Sand Point Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Escanaba, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

As was the case with most towns on the shores of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Escanaba grew on the heels of the growing lumbering and fishing industry. Congress first realized the need to light the entrance to the harbor deep within Little Bay de Noc in 1856, appropriating the sum of $1,000 to erect a beacon light on August 18. However, for reasons we have yet to determine, the light was not established, and the unexpended funds were recalled by the Treasury to be used in other projects.

With the completion of the Peninsula Railroad in 1864, which linked Escanaba to the iron mines of Negaunee, and the subsequent construction of ore docks in the harbor, it was clear that Escanaba was finally "on the map." Realizing the need for a navigational aid to guide the growing maritime traffic, the Lighthouse Board again began calling for funding, and Congress responded with a duplicate of the earlier appropriation on July 2, 1864. A site for the light on Sand Point was selected soon thereafter, but the owner of property experienced difficulty in proving clear title to the site, and little could be done until the matter of title was decided beyond preparing plans and cost estimates for constriction.

Click to view enlarged imageBy 1866, traffic entering and leaving Escanaba increased meteorically, and the Lighthouse Board determined that the harbor had grown to sufficient importance to warrant marking by a structure of greater significance than the originally proposed beacon. Estimating the construction costs of a suitable masonry structure to be $10,000, the Lighthouse Board requested an additional appropriation in its annual report for 1866. Evidently, there was considerable political support for the change as Congress appropriated an additional $9,000 for the improved structure on March 2, 1867. After considerable wrangling in the courts, title to the selected site was finally perfected in the summer of 1867.

Construction began early that fall, and over the following months a forty-one foot brick tower and attached 1 ½-story dwelling took shape on Sand Point. Plans for the station were modifications of structures built concurrently at a number of locations around the district, including Ontonagon, Gull Rock and Copper Harbor, among others. The square tower was capped with a prefabricated decagonal cast iron lantern, and outfitted with a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens. Strangely, the structure was constructed in the exact opposite orientation to any other light on the Great Lakes, in that the structure was built with its' tower at the landward end of the dwelling. Since we have been unable to find any mention of this disorientation from the norm in any historical documents, we can only assume that it was either erected in this manner in error, or was erected that way as an experiment.

Click to view enlarged imageAs a result of the start of construction late in the season, the station was incomplete at the end of the 1867 navigation season, and work continued until the onset of winter made continuation impossible. Work resumed the following Spring and local resident John Terry was appointed as the first keeper of the new Sand Point Light on December 19, 1867. A fifty-year old Canadian native of St. Johns in New Brunswick, Terry had arrived in Escanaba in 1863 as a surveyor for the Chicago & Northwestern railroad, and was one of the first to do business on the new docks. Unfortunately, Terry succumbed to illness in early 1868, and passed away on April 6. With work on the station nearing completion, his wife Mary was appointed Keeper on April 18, and she climbed the tower stairs to exhibit the new light for the first time on the evening of May 13, 1868.

Evidently the construction of the station was good, as the Ninth District Inspector reported that the condition of the structure was good in all aspects, except that the chimney smoked badly in his 1869 inspection of the station. With increasing development of the downtown area, the number of city lights behind the station increased quickly, and many mariners complained of difficulty in differentiating the fixed white light from the city lights behind it. Taking up their call, Michigan Senator Chandler presented two petitions in the Senate on February 7, 1872 on behalf of shipmasters and vessel owners, praying that a red light be substituted for the fixed white light. The matter was referred to the Commerce Committee, which evidently concurred with the suggestion, since the Sand Point light appears as having a fixed red characteristic in subsequent Great Lakes Light Lists.

Evidently, there was little of note occurring a Sand Point over the next decade, since no mention of the station appears in Lighthouse Board documents beyond mentions of minor repairs being made. Then out of the blue on the night of March 4, 1886, a major fire broke out in the dwelling, killing Mary Terry and almost destroying the dwelling. Once the fire was extinguished, it was found that the south lighthouse door showed signs of forced entry, and there was local speculation that a thief had broken into the station, and put a torch to the place when they were discovered my Mrs. Terry. One local newspaper also questioned the performance of the city firefighters, questioning why it took them so long to respond, and basically blaming the complete burning of the dwelling on their slow reaction. A subsequent investigation of the fire by the Delta County coroner found no specific culpability, finding only that only that Mrs. Terry "came to her death from causes and by means unknown." Immediately on hearing of Mary Terry’s death, the Ninth District Inspector Commander Francis A. Cook appointed Lewis A Rose from Wind Point where he had been serving as First Assistant Keeper since entering lighthouse service in 1883.

Click to view enlarged imageDistrict construction foreman Lederle was dispatched to Sand Point with a work crew on April 1. Suffering the brunt of the damage, most all of the interior woodwork within the dwelling, along with the stone caps and lintels were destroyed, leaving only the brickwork and interior metalwork in the tower and dwelling in salvageable condition. Lederle’s crew first tackled cleaning of the tower, and succeeded in getting the light ready for lighting at the opening of navigation a week later. Restoration of the dwelling took almost two more months, with the structure completely rebuilt and repainted and ready for Keeper Rose to move in with his family on May 31. The fact that the repairs undertaken by Lederle and his crew ended up costing $2,362.72, or 25% of the original cost of building, serve as stark witness to the extent of the damage.

