Seul Choix Pointe Light Seeing The Light

Gulliver, Michigan

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Historical Information

At the dawn of the 1880’s, the volume of maritime traffic passing between harbors on the western shore of Lake Michigan and Green Bay and the Straits of Mackinac exploded. While the St. Helena Island light station lighted the eastern entry into the Straits, mariners were forced to navigate blind along 100 miles of unlighted upper peninsula coastline before the Poverty Island light came into view at the western end of the passage. With treacherous storms frequent at both ends of the navigation season, mariners frequently chose to ride out such storms in the lee of points protruding into the lake along this 100-mile stretch of unlighted shoreline.

Seeking to both make identification of such a refuge easier, and to mark the shore at an interim point between the two existing lights, the Lighthouse Board recommended that establishment of a light station on the end of Point Patterson, approximately midway between St. Helena Island and Manistique. Unable to determine the need for such a light, Congress referred the matter to the Commerce Committee for evaluation, with the Committee returning a favorable report on February 15, 1882. A bill appropriating $15,000 for the station’s construction passed through the Senate on May 4, 1882, however the bill failed to pass on a vote in the House, and the matter was dropped. In reconsideration its recommendation, the Lighthouse Board determined that Seul Choix Pointe, approximately 20 miles to the west of Point Patterson actually represented a better location for the light, and submitted a request for funding of a light in the revised location in its 1885 annual report. Evidently this time Congress concurred with the need for the station, as a $15,000 appropriation for establishing the new station passed both houses on August 4, 1886.

A survey of Seul Choix Pointe was conducted late that year, and a 6.1-acre site at the southernmost end of the Point selected for the station, and negotiations for its purchase undertaken with Archibald Newton, the owner of the property. Newton and his two brothers had early attained financial success as fishermen in northern Lake Michigan, establishing a booming town around the natural bay on the eastern shore of St. Helena Island. Archibald had attained local fame in 1856, when under his leadership a fleet of vessels sailed from St. Helena to Beaver Island to drive out the followers of renegade Mormon "King" James Jesse Strang after his assassination by a couple of his disgruntled flock. Over the ensuing years, the Newtons spread their fishing operations westward along the north shore all the way to Seul Choix, and operated a fleet of schooners out of St. Helena which trading goods for fish with fishermen throughout the northern end of the lake. While Newton was universally recognized as the landowner of virtually all of Seul Choix Pointe, proving clear title to the surveyed property was less than a simple task, with previous inconsistencies in title documents preventing transfer of title to the Federal government until June 17, 1889.

Click to view enlarged imageIn the meantime, plans and specifications for construction of the station buildings and mechanical systems had been completed and approved, and with clear title in hand, bids for construction could be advertised. However, with the closest bid coming in at more than $3,000 beyond the limits of the appropriation, a second round of bids were sought in the hope that some contractor would be willing to do the work for less. When this second group of bids came in similarly beyond the appropriated amount, the Board had no alternative but to request an additional $3,500 appropriation for the work in its 1890 annual report. Realizing the important role this light would play to mariners, the decision was also made to seek funding for the establishment of a first-class fog signal at the station, and a request for a separate appropriation of $5,500 for its construction asked in that same report.

On August 29, 1891, the lighthouse tender WARRINGTON departed from the Detroit Depot bound for Seul Choix Pointe loaded with building materials and a construction crew under the direction of Ninth District construction superintendent Todd. Expectations were high that the work would be carried far enough by the end of the year that the light would be exhibited at the opening of the 1892 navigation season. However, on arrival at the site it quickly became evident that the plan to use rubble stone from the area in building the dwelling cellar was impossible, as the local stone was found to be altogether too soft and flaky for the intended purpose. As a result, construction was virtually halted while the crew waited for a shipment of cement and aggregate from which to construct the cellar walls. To exacerbate the problem, the fall of 1891 was particularly stormy, again bringing construction to a halt on numerous occasions. With the dwelling barely complete, and the masonry of the tower laid only to a height of 20 feet, it became clear that there was no way the work would be brought anywhere close to completion that year.

In order to ensure that a light would be exhibited on the opening of the 1892 navigation season in accordance with the terms of the appropriation, Ninth District Engineer Major William Ludlow authorized the erection of a temporary beacon on the point at a cost of $850. Consisting of an open frame timber structure with diagonal bracing, the upper part was enclosed to create a service room, and a place to work on the light during inclement weather. Within the cast iron lantern atop the service room, a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens was installed 47 feet above the ground, and at a focal plane of 56 feet above lake level, making the light visible for a distance of 15 miles in clear weather. Work on the beacon was completed just in time as the onset of a particularly bitter winter put an end to construction on the point on November 16, and the work crew left for the season. Captain Joseph Fountain, who was serving as keeper of the Beaver Island Harbor Light was selected as the keeper of the new Seul Choix Pointe light on January 23, and he exhibited the light for the temporary tower on the opening of the 1892 navigation season.

