Waugoshance Shoal Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Off Waugoshance Point, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

After a number of groundings in the early 1820's, mariners began petitioning the Federal Government to construct an aid to navigation on Waugoshance Shoal. While the construction of underwater cribs had been attempted with success on the East Coast, the relatively short shipping seasons and thick winter ice of northern Lake Michigan appeared to make such an undertaking a daunting challenge.

As an interim measure, the wooden vessel LOIS MCLANE, which had been converted into a lightship, was placed on Waugoshance Shoal in 1832, thus taking her place in history as the first lighthouse to serve on all the Great Lakes.

In 1850, the decision was made to construct a more permanent light on the shoal, and work began with the construction of a timber crib on St. Helena Island. The crib was then towed to Waugoshance and sunk in place through the addition of large rocks. A cofferdam was then constructed around the crib, and the water pumped out, exposing the surface of the shoal. Cement was then applied to the surface of the shoal in order to create a smooth, flat base on which to build. Pre-dressed limestone slabs, each weighing close to twelve tons were set on the cement foundation, and bolted to the cement and each other. Finally, a circle of solid masonry was laid, enlarging the crib to a size of forty-eight by sixty-six feet.

Click to view enlarged imageAtop this crib, the brick tower rose to a height of seventy-six feet. Twenty feet in diameter at the base, with walls five feet in thickness, the tower tapered to a diameter of twelve feet at its uppermost, at which point the walls tapered to two feet in thickness. At its completion in 1851, the tower was crowned with a large "bird cage" style lantern room, one of only three lighthouses to be equipped with this style of lantern room in all of the Great Lakes. The lantern was equipped with the first Fourth Order Fresnel lens to be installed in any Great Lakes lighthouse. Displaying a fixed white light, varied by a white flash every 45 seconds, the light impressive French optic was visible to mariners at a distance of sixteen miles.

Exposed as it was to the full fury of Lake Michigan and to the great breaking fields of ice every spring, the crib began to deteriorate. Reacting to this deterioration in 1865, the Lighthouse Board appropriated the funds required to make the repairs necessary to ensure the station's continued structural integrity, and quickly completed the work.

While the repairs of 1865 were considerable in their scope, they were no match for the relentless fury of the lake, and by the late 1880's the crib and the soft brick of the tower had once again deteriorated to the point where major repairs were needed.

In order to effect the most nearly permanent repair possible with the technology available, the decision was made encase the entire structure in 3/8" thick boiler plate, riveted together, and leaving sufficient space between the iron and the masonry for filling with a layer of concrete. Bids were let for the contract on July 1, 1883, Buhl Iron Works Company of Detroit was the lowest bidder at $23,000, and was thus awarded the contract for the work.

Click to view enlarged imageMeasurements were taken of the entire Waugoshance structure, and each piece of the iron armor was custom bent and punched at the Buhl shops. By the time the components were ready for shipment to the site, over 24,000 rivet holes had been punched in the form-fitting iron skin. All-told, 136,000 pounds of iron, 120 barrels of Portland cement, 350 barrels of sand, 20,000 bricks, fifty barrels of lime, two forty-two foot long boilers, two fog signal engines, and all the hardware and supplies for the crew were loaded-up on vessels and shipped to the site.

Click to view enlarged image Inclement weather hampered the entire project, and every blow made working on the precarious scaffolds erected around the structure extremely dangerous, and drove the crew from the site to take refuge in Mackinaw City. A two-week period went by when vessels were unable to approach the work site, and without the necessary supplies, the work ground to a halt. Sickness was rampant on the pier, and many of the crew had to be taken off and replaced. Amazingly, against such odds work was completed in early October, with the painting of alternating horizontal red and white bends to increase the station's effectiveness as a daymark, and the project was completed three weeks ahead of schedule.

By the end of the 1880's the size of the vessels plying the Great Lakes was increasing. These larger vessels, drawing more water, began entering the Straits of Mackinac at a point approximately four miles further North, in an area of deeper water. The White Shoal reef sat perilously close to this new passage, and in 1878, the Chicago Lumbering Company stationed an old derelict vessel over White Shoal to warn mariners of the danger lurking a few feet beneath the waves.

Pounded by waves and the annual freeze-thaw cycle, by the early 1890's the crib and pier supporting the Waugoshance light was deteriorating rapidly, and with the tower in imminent danger of toppling, the Lighthouse Board requested funding from Congress to completely rebuild and enlarge the pier. Congress responded favorably, and on May 4, 1896 the lighthouse tender WARRINGTON, unloaded a working party and materials at St. Helena Island, which was to serve as the base of operations for the project. A work camp, storage area, docks and a stone-crusher were quickly established, and preparations began.

