Copper Harbor Light Seeing The Light

Copper Harbor, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

With the discovery of copper in the Keweenaw, immigrant Cornish and Finnish miners began flocking to the area to seek their fortunes and in the words of one pioneer "the shores of the Keweenaw became whitened with tents." Copper Harbor's natural harbor quickly assumed significance as a supply point for the miners, and with the influx of mining traffic the Federal Government established a Mineral Land Agency office in the harbor to better regulate the growing mining industry.

While Copper Harbor was both expansive and well protected, vessels entering the harbor were forced to find their way through a relatively narrow rocky opening. While great caution had to be exercised during optimum conditions, finding the natural harbor opening at night or during thick weather was a virtual impossibility. The maritime community began raising its voice to complain of the situation at Copper Harbor, and under the recommendation of Stephen Pleasonton who was responsible for the nation's lighthouses at the time, and on March 3, 1847 Congress appropriated $5,000 for the construction of a light at the harbor entrance.

The new station was erected on the rocky point to the east of the harbor opening by contractor Charles Rude, and consisted of a 48-foot tall rubble stone tower, which tapered from thirty feet in diameter at the base to 20 feet in diameter at the uppermost level. Capped with an octagonal lantern with a domed copper roof similar to that which can still be seen at Rock Harbor, a chandelier supporting an array of 13 Argand lamps with reflectors was erected within. By virtue of the tower's construction atop the elevated central ridge of the rocky peninsula, the lights sat at a focal plane of 65 feet. However, as a result of their inefficiency of the Argand lamps, the new Copper Harbor light was only visible for a distance of four miles in clear weather conditions.

A 1-story rubble stone dwelling was located on the harbor side of the rocky point close to the water's edge. The diminutive dwelling featured two rooms and a hallway on the first floor, two bedrooms on the second floor, and a small kitchen in a lean-to at the rear. While land access to the lighthouse was available around the eastern end of the harbor, water access to the growing village was faster, and a timber dock for the keepers boat was erected at the water's edge near the dwelling. Construction of the station was completed in 1848, however with the station's first keeper yet to be appointed, Charles Rude was forced to leave a watchman to tend the station until through the end of the navigation season. Henry Clow was finally appointed to the position of keeper of the Copper Harbor Light, and he arrived at the station on February 34, 1849, and took residence in the new dwelling along with his wife and two children.

By the early 1850's a cry arose in the maritime community, voicing concern over Pleasonton's tight-fisted administration of the nation's aids to navigation. A clerical administrator, Pleasonton had no maritime experience, and it showed-up in the sub standard workmanship and poorly chosen locations of many of the lighthouses erected under his administration. A study commissioned by Congress recommended the establishment of a nine-member Board to oversee the administration of aids to navigation. Staffed with Navy officers and Engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Lighthouse Board was established in 1852, relieving Pleasonton from any further involvement. One of the Board's first orders of priority was the upgrading of illumination systems from the dim and poorly performing Argand lamps to the far more efficient and powerful Fresnel lenses manufactured in Paris. However, with the Copper Harbor Light not being of major importance in the greater scheme of things, it would be some time before its lens would be upgraded, and thus the Argand lamps continued to light the way into the harbor.

Click to view enlarged imageThe lighthouse keeper's life was evidently not to Clow's liking, as he resigned from his position on August 5 1853, to be replaced by Henry C Shurter. Evidently Shurter was not much better suited to the keeper's life, as he was removed from the position and replaced by Napoleon Beedon on March 32, 1855.

In 1856, a work crew finally arrived in at the station and removed the Argand lamps from the lantern, and replaced them with a single fixed white Sixth Order Fresnel lens, thus increasing the station's range of visibility to ten miles at sea. Three years later, the Light was upgraded further through the replacement of the Sixth Order lens with a more powerful fixed white lens of the Fourth Order.

As was the case with virtually all of the lighthouses built on the Great Lakes during the Pleasonton administration, the true costs of inferior materials and shoddy workmanship began to show. After his 1864 visit to the station, the Eleventh District Inspector remarked that the Copper Harbor lighthouse required "extensive repairs." On subsequent investigation, the condition of the tower was determined to be beyond repair, and the following year the decision was made to raze the old tower and erect a completely new structure. With old Pleasonton-era stations needing replacement at both Marquette and Ontonagon, and new stations planned for Gull Rock, Huron and Granite Islands, the decision was made to build all six lights to the same plan. Specifying a simple brick two-story dwelling with a tower integrated into the center of one of the gable end walls, this design would eventually become known as the "schoolhouse" style, as a result of its similarity to the design of rural nineteenth century one room schoolhouses.