Click to view enlarged imageColonel Orlando M. Poe took over for Ludlow as Chief Engineer of the Ninth Lighthouse District on June 22, 1892 to discover that he had inherited a veritable rat’s nest at Seul Choix. A combination of poor planning and shoddy accounting practices were pushing costs far beyond the amount of the original appropriation. As if the additional costs of purchasing and shipping concrete, erecting the temporary beacon, and lost labor awaiting materials and sitting out bad weather weren’t enough, it was discovered that a serious accounting error had been made. The costs of the camp outfit, tools and other equipment used in construction had been charged directly to the Seul Choix appropriation, when they should have been charged to the general fund, as they would remain usable in other projects after the construction at Seul Choix was complete. As a result, Poe called a halt to construction, and recommended an additional appropriation of $5,500 to cover the shortfall in the Lighthouse Board’s 1892 annual report, along with a repeated request for the $5,500 appropriation for establishing the fog signal at the point.

With funding still unforthcoming in the summer of 1893, an inspection of the construction site indicated that there had been significant deterioration of the partially erected structures since construction was halted the prior year. Much of work already done was significantly damaged that it needed to be torn down and started over, significantly adding to the costs Poe allowed for in his 1892 request for additional funding. Moreover, the passage of the 8-hour labor law early in 1893 made it inevitable that labor costs would increase dramatically on the resumption of construction, as lighthouse crews had historically toiled from dawn to dusk, a practice which the act eliminated.

Unfortunately, Poe was faced with requesting more funds at the most inopportune period in decades. Earlier that year, the Reading Railroad went into receivership, with a number of other smaller railroads falling in its wake. The situation was quickly exacerbated by the failures of hundreds of banks and businesses that depended upon the railroads. The stock market reacted with a dramatic plunge, European investors pulled their funds out of US markets, and the US economy spiraled into a four year Depression. With plummeting tax revenues, Congress was hard pressed to make ends meet, and the problems associated with building a lighthouse on an far off point in Lake Michigan with a French name that nobody could pronounce was inevitably pushed to the bottom of the pile.

Click to view enlarged imgageWith funding thus unlikely, Poe conducted an analysis of all funded projects in the district to identify if there were any unexpended appropriations which could be reassigned to allow the completion of work at Seul Choix Pointe, which had now been sitting in a decaying state for two years. A likely candidate was identified in the St. Mary’s River, where a $5,000 appropriation for relocating the Upper Range lights had been made on August 5, 1892, but the work had yet to be started. Determining the completion of the station at Seul Choix to be more critical to maritime commerce relocating the range, Poe suggested to the Board that permission be obtained to redirect the $5,000 appropriation to Seul Choix, and concurring with the determination the Lighthouse Board recommended that action to Congress in its annual report for 1894. Since the solution required no additional funding, Congress approved the funding reallocation in the Sundry Civil Appropriation Act of August 18, 1894, and also included an appropriation of $2,200 for beginning construction of the fog signal building.

Click to view enlareged imageRevised estimates for completing the tower and dwelling were formulated over the winter of 1894, and bids for the materials needed for the completion of the work were advertised on March 9, 1895. The materials and working party were loaded aboard the Lighthouse tender AMARANTH, and delivered to Seul Choix on the opening of the 1895 navigation season. Work at the point was renewed at a feverish pace, and by the end of June significant progress had been made. The dwelling had been completely re-plastered, an oil house was completed, the tower had been raised to a height of 56’ 4", construction of the boathouse was nearly complete, masons were cutting limestone arches for the upper tower windows, and the cast iron stairs had been installed in the tower to the third platform level. Additionally, the brick fog signal building had been completed, and the brick foundations for the duplicate steam boilers completed and awaiting delivery of the boilers and associated piping. With construction nearing completion at the end of July, the magnificence of the station’s design was evident.

The duplex dwelling consisted of a red brick structure on a stone foundation with ashlar limestone above grade to reduce deterioration of the brick. All trim work was painted in a buff color, and the roof capped with red metal shingles. The interior of the building was laid out with four rooms in each apartment, 5 closets a pantry, drawing room and a vestibule at each entry.

Click to view enlarged imageAttached to the dwelling by a covered way, the white painted brick tower stood 18’ in diameter immediately above the foundation, and gracefully tapered to a diameter of 12’ 4" in diameter beneath the gallery. Of double-walled design, the outer wall stood 20"in thickness at the base and tapered to 17" in thickness at the gallery. The 8’ diameter inner wall stood 9" in thickness, with the two walls separated by an air space tapering from 29" at the base to 9" at the gallery, with radial buttresses between the two walls to anchor them together. 86 cast iron spiral stairs wound their way vertically within the inner cylinder, passing through 2 landings and leading to a hinged scuttle in the iron watch room floor. Four arched windows with carved limestone lintels were located on the compass points in the watch room, and provided an excellent view of the lake.