The WARRINGTON delivered the work party to the shoal on May 21, and work on the shoal began in earnest. through May, 27,000 board feet of old lumber framing timber and 33 cords of stone was removed from the old crib and pier. In June 155,000 board feet of old  timber were removed, and 1,712 feet of new timber installed. Over the summer, the steel casings for the new enlarged pier were set up, and 205 cords of ballast stone were poured into the structure, and 65 yards of concrete were poured. Unfortunately, over most of the summer, many weeks were lost while the tender and work crew waited-out passing storms back at camp on St. Helena. Click to view enlarged image Finally, on October 10, the work was completed, and the crews left Waugoshance to the keepers and the birds. 

In October 1891 the Lighthouse Board stationed Lightship LV56 on White Shoal. Built earlier that year by the Blythe-Craig Shipbuilding Company in Toledo, she was one of three identical vessels commissioned in that year to serve in the area of the Straits.

Click to view enlarged imageThe massive work of 1896 was not to be long lived, as the tender Alice M. Gill arrived at the shoal in 1902, and assisted a working party in the the reconstruction of the west corner of the protecting pier, which had begun deteriorating significantly. In an attempt to protect the pier from the destructive force of the waves, this corner of the pier was filled-in with concrete and ballast stone, and faced with 3/8" iron plating.

As a result of the ferocity of spring and fall storms, the viable working season for lightships was a few months shorter than that of lighthouses. Thus, in order to provide maximum protection in the area, the decision was made to establish a permanent light station on White Shoal, and construction was begun in 1908 and completed in 1910.

With the commissioning of the larger and more powerful White Shoals light a few miles to the north, Waugoshance Light became redundant, and was thus decommissioned in 1912.

The Waugoshance Light sat undisturbed by all but the forces of nature until the early 1940s, when with the breakout of World War II, hotshot flyboys decided that the old lighthouse would make a perfect target for bombing practice during their military pilot training. Apparently a number of missiles hit their target, as a massive fire broke out on the structure, completely gutting the interior of the tower and keepers dwelling of anything combustible.

Click to view enlarged imageIn early 1983, the bullet-riddled boilerplate shell began to peel from the structure, once again exposing the soft brick to the elements. Over the intervening years, the entire casing has fallen into the lake. Anything of value remaining after the strafing exercises has been either removed or destroyed by vandals. The copper roof of the birdcage lantern is long-gone. Even the heavy cast iron stairs within the tower having been taken by some enterprising lawbreaker with no respect for history. In a perverse sense, the removal of the stairs has turned out to be somewhat of a blessing, for without the stairs, nobody has yet been able to scale the tower and destroy what remains of the lantern room.

This same year, the Coast Guard surveyed the structure, and recommended that it be declared surplus and demolished in order to prevent injury. 

Click to view enlarged imageIn 2000, the Waugoshance Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed, with it's charter being the eventual complete restoration of the structure. The Coast Guard has authorized the W.L.P.S to raise the funds to secure the presently standing structure while a long term lease is drawn up, giving the Society temporary ownership, for the restoration process. The Society has a huge task ahead of it, and will need all of the help they can get in order to successfully carry off the restoration.

Meanwhile, Waugoshance Light silently waits, guarding the shoal as it has for almost one hundred and fifty years. While obviously bedraggled and sickly, the pride of this once majestic structure can still be sensed.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We do not expect to have access to a seaworthy vessel until 2002, and thus will likely not be able to visit this light until then.

Finding this Light

Sheplers Ferry Service out of Mackinaw City offers a number of lighthouse cruises during the summer season. Their "Westward Tour" includes passes by White Shoal, Grays Reef, Waugoshance and St. Helena Island. For schedules and rates for this tour, visit their website at: www.sheplerswww.com or contact them at:

PO Box 250
Mackinaw City, MI 49701
Phone (800) 828-6157

Contact information

The Waugoshance Lighthouse Preservation Society maintains a website chronicling their goals, needs and current activities at www.waugoshance.org They can also be contacted at the following address:

Waugoshance Lighthouse 
Preservation Society
P.O. BOX 1061
Mackinaw City, MI 49701

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1859 - 1912
Inventory of Historic Light Stations
, National Parks Service, 1994
Lighthouse Board Annual Reports - 1890 though 1912
Detroit Free Press, Arrival of the last of the working party in Detroit, 10/13/1883
Great Lakes Cruiser magazine, Jack Edwards, 10/1994
Photographs courtesy of Jeff Cronk & Chris West.
Great Lakes Coast Pilot, NOAA, 1999
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 08/13/2005

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