Manistique East Breakwater Light Seeing The Light

Manistique, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

The Manistique river received its name from the French, and was reportedly a corruption of the Ojibwa for "River of the big bay," in reference to the significant river and its tributaries which spread throughout a vast portion of Michigan's upper peninsula.

Click to view enlarged imageRealizing the vast profit potential to be made in satiating Chicago's need for lumber after the great fire, and the natural delivery system represented by the Manistique watershed, Abijah Weston and his associates arrived in Manistique in 1872 ready to reap the bounty of the areas seemingly limitless forest. Within a year, the river mouth served as the receiving point for millions of logs floated down the river from remote wilderness camps, and the twin sawmills of the Chicago Lumbering Company and the Weston Lumber Company were working overtime to serve the endless parade of lumber hookers and schooners tied-up at the lumber-stacked wharves, waiting to carry their cargoes to the bustling cities growing at the foot of the lake.

In order to protect the mouth of the river from silting, the lumber interests erected a pair of short timber crib piers at the river mouth in the late 1870's and maintained lens lanterns suspended from poles at their outer ends to assist captains making their way into the harbor.

Click to view enlarged imageSeeing the potential for a rail line connecting Manistique to lake Superior, Weston formed the Manistique and Northwestern Railway Company in 1891 with the lines northern terminus at Negaunee. With an expected increase in maritime traffic entering the river, Ninth Lighthouse District Engineer Major Milton B. Adams requested an appropriation of $32,000 for the establishment of a coast light and fog signal at the harbor entrance in his annual report for 1892. While the act of February 15, 1893 gave Congressional approval to the project, no appropriation was forthcoming, and without funding, the project was stalled. Although the Lighthouse Board reiterated the request for the following three years, the matter was dropped by the Board in its annual reports after 1895.

By the turn of the century the population of Manistique had grown to 3,500, with the mills employing 1,200 men, boasting a combined capital of $1,300,000, and producing 80,000,000 board feet of white pine a year. Additionally, prosperous new businesses had joined the lumber interests along the lower five miles of the river, notable among which was the Manistique Iron Company, which was shipping 100 tons of pig iron a day. After establishing the Traverse City, Leelanau & Manistique Railroad in 1901, which ran between Northport to Traverse City, Weston launched the 338-foot car ferry MANISTIQUE MARQUETTE AND NORTHERN No. 1 in December 1902, and began daily railcar and mail service between Manistique and Northport soon thereafter.

These were boom times for Manistique, and while the federal government had undertaken a string of significant harbor improvements throughout Lake Michigan since the 1850's, the entry to the Manistique had somehow been overlooked. Forced to provide for themselves, Manistique business interests had extended the timber crib piers to 1,600 feet in length, and barely managed to maintain a depth of 11 feet in the 350-foot opening between the piers.

Click to view enlarged imageApplying all possible political pressure, the city fathers of Manistique finally managed to convince the Federal government of both the financial importance the businesses on the river represented, and the need to ensure safe entry to the increasingly larger vessels now plying the lakes. An Army Corps of Engineers harbor expert was dispatched to Manistique in early 1910, and plans were drawn up for a pair of concrete arrowhead breakwaters on each side of the existing piers to create a large stilling basin to both protect the river entry and to create a harbor of refuge in which passing vessels could lay-up during foul weather periods.

The contract for the construction of the breakwaters was awarded to the Greiling Brothers Company out of Sturgeon Bay, who had established a solid reputation for harbor work in a number of ports around Lake Michigan. With construction well underway in 1910, George Putnam, the newly appointed Commissioner of lighthouses, made the following observations in his annual report to Congress: "car ferries between Frankfort and Manistique run the year round; during the winter months this run, taking into consideration the nature of the cargo carried and the dangers from ice is extremely hazardous; it is therefore believed that every facility should be afforded for safe navigation into this port, It is proposed to establish range lights with fog signal and quarters for keepers." To this end, the report included a request for $20,000 for the erection of the recommended navigation aids, as follows: For two towers and fog-signal buildings $7,000, illuminating apparatus $2,500, for fog signal apparatus $1,500, $7,500 for a duplex dwelling and $1,500 to cover contingencies.

Click to view enlarged imageAs work on the breakwaters progressed through 1912, the Lighthouse Service erected temporary rage lights on the east pier. Both lights were incandescent electric type, and powered by the city electrical utility. The front range consisted of simple pole with a 170 candlepower fixed white lens lantern suspended 25 feet above lake level, and visible for a distance of 11 miles. The rear range, of similar construction stood 50 feet above the water, and emitted 45 candlepower, and created a visible range of 7 miles.

Congress responded with the requested $20,000 for permanent aids on October 22, 1913. Contracts were awarded for supplying the necessary structural and mechanical components for the new west breakwater that winter, and negotiations were undertaken for the purchase of a site for the dwelling close to the foot of the new East Breakwater.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the Greilling Brothers completion of the west breakwater in the summer of 1914, lighthouse crews began simultaneous construction of permanent lights on both the West Breakwater and West pierhead. The West Breakwater structure took the form of a white skeleton steel tower erected on a concrete pedestal atop the surface of the concrete breakwater. Designed to operate as an unmanned aid, the acetylene powered lens lantern was equipped with a sun valve and flasher, to provide a characteristic 0.3 second flash every 3 seconds. By virtue of its location at a focal plane of 36 feet, the 120-candlepower white light was visible for a distance of 10 miles in clear weather. To guide vessels round the West Pierhead, a simple white post lantern was erected on outer end of the old timber pier. Standing 26 feet above lake level, the 60-candlepower acetylene light was visible 8 miles, and received its acetylene from tanks stored in a small wooden building located beside the pole. Construction of the planned lighting of the west side of the harbor entrance was thus complete, and the two new lights were exhibited for the first time on the evening of October 30, 1914.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Greilling Brothers completed work on the new East Breakwater late in 1915, and a lighthouse crew arrived to pour a large concrete slab 36 feet from the outer end of the structure to serve as a foundation for the planned combination light tower and fog signal building. The following year, while one crew worked on building the station's duplex dwelling, another crew worked on erecting the lighthouse tower at the end of the East Breakwater. Shipped to the site in disassembled form, the tower was made of prefabricated steel plates which were bolted together and lagged to the foundation. Square in plan, the tower stood approximately 38 feet tall, and was surmounted by a square gallery upon which a decagonal cast iron lantern housed an electrically powered fixed red Fourth Order Fresnel lens. Located at a focal plane of 50 feet, the 340-candlepower incandescent electric bulb within the lens would be visible for a distance of 13 miles in clear weather. Within the body of the structure, duplicate electrically powered compressors fed a pair of diaphone fog signals which were programmed to emit a repeated characteristic of a single 2-second blast followed by 18 seconds of silence. Work on the new station was completed in August, and the light exhibited for the first time on the evening of August 17, 1916.

Click to view enlarged imageOver the ensuing fifty years, Manistique's prominence lumbering port waned. With cessation of Manistique and Lake Superior railroad operations, and the departure of the last Ann Arbor car ferry from the harbor on July 18, 1968, the harbors prominence plummeted. With advances in LORAN and Radar, manned lights were no longer considered a necessity to navigation, and the Manistique light was automated the following year, and the keeper's dwelling sold into private ownership. As part of automation, the Fourth Order Fresnel lens was removed and replaced by a 300 mm Tidelands Signal acrylic optic. The Fourth Order lens was placed in storage, and eventually restored and loaned to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc.

Click to view enlarged imageUnfortunately, Manistique's long history of lumbering and industrialization has not been without penalty. Contamination of the river life was initially noticed in the 1950's, with PCB's and heavy metals found in the river sediment in the 1970's. As a result, the site was designated as an official EPA "Area of concern." The sources of this contamination were found to be "wastes from the old sawmills, a paper mill, small industries, residences, the municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant, and sandy sediments which eroded from river banks as a result of log drives on the river." As a result of a concerted clean-up effort over the past twenty years, the middle and upper reaches of the Manistique River are much cleaner now than they were 100 years ago. There is recreational boating at the Marina and Harbor of Refuge, and a scenic 2.5 mile-long boardwalk has been constructed along the river.


Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light


To reach the east breakwater, take US-2 to the east side of Manistique, and turn into Lakeview Park. Views of the lighthouse can be had from throughout this park, and access to the pier can be gained at the west end of the park. To reach the west pier, take the first southbound street after crossing the river on US-2, and park alongside the road opposite the wastewater treatment park, and walk down one of the worn paths through the pine trees to the beach, and the west pier.

Reference Sources


Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1892 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various, 1910 1920
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1917 1953
Door County Advocate, April 27, 1911
M&LS Timeline, Ann Arbor Railroad Technical & Historical Association website
History of the Great Lakes, J H Beers Co, 1899
The Long Ships Passing, Walter Havighurst, 1943.
A Souvenir of Manistique, Harold Press, 1902 (reprinted by S.C.H.S., 1992)
Photograph of Manistique lens courtesy of Wisconsin Maritime Museum
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research


This page last modified 06/20/2004

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