400 feet of board fencing was installed on the north, south and east sides of the lighthouse site in 1890, and the decision was made to install a fog bell at the station for vessels to use during thick weather. Estimating that a bell and automatic striking apparatus could be installed for a total cost of $1,000, a request for an appropriation was included in the 1890 annual report. Evidently Congress was not immediately convinced of the need for such an enhancement at the station, since the Lighthouse Board reiterated its request in subsequent annual reports for the following four years. Perhaps using the negotiating tactic of "asking for ten when you really want five," the Board upped the ante in 1895, recommending instead an appropriation $5,000 for the establishment of a duplicate steam-powered fog signal system at the station.

Click to view enlarged imageWithout the necessary funding, an alternate solution was identified. With plans to obsolete the bell tower at Tail Point and an appropriation in place to upgrade the automatic fog bell in Muskegon to a steam whistle, plans were formulated in 1899 to relocate these obsolete components to Escanaba for reuse at Sand Point. On the opening of navigation the following year, the Tail Point bell tower and Muskegon bell and striking apparatus were transported to Escanaba and reassembled on the outer end of Sand Point. The striking mechanism was adjusted to emit the announced repeated characteristic of a single strike every fifteen seconds, and officially placed into service on May 1, 1900.

The following year, a number of changes were instituted which were geared towards improving the safety of the station keeper. Metal handrails were installed in the tower to make ascending and descending the stairs easier, a free standing brick oil storage building was erected, the wooden sidewalks were upgraded to concrete and the kitchen sink and sewer pipes were replaced.

Click to view enlarged imageAs Escanaba continued to grow through the early 20th century, a reliable electrical supply was distributed throughout the city, and the light station was finally hooked up to the municipal electric supply in 1913. With this change, the kerosene lamp was removed from within the lens and replaced with an incandescent electric light on July 1, with an increase in output from 130 to 500 candlepower. With automation of the Squaw Point and Point Peninsula lighthouses, maintenance of these two lights became the responsibility of the Sand Point keeper. Needing a reliable boat for service visits to these lights, the keeper was provided a 3-horsepower gasoline powered launch. The boathouse from the Squaw Point light was transported across the ice in the winter of 1914 and re-erected at Sand Point for storage of the launch.

With the increasing size of vessels entering the harbor, mariners needed to maintain deeper water, and the decision was made to build a new tower on a crib a quarter of a mile offshore from the old light to better mark the limits of deep water. With the establishment of this new Escanaba Light in 1838, the old Sand Point Light was extinguished and rendered obsolete.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation’s aids to navigation in 1939, and needing housing for seamen assigned to Escanaba, the Coast Guard immediately set about converting the structure into housing. To this end, the roof was raised to create a full second floor, a number of window openings were made to increase the available light within the structure. Finally, as the ultimate insult to the old structure, the lantern room and gallery were removed, the upper ten feet of the tower was lopped-off, and the entire structure was covered in aluminum siding, completely disguising the noble heritage of the original structure. .

With the construction of new purpose-designed quarters in 1985, the Coast Guard determined that the station was no longer needed. Learning that the old structure was to be abandoned, the Delta County Historical Association obtained a 30-year lease on the property in 1986, and set about formulating a plan to undertake the daunting task of returning Sand Point to its original glory.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the original Lighthouse Board drawings serving as a guide, the Historical Society removed the aluminum siding in 1987 to expose the original brick and the framing of the added second floor. They then set about lowering the roof to its original level atop the brick walls, and over 1988 bricked-in the added windows and replaced the missing upper ten feet of the tower. The search was then on for a Fourth Order lantern to cap the tower. While a replica iron lantern could have been cast from scratch, it was identified that the original lantern from the Poverty Island tower had been sitting on the ground on the island since it had been removed in 1976. No longer serving any purpose, arrangements were made with the Coast Guard to transport the lantern to Escanaba, where it was cleaned and painted and installed atop the tower on a new gallery by the P&H Crane Company in 1989.

The Delta County Historical Society re-furnished all the rooms in the lighthouse to appear as they would have at the turn of the twentieth century, and proudly opened the lighthouse to the public in July of 1990.

Keepers of
this Light

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

Seeing this Light

The lighthouse museum is open Memorial Day through Labor Day, seven days a week from 1pm. to 9 p.m. For off-season tours write: Sand Point Lighthouse, P.O. Box 484, Escanaba, MI 49829 Or call: (906) 786-3763.

Directions: In Escanaba at the junction of US-2[US-41 and M-35, go east on Ludington St., under the arch crossing the road, approximately 1.7 miles to the lighthouse. The Delta County Historical Museum and Archives are both located immediately behind the lighthouse in former Coast Guard buildings.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1856 – 1909.
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, 1910 – 1924.
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1868 – 1939.
Annual report of the Lake Carriers Association, 1913.
Statutes at Large, 39th Congress, 1867.
Senate Journal, February 7, 1872.
History of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, 1883.
Long Ships Passing, Walter Havighurst, 1943.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of
Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 09/27/2004

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