Click to view enlarged imageAbove the watch room, the gallery was supported by sixteen carved limestone corbels, and surrounded by a delicate but sturdy iron railing. Atop the service room, the decagonal third order lantern stood 8 feet in diameter, and featured nine ¼" thick glass plates, each 31 ¼" wide by 69 ¾" in height, and was surmounted by a copper roof with a zinc inner lining. The fixed white Third Order Fresnel lens was installed atop a sturdy cast iron pedestal, which rose from the floor of the service room into the lantern, placing the lens at a focal plane of 79 feet above mean lake level. Manufactured by Henry-Lepaute of Paris, the lens incorporated a lower catadioptric belt of 4 prisms, a dioptric center drum of 13 elements, and an upper catadioptric belt of 11 prisms. Illuminated with a state of the art kerosene fueled 3-wick Funck Heap lamp with lamp plunger and float chamber, the lens was designed to be visible from a distance of seventeen miles at sea in clear weather conditions.

A series of plank walkways connected the dwelling to a brick oil house, a brick privy, a wood frame boathouse and the 34’ by 20’ brick fog signal building standing 108 feet southeast of the tower. To provide steam for the single tone 10" steam whistle mounted above the roof, a pair of locomotive-style boilers manufactured by the Miami Valley Boiler Company of Dayton, Ohio sat on brick foundations within the building. Operating at a pressure of 80 pounds per square inch, the whistles were sequenced to emit the station characteristic single blast of four second followed by 26 seconds of silence by a Crosby automatic timing device, tripped by 3 cams on each cylinder.

Click to view enlarged imageWork on the station was complete in August, and the fog signal placed into operation on September 10, 1895. With the exhibition of the Third Order lens for the first time on the night of August 15, the temporary timber skeleton tower was disassembled and the components shipped to the depot for storage. The fog signal was evidently a useful addition to navigation as keeper Fountain and Assistant Patrick McCauley fed 51 tons of coal and 3 cords of wood into the hungry boilers in order to keep the whistle screaming a station high 573 hours during the 1896 navigation season. Realizing that managing a first-class light station and such a busy fog signal was more than a two-man crew could handle efficiently, the decision was made to add a Second Assistant to the station’s roster. Without quarters for the additional keeper, the Second Assistant likely moved in with the First Assistant, which likely made for less than desirable living conditions for both.

Life at Seul Choix settled into a basic routine until 1901, when a work crew arrived at the station to install a second iron floor in the upper portion of the tower to form a watch room and a second oil storage building was erected. The following year, the twin iron chimneys on the fog signal building were demolished and replaced by a single brick chimney into which both boilers were plumbed. Responding to the cramped living conditions for the assistants, the station barn was relocated next to the main dwelling and converted into a dwelling for the 2nd Assistant in 1907.

With the arrival of electricity at the station in1925, the dwelling, outbuildings and the light itself were electrified and the steam boilers and whistles removed from the fog signal building and replaced by a two-tone diaphone. Also this year, the dwelling was modified through the addition of a wing which provided more suitable accommodations for the Second Assistant. No longer serving any purpose as a dwelling, the old converted barn was sold into private ownership, and its new owners moved it to the shore of one of the nearby lakes where it served as a summer cottage.

With the assumption of responsibility for the aids of navigation transferred to the Coast Guard in 1939, three-man crews of seamen began tending the station. In 1972, the station was finally automated through the installation of a single DCB-224 aero beacon with a characteristic white flash every six seconds, which like the fixed Third Order lens it replaced, was visible for a distance of 17 miles in clear weather conditions. The following year, the Coast Guard closed up the station, leaving the light to operate on an unmanned basis.

Click to view enlarged imageNo longer serving any government purpose, the station buildings were sold to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to serve as a park on June 20, 1977. After sitting untended for ten years, with the exception of infrequent visits by Coast Guard AtoN crews to undertake scheduled maintenance on the aero beacon, the buildings started to deteriorate rapidly. Realizing the historical significance the station represented, a group of concerned local citizens banded together to form the Gulliver Historical Society on October 8, 1987, with their primary charter being the restoration and preservation of the station and its history. As part of this process, the Historical Society was successful in having the station listed on the National Historic Register on August 8. 1988. After obtaining a Michigan Equity Grant the following year, the Historical Society proudly opened the station to the public at a grand opening celebration on August 6, 1989.

Over the ensuing years, as a result of numerous private donations and successful grant writing campaigns, the dwelling was restored and re-furnished in time for the station’s centennial in 1995.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

From the junction of US-2 and County Rd. 432 in Gulliver, about 11 miles east of Manistique, go south on CR-432 (Port Inland Rd ) about 4 miles to County Rd. 431. Turn West onto CR-431, a gravel road which will take you the four miles to the lighthouse. The museum opens from 10am to 6pm daily from Memorial Day through mid September.

Contact information

For more information on visiting this Light Station, contact:
Seul Choix Lighthouse & Museum
672N W Gulliver Lake Road
Gulliver Mi 49840-9032
(906) 283-3169


Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1885 – 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various, 1910 – 1929
Form 40 survey of the station, Francis Otter, District Draftsman, 1909
Notice to Mariners, August 8, 1895
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1892 – 1995
Detroit Free Press, May 13 & August 29, 1891
Lake Carriers Association annual reports, 1915 & 1925

Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research


This page last modified 02/24/2008

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