Click to view enlarged imageThe lighthouse tender HAZE returned to Copper Harbor in early 1866 and deposited a working crew and materials on lighthouse point to begin construction of the new main lighthouse. Work began with the demolishing of the old rubble stone tower, and excavating the foundation for the new structure. Under normal circumstances one would assume that the old tower would have been left standing until the new station was complete. However, an archeological survey conducted by the Michigan Technological University in 1994 showed that a large portion of the stone from the old tower was reused in building the foundation of the new building. Thus it is evident that the old tower must have been demolished first. What steps were put in place to allow the continued display of a light at the station for the time period between the demolishing of the old tower and the completion of the new structure are unrecorded. However, it is almost certain that some arrangement for the display of a temporary light would have been made.

Atop the rubble stone foundation, a team of masons erected a Cream City brick building, and its 42-foot tall tower capped with a square gallery with iron safety railing. A spiral cast iron stairway within the tower provided the only means of passing between the first and second floors in addition to providing access to the lantern. Centered atop the gallery, a decagonal prefabricated cast iron lantern was installed, and the Fourth Order lens from the old tower reassembled atop a cast iron pedestal at the center of the new lantern.

Click to view enlargd imageTwo years later in 1868, the Eleventh District Inspector reported that he found everything at the station to be in "good condition," with the exception of the water cistern, which was found to be leaking, which was repaired the following year. However, 1869 is more memorable as the year in which Napoleon Beedon resigned from lighthouse service after fourteen years as keeper of the Copper Harbor Light. John Power was selected to replace Beedon, arriving to take over the Light on September 1. As yet, we have been unable to determine the reason behind Napoleon Beedon's resignation. However, it is interesting to note that after fourteen years at Copper Harbor, lighthouse keeping was evidently in Beedon blood, as he would subsequently reenter lighthouse service and serve as keeper at Grand Island Harbor and at Au Sable Point before resigning a second time in 1879.

Click to view enlarged imageBy the 1880's, the mines in the eastern tip of the Keweenaw had all but closed, and with opening of the Portage Lake Ship Canal, many vessels were using the short cut it represented. Thus, the volume of maritime traffic both entering and passing Copper Harbor diminished. Ever watchful for an opportunity to reduce costs, the Lighthouse Board determined that two lights in the harbor were overkill. Since the range lights could be seen from outside the harbor, the Board decided that they could perform double duty as both range and as a coast lights, and decided to shut down the main light and eliminate the cost of operating the light. Thus, in 1884 the main light was extinguished, and the keeper of the Range Lights put in charge of the building and grounds.

Maritime interests quickly raised their voices to make the Board aware of the folly of the decision to close the Copper Harbor Light. Located deep within Copper Harbor as they were, the range lights were invisible until vessels were in front of the harbor entrance. After passing the Manitou and Gull Rock Lights, up-bound mariners now found themselves coasting blind along the treacherous Keweenaw shoreline until they were able to pick up the Eagle Harbor Light. After a number of protests were registered, the Lighthouse Board realized the errors of the decision, and ordered the reactivation of the Copper Harbor main light on February 17, 1888. A work crew arrived to prepare the station for reactivation that May, and with the arrival of Mr. Crump, the District Lampist, on May 22, work began on the installation of a new Fourth Order lens in the empty lantern.

Click to view enlarged imageHenry Corgan, who had lived for some time at the Copper Harbor Light while his father Charles was Keeper from 1873 through 1881, had followed in his father's footsteps, entering lighthouse service in 1868 as First Assistant at Manitou. While later serving as keeper at Point Peninsula, Corgan learned of the Board's plans to reactivate the Copper Harbor Light, and evidently having fond memories of the place, managed to convince District Inspector Commander Horace Elmer to reassign him as keeper at his father's old station.

With the renovation work close to completion, the light was reactivated on the night of June 1, 1888, and was tended by the work crew for five days until Henry Corgan arrived to take over the station on June 6.

Things were relatively uneventful at Copper Harbor over the next thirty years, with Corgan serving as the single keeper throughout the entire period. Little mention of the station is made in official government documents until 1893, when it was mentioned that Corgan built a small boathouse and a work crew arrived to lay 200 feet of sidewalk connecting the new boathouse to the lighthouse. Two years later, