Tawas Point Lighthouse Seeing The Light

East Tawas, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

At the middle of the nineteenth century, the curving hook of Ottawa Point had long formed a natural shelter for Tawas Bay, and was frequently used as a harbor of refuge for vessels escaping squalls out on Lake Huron. With the end of the Point difficult to discern at night or in inclement weather, a grass-roots lobbying campaign pleaded to Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, for the erection of a lighthouse to guide vessels past Ottawa Point and into Tawas Bay. Apparently Pleasonton looked upon the project with favor, as on his recommendation, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the construction of a Light on Ottawa Point in September 28, 1850.

Construction at the Point began early in 1852, and continued through the remainder of the summer and into the fall. Since no photograph of this early tower have surfaced, it's exact appearance is uncertain. However, we do know that the tower walls were built of solid rubble stone masonry, and stood 45 feet in height from grade level to the center of an array of Lewis lamps equipped with silvered reflectors. By virtue of the tower's construction on elevated ground, the Light sat at a focal plane of 54 feet above lake level and approximately twenty feet from the diminutive 1-story brick Keeper's dwelling. Construction came to a close in October 1852, and with the work completed so late in the year, the decision was made not to exhibit the light until the following spring. Sherman Wheeler was appointed as the station's first Keeper, and arriving at Ottawa Point late that winter, exhibited the new Light for the first on the opening of the 1853 season of navigation. The tower and dwelling were the first permanent structures to be built on Tawas Bay, with log cabins being the only other structures in the area.

In the early 1850's a cry arose in the maritime community, voicing concern over Pleasonton's tight-fisted administration of the nation's aids to navigation. A clerical administrator, Pleasonton had no maritime experience, and it showed-up in the sub standard workmanship and poorly chosen locations of many of the lighthouses erected under his administration. A study commissioned by Congress recommended the establishment of a nine-member Board to oversee the administration of aids to navigation. Staffed with Navy officers and Engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Lighthouse Board was established in 1852, relieving Pleasonton from any further involvement. One of the Board's first orders of priority was the upgrading of illumination systems from the dim and poorly performing Lewis Lamps to the far more efficient and powerful Fresnel lenses manufactured in Paris. To this end, the Lewis lamps were removed from the Ottawa Point Light in 1856, and replaced with a rotating Fifth Order Fresnel lens. This lens was designed to exhibit a characteristic fixed white light with a red flash every ninety seconds. To impart the desired characteristic, the lens was outfitted with a red bulls eye panel and was situated atop a cast iron pedestal and equipped with a set of wheels known as a chariot . A clockwork motor rotated the lens around the lamp at an exact rotational speed which placed the bulls eyes between the mariner and the lamp every minute and a half, thereby creating a bright red flash which permeated the constant white light.

By 1867, a mere fourteen years after the station's completion, the Eleventh District Inspector reported that the pointing between the rubble stones in the tower was falling out, and that the lantern had deteriorated to the point that water was leaking into the tower interior, damaging the wooden stairs and leaving the interior walls in constant state of dampness. He also reported that the kitchen floor in the dwelling needed replacement, and that a water supply for the keeper was necessary. However, beyond making minor "Band-Aid" repairs, the Lighthouse Board elected not to seek the funds necessary for properly repairing the structures, as it realized it had problems of significantly higher magnitude to solve on Ottawa Point.

By virtue of the prevailing Northeast wind, Ottawa Point had forever been in a state of evolution. Driven by wave and wind, sand from the lake-bed and the shoreline was continually deposited onto the end of the Point, changing its configuration. Over the years since the construction of the Light, this natural reshaping had continued unabated, lengthening the Point by almost a mile, and leaving the old lighthouse "high and dry," three quarters of a mile from the end of the point it was designed to mark. Additionally, the light had a reputation among mariners as being extremely dim and difficult to see from out in the Lake. The combination of the dimness of the light and its distance from the Point represented a disaster waiting to happen.

That disaster came when Captain Olmstead ran his schooner "Dolphin" aground on the Point beyond the lighthouse during a heavy Southeast gale. Olmstead openly blamed the "faint flicker" of the lighthouse for the accident, a cry that was picked up by H. E. Hoard, the editor of the Iosco County Gazette a few weeks later. In one of his reports on the incident, Hoard claimed that "this is not the first instance where our feeble Lighthouse out in the country has proved a snare, instead of a guide." He continued; "Nature has favored us with one of the best harbors on the lakes, and it would seem that the small amount necessary to make it safe and easy access, might be appropriated by our Government, especially when such immense sums are being expended in other places to build up Harbors of Refuge, Life Saving Stations, etc., etc."

Evidently the combination of the Lighthouse Board's recommendation, Editor Hoard's protestations, and added impetus from Michigan's State Representatives made the necessary impression, with Congress appropriating the sun of $30,000 for the erection of a new light station during its 1875 session. Eleventh District Engineer Major Godfrey Weitzel selected a site for the new station later that year, and drew up plans and specifications for the station's construction that winter. Title for the site was obtained in the summer of 1876, and with the delivery of a work crew and materials to Ottawa Point on August 12, work began at a feverish pace.

Click to view enlarged imageAs time had proven, the shifting sands of the entire point created an unsuitable location for a tall tower, and in order to create a stable base on which the structure could be erected, an area at the end of the Point was shored-up with a timber crib. Within this cribwork, timber piles were driven to provide a secure base on which a circular foundation of cut limestone foundation blocks were laid. Atop this foundation, a team of masons erected the brick tower. Standing sixteen feet in diameter at its base, the walls tapered gracefully to a diameter of nine feet six inches at their uppermost. Supported by twelve gracefully curved corbels, a copper-clad gallery was installed and encircled by an iron safety railing.

A decagonal cast iron lantern was erected at the center of the gallery, and covered with a tapered copper roof with ventilator ball, standing sixty-seven feet above grade level. A lightning rod atop the ventilator ball was attached to a copper cable, which lead down the outside of the brickwork to a ground stake driven alongside the foundation. A spiral cast iron staircase with three landings wound its way within the tower to a hatchway through the keepers could gain access to the lantern. The 1 story brick dwelling was built over a stone-walled cellar, and attached to the tower by a covered passageway to provide the Keeper access to the tower without having to leave the warmth of the building during inclement weather. A cast iron door at the tower end of the passageway was installed to stem the spread of a possible fire between the two structures. Finally, the entire crib structure was covered-over with a plank deck to allow the Keepers easy footing when moving around the station.

Click to view enlarged imageConstruction was completed as winter cast its icy grip across Tawas bay, and with the weather too cold to allow the painting of the tower exterior, and the end of the navigation season close at hand, the decision was made to postpone exhibiting the light until the arrival of spring. That winter, the Fifth Order Fresnel was removed from the old tower, and carefully installed in the new tower. By virtue of the tower's location atop the cribbed area, the lens now sat at a focal plane of 70 feet. With the break-up of ice on the lake. Keeper James Harald climbed to the lantern to exhibit the light in the new station for the first time on an unrecorded date at the opening of the 1877 season of navigation.

In September 1875, an additional crib protection 130 feet in length and 10 feet in width was erected to a height of four feet above the lake level at the northwest corner of the existing crib around the station. This cribwork was filled with materials removed from the old 1853 tower and dwelling, which had been demolished after the new station was established.

Click to view enlarged imageThe deck on the crib was replaced in 1890, and with dropping lake levels exposing an ever increasing expanse of beach around the Point, the landing wharf at the rear of the station in Tawas Bay was extended 600 feet to reach the three foot water depth. Also this year, as a result of recurring problems with keeping the light's rotational speed timed accurately, the District Lampist was dispatched to the station to inspect the lens rotating mechanisms. While the Lampist made some adjustments to the chariot at the base of the lens, the problem was evidently of a nature beyond that which could be repaired in the field. With the Ottawa Point Light becoming increasingly important as a guide to mariners coasting the western shore, the decision was made to both upgrade the lens to one of the Fourth Order and to modify the characteristic to increase the light's overall effectiveness.

The new Fourth Order lens was ordered from Paris, and after receipt at the Detroit depot during the summer of 1891, the District Lampist was again dispatched to Ottawa Point to undertake the installation. The new lens was officially exhibited for the first time on the night of September 1, 1891, with its new characteristic of a repeated 30 second cycle, consisting of fixed white light for 25 seconds followed by a 5 second eclipse, visible for a distance of 16 miles.

1896 again saw the rebuilding of the timber platform around the tower and dwelling, and the beginning of a second extension to the landing wharf at the rear of the station, which on its completion in 1897, lengthened the wharf by an additional 640 feet.

When the new station was built in 1876, lard and sperm oil ware used for fueling the lamp. Relatively non-volatile, the oil was stored in a purpose-built room in the dwelling cellar. With a change to the significantly more volatile kerosene, a number of devastating dwelling fires were experienced, and beginning late in the 1880's the Lighthouse Board embarked upon a program of erecting separate oil storage buildings at all US light stations. To this end, a brick oil storage house was built in 1898, six of the timber cribs supporting the wharf were rebuilt, and the boathouse was rebuilt at the end of the extended wharf.

