Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Light Station Seeing The Light

Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin Home Back

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Historical Information

The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal was established as a profit making private enterprise. The canal having been operated and maintained by the "Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Canal and Harbor Company" since its completion in 1882. As such, the involvement of the Lighthouse Board in designing, funding, building and maintaining aids to navigation in conjunction with the canal was a somewhat tenuous relationship. However, recognizing the need for aids at the canal's Lake Michigan entrance, the Board had constructed both the Dunlap Reef Range Lights and the North Pierhead Lights for the opening of the canal in 1882.

As early as 1890 maritime interests led by Joseph Harris Sr., the editor of the Door County Advocate, had raised their voices calling for the construction of a brighter and taller shore-based light to augment the existing aids. Responding to the groundswell of public opinion, the Lighthouse Board petitioned Congress for the funds to construct a light near the keeper's dwelling in 1890.

With the Federal Government's purchase of the ship canal in 1893, authority for the canal was turned over to the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and stewardship of the Lights thus became the official responsibility of the Lighthouse Board. Concurrent with their approval of the canal's purchase, Congress also authorized the construction of a shore light. However, Congress did not follow-up with the $20,000 appropriation required for the project until March 1895. Although test borings were made at the site the following year, work did not actually begin on the tower until the lighthouse tender Amaranth docked in Sturgeon Bay with the necessary supplies for construction on May 13, 1898.

The design of the new light was new and unique. Designed to be both cost effective in materials and construction time, if successful it would likely become the new standard for shore-based stations.

Work began with the excavation and pouring of a huge twenty-nine foot square block of concrete with a depth of eight feet. At the center of this foundation, a seventy-eight foot tall double-walled steel cylinder, eight feet in diameter, was raised. Supported by eight latticed buttresses, the structure was secured to the concrete pad using two-inch diameter bolts some ninety inches in length, which had been cast deep into the concrete.

At the top of the cylinder a twelve foot diameter watch room was installed. The watch room was in turn capped by a cast iron lantern room approximately eighteen feet tall and eight feet wide. While most lantern rooms were multi-sided, this lantern room was circular in conformation, with specially curved glass custom manufactured for the application in France. The inclusion of diamond astragals gave the lantern room a unique and dignified appearance. While the lantern room was painted black, atypically, the entire structure was given a fresh coat of brown paint.

While the light was not scheduled for official display until the following shipping season, it was test lighted for the time in mid October 1898. With a brisk breeze blowing, it became immediately apparent that there was a serious problem, as the tower vibrated so violently that it effected the light's clockwork rotational mechanism.

After some study of the situation, Lighthouse officials believed that the installation of guy wires would eliminate the vibration. Thus, early that December, four six-foot square concrete blocks were sunk in the ground around the tower, and wires with turnbuckles were strung from eyebolts in the blocks to the tower cylinder a few feet below the watch room.

The rework was completed at the end of December and the light was tested once again. Unfortunately, the vibration problem had not been eliminated. Additionally, it was found that the warmth of the sun expanded the guy wires on one side of the tower, causing the tower to list in the opposite direction. When the turnbuckles were adjusted to straighten the structure, the vibration reappeared. Dismayed, the Lighthouse Engineers departed from Sturgeon Bay for the season, intent on identifying an improved solution.

While the vibration problem still unsolved, the light was officially placed into service on March 17, 1899, with the Third Order Fresnel lens exhibiting alternate red and white flashes. Almost immediately, complaints about the effectiveness of the light as a daymark were heard from the maritime community. The complaints indicated that during daylight hours, the reddish-brown color of the structure made it difficult to discern from the landscape behind. To rectify the situation, the tower was given a coat of white paint during the summer of 1900. While the tower thus became more visible, the vibration problem continued unabated, and the keepers continued to fight a battle to keep the clockworks operating at the prescribed speed of rotation. The district lampist was dispatched to the station, but despite his best efforts to adjust the mechanism, the vibration continued to play havoc with the clockworks.

During a 1902 review of the entire station complex, Lighthouse Board Engineers determined that the upper fastening of the guy wires, which had up to this point been attached to the central cylinder, should be relocated to the watch room, and workers effected the change. However it was to no avail as the structure continued to vibrate in the same manner as before the modification. Arriving at the conclusion that the basic design of the tower was flawed, and that continued attempts to solve the vibration problem through the use of guy wires were futile, the Engineers began to seek out a more comprehensive solution.

In the original design, the entire weight of the watch room and lantern room had been born by the single slim central cylinder. Determining that this top-heavy configuration itself was the root cause of the problem, the decision was made to install six steel legs around the central stair tube. Anchored at the base to an enlarged concrete pad, these legs would rise to attachment point at the underside of the watch room, thereby assuming the actual support of the watch and lantern rooms. Lattice buttressing and triangulated support members would then be added to connect the legs to the central cylinder, which under this arrangement would no longer serve as a direct support member, but merely as a casing to contain the spiral stairs.

The necessary components were designed and fabricated over the following winter, loaded onto a lighthouse tender, and shipped to Sturgeon Bay along with a construction crew early in 1903. Doubtless all involved were elated, since after completion of the modifications, it was found that the assembly was rock-solid, and more importantly, free of any vibration whatsoever. With a fresh coat of white paint, the tower and the entire station complex appeared very much the way it remains to this day.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We arrived at the east entry to the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal at around 8.00am, and once we figured out that the "PRIVATE PROPERTY - NO ACCESS" sign displayed at the station entrance did not relate to the driveway that runs clear through the center of the station, we made our way down the driveway to the Canal Station light tower.

Finding this Light

Take Hwy 42/57 north across the Ship Canal. Immediately after crossing the Canal, look for Utah St on your right. Turn east on Utah. Follow the signs to the USCG Station. When you reach the Coast Guard Station, there is a parking area on your right.

Park here, and walk into the Coast Guard Station. The signage is very confusing, and it may appear to you that when you enter the station, that you are violating the law. Rest assured, that there is a path leading from the front gate to the pier, and the public is welcome to use this path to gain access. You will see the Canal Station light ahead.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 

Wisconsin Lighthouses, A photographic & Historical Guide, Ken & Barb Wardius, 2000
Keepers of the Lights, Steven Karges, 2000
Lighthouses and Range Lights of Door County, Peter Bosman, 2000
Wisconsin Handbook, Thomas Huhti, 1997
Door County Maritime Museum, Sturgeon Bay Lights page, website
Personal observations at Sturgeon Bay on 09/13/2000
Photographs from the author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

Click to view Sturgeon Bay weather conditions

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This page last modified 12/07/2003