWith Congressional approval for the construction of the new station, the first order of business was the establishment of a land-based camp as close as possible to the reef. Here, the cribs and concrete forms could be constructed and the 18-man crew could be housed until work progressed sufficiently to allow the establishment of quarters on the reef itself. By the twin virtues of having deep water close to its shore and its proximity to the construction site, Scammon's Harbor on the north shore of Government Island in Les Cheneaux Islands was selected as the best location for the base camp. This was not the first time that Scammon's Harbor had been used for such an operation, as the base camp for the Spectacle Reef project had been located there some fifty years previous, and the island on which the harbor was located had received it's name as a result of the Government's use of the island at that time.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the establishment of the base camp, work began simultaneously at both Scammon's Harbor and Martin Reef. At camp, the massive 65' square wooden crib was constructed of 12" square oak timbers on a skid-way down which it would eventually slide into the water. On the reef, hard-hat divers worked with a scow equipped with a crane system to clear and level an area in ten feet of water at the southeast end of the reef where the crib would eventually be placed. With the site on the reef prepared, the crib was lowered down the greased skid-ways into the water, and the lighthouse tenders MARIGOLD and Aspen attached lines and carefully guided the huge structure out of the harbor, through the 100-foot channel between the islands and into the open water of Lake Huron.

Click to view enlarged imageArriving at Martin Reef, the crib was carefully centered on the cleared and leveled area, and ballast pockets built into the crib were filled with crushed limestone delivered by freighters and transferred into the crib with the assistance of the scow's conveyor. Eventually overcoming its natural buoyancy, the crib sank on the prepared bottom. Divers then descended to the bottom of the crib and filled all gaps between the surface of the reef and the lower edges of the crib with rope caulking and Portland cement to create a water-tight seal. With the pockets completely filled, the water was pumped from the open areas in the crib, prefabricated forms were attached, and the work of filling the crib with concrete from a mixer aboard the scow began. As the pour continued, forms for the four arch-roofed cellar areas for coal and water storage were installed and cast in place.

At this stage of the construction, the work crew continued to spend their nights at Scammon's Harbor, with the lighthouse tender Aspen transporting them to and from the reef twice each day. With the pouring of the curved wave apron, work on the crib was complete and the upper surface of the pier was carefully leveled in order to create a level foundation for the lighthouse structure itself, which was to be erected at the exact center of the pier. Completion of the pier structure also allowed the construction of a bunkhouse on the reef, and work on the tower progressed quickly since the twice daily trips transporting the crew between Scammon's Harbor and the reef were no longer necessary. A temporary light was also installed on the railing, and with this new light to mark the reef LV89 was no longer needed at the reef, and was reassigned to North Manitou Shoal in Lake Michigan.

Click to view enlarged imageThe twenty-five foot square station structure was designed with three-stories, its exterior walls of reinforced concrete and iron over a skeletal steel frame. A stairway connected each floor and continued above the living quarters into the centrally located tower. With the lower floor designed as an engine room for the station's machinery, the second and third floors served as living areas for the station's keepers. The second floor featured an office in the northwest corner, a bathroom on the south side, and a kitchen on the southwest corner, while the third floor was divided into bedrooms for the head keeper and his assistants. The four concrete rooms within the crib served as coal and food storage, and water cisterns contained drinking water that was fed by down spouts from the station's roof

Atop the center of the main structure, a ten-foot tall watch room, sixteen feet square was capped with an octagonal cast iron lantern with vertical astragals. The lantern contained a flashing white Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Sautter & Cie of Paris, and was powered by an 8,000 candlepower lamp with a characteristic of three flashes every ten seconds. The sixty-five foot focal plane of the lens created a visibility range of 14 miles during clear weather. For periods of thick weather, the station was also outfitted with a compressed air diaphone fog signal powered by an oil-powered air compressor located in the first floor equipment room.

Click to view enlarged imageWith construction of the station completed in the summer of 1927, the work crew loaded the camp buildings and bunkhouse onto the scow and lighthouse tenders Marigold and Aspen, and relocated to the Cheboygan pier to begin construction of a duplicate of the structure at Martin Reef on Poe Reef, off Cheboygan Harbor.

With the transfer of responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation to the Coast Guard in 1939, electrical generators were installed at the station and an electric light was installed within the Fourth Order lens. Under the Coast Guard, the station was manned by four-man crews consisting of a Chief Engineman, Boatswain's Mate, a Fireman and a Seaman.

Click to view enlarged imageThe station would usually be opened for the season of navigation around the beginning of April, and the crew would assemble at the Cheboygan Coast Guard station where they would purchase their initial supplies at a local grocery store. A Coast Guard 180' foot boat would then push its way through the ice to deliver the men at the reef. On arrival at the station it was frequently caked in ice, sometimes reaching as high as the third floor, and the first order of business was to chip away around the door to gain entry. The station was heated by an oil-fired furnace in one of the "dungeons," as the four storage areas within the crib were irreverently called by the crews. This furnace fed the rooms through ducts which were located throughout the structure. Once the furnace was operating, the temperature warmed to a comfortable level, however the coldness of the structure itself caused the walls to sweat for the first three or four weeks every year. Electrical power was provided by a bank of DC batteries that were charged by a pair of duplicate GM 271 twin-cylinder generators. Living conditions at the station provided as much comfort as such cramped conditions could afford, and the men quickly settled into the daily routine of cleaning, painting and equipment maintenance.

Cooking was done on a propane-powered stove, and meals usually consisted of a lunch of soup and sandwiches, with a large supper served in the evening which everybody who was considered capable would help prepare. While the station was outfitted with a television set in the 1950's, for some reason the location of the station only afforded a selection of a couple of French language stations! Jack Stiehl recalls some of the men building plastic ship models as a diversion, launching them in the lake, and then using them for target practice as they sailed away from the station. One particularly melancholy recollection of Jacks is looking out the kitchen window, watching a neon "BEER" sign flashing on the east side of Cheboygan on clear nights!

Click to view enlarged imageThe station was outfitted with a 20' boat with a cabin that was raised onto the pier by one of the two deck-mounted cranes. This boat was used by the crew members to run "liberty parties" to Cheboygan, but the boat was removed in 1959, with transportation to and from shore subsequently provided by the Coast Guard station at Mackinaw Island. Since Huron's northern offshore lights were so remotely located, the crews of Poe, Martin and Spectacle Reef lights conducted a radio check every morning and evening. If any of the crews missed two consecutive checks, a boat was dispatched from Cheboygan to check up on them.

Click to view enlarged imageAt the end of each season of navigation, antifreeze was poured into all drains, the window shutters were closed, and the generating and heating equipment was winterized. The rack of batteries was left fully charged to provide power for a 200 mm, 110 candlepower light that was left burning throughout the winter to provide direction for any late vessels making their way along the north shore. Every year care was taken to ensure that all the food was consumed by the time the station was closed for the year. However, in 1958 a small private aircraft crashed in north Lake Huron, and the pilot managed to make his way across the ice to Spectacle Reef Light station. Entering the station, and finding no food, he left a note and set out for land. The pilot was never heard from again, and it could only be assumed that he had perished on the ice. From that point on, the crew at Martin Reef always made sure that they left a supply of non-perishable food at the station before departing at the end of each year's navigation season.

On a date which we have as yet been unable to determine, Martin Reef was automated through the installation of a solar-powered 200 mm acrylic lens, and the Fourth Order Fresnel was carefully removed from the tower and shipped to Point Iroquois Light Station, where it is proudly displayed as part of that station's museum.

Martin Reef light station was offered by the General Services Administarion via the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Acti on May 1, 2013. Hopefully a local non-profit  or government entity will file for ownership and restore the station.


Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Since it is located out of visibility from shore other than very distant glimpses while driving along Hwy 134 on the way east to DeTour, for many years the only way to see the station was from a private or chartered vessel or aircraft. However, over the last few years, close up views of Martin Reef Light station can be had on Sheper's Les Cheneaux cruises which are held a number of times each summer season. For a schdule, check out the "Lighthouse Cruises" section of the Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry website at www.sheplersferry.com

Reference Sources 

Lightships and Lightship Stations of the United States Government, Willard Flint, 1989. Martin Reef - Lightship to Lighthouse, John J. Selleman, 1995.
NOAA Great Lakes Coast Pilot, 2000. 
Photograph from US Coast Guard Historian's Office
Photograph courtesy of Marge Beaver of Photography Plus
Light-house Board annual reports from 1896 through 1909.
Great Lakes Light Lists, 1928, 1939 & 1953.
10/08/01 email from Joann Gulau with Jack Stiehl's recollections of Martin Reef. 
Photographs courtesy of Jack Stiehl.
Grand Haven Tribune, August 6, 2000
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag


Terry Pepper. This page last updated May 26, 2013

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