Click to view enlarged imageAs part of a continuing project to create a network of fog signal stations at lighthouses throughout the nation, the lighthouse tender AMARANTH arrived at Ottawa Point in the summer of 1899, and unloaded a working party and materials for the construction of a brick fog signal building on the Point. Work continued through the summer, and the single 10-inch steam whistle was placed into operation on September 28. As was the case with the lighthouse itself, a timber crib was erected around the fog signal building to both stabilize the foundation and to prevent the surrounding sands from being washed away. A boardwalk was laid between the tower and the fog signal, a telephone system was installed between the dwelling and the fog signal building, and a new landing dock was erected 1,200 feet to the west of the fog signal building. Designed for the delivery of coal for the boilers, a tramway was laid from the new landing dock to the fog signal building to facilitate the movement of coal from the visiting lighthouse supply vessels to the bunker in the fog signal building.

With the increased workload represented by the fog signal, the Detroit office determined that the station would need an Assistant Keeper. However, realizing that the diminutive dwelling was too small for a second keeper and his family, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $5,000 for the construction of a second dwelling in its annual reports for 1900. George Galbraeth was appointed as the station's first Assistant on March 16, 1900, and since no arrangements had been made for living accommodations, we can only surmise that he must have moved into one of the rooms in the main dwelling. Evidently, Galbraeth was not too enamored with the living arrangements, as he resigned from lighthouse service on January 31 of the following year, after less than a year's service. Edward L Sinclair took over for Galbraeth after transferring-in from Huron Island, where he had served as Second Assistant for three years.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter the Board's annual pleas for funding to construct a second dwelling went ignored for five years, Eleventh District Inspector Commander Herbert Winslow insisted that arrangements be made for a dwelling for the Assistant, and in 1905 an abandoned boathouse on the Point was patched-up and converted into a temporary dwelling for the Assistant Keeper. In a further attempt to stem erosion, brush and stone revetments were built along the lakeshore in the vicinity of the fog signal building, and 1,300 willow trees were planted. The following year, a barn was built, 23 cribs were reconstructed, and the walks connecting the station with the fog signal were replaced with concrete slabs which were poured at the Detroit depot and transported to the site.

Finally in 1922, an existing house in town was purchased as an Assistant's dwelling, moved to the station, and erected on a foundation to the north of the tower. Three years later, on October 27 1925, the 10-inch steam whistle and boilers were removed from the fog signal building and replaced by a Type F Diaphone signal, and the characteristic changed to a repeated 60-second cycle consisting of a blast of 4 seconds, 16 seconds of silence, a second blast of 4 seconds followed by 36-seconds of silence.

Click to view enlarged imageNature continued to have her way on the sandy hook of Tawas Point, and the Point continued on its inexorable growth into Tawas Bay. The elevated timber crib on which the station was erected was replaced by concrete walls, and the entire area was graded-over with soil and planted with grass. While the concrete walls were only visible in a few places, the location of the crib remained clearly evident as a rectangular raised area on the lawn. By the 1950's, the lighthouse once again stood too far inland to serve as anything but a coast light. However, with the introduction of radar and radio, mariners no longer relied as heavily on the Light, and the tower now served more as a historical artifact than as a structure of high navigational significance. Thus, the station was automated and closed in 1953. Keeper Leon DeRosia, who had tended the Light for the past six years, accepted a transfer to Grays Reef and departed for his new assignment on Lake Michigan, making him the last Keeper of the Ottawa Point Light.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Coast Guard announced plans to excess the station in 1996, and ownership of the buildings was transferred to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in 2001. Deciding that it wished to restore the station to its turn of the twentieth century appearance, in May 2002, the DNR took the controversial step of demolishing the 1922 Assistant's dwelling. Over the remainder of the year, over 3 million dollars were spent at the site, including such improvements as the burial of elevated power lines, the installation of a new red-painted steel roof on the dwelling and the installation of flood lights to illuminate the tower at night.

In a rededication ceremony on October 8, DNR Director K L Cool flipped the switch which light up the tower exterior. The DNR has plans to completely restore the interior of the tower and dwelling, and we hope that within the next couple of years the entire structure will again be open, and the public will again be able to climb the tower to take in the magnificent view it affords.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

Travel northeast from East Tawas on US-23 to Tawas Beach Road. Turn right on Tawas Beach Road and travel approximately 2-3/4 miles to the Tawas Point State Park entrance. A motor vehicle permit is required for entry into the park. The tower is open to the public From May 15 through October 15 on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays.

Contact Information

Tours can be arranged by contacting (989) 362-5041

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 
Around The Bay
, Neil Thornton, Printers Devil Press.
The Detroit News, September 10, 1998
USCG Historian's Office - photographic archives.
Tawas Point Light, pamphlet, Robert J. Cichocki, USCG Auxiliary Historian
Photographs from the Neil Thornton collection.
Personal observation at Tawas Point, 05/06/2000
Photographs from the author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag


This page last modified 12/02/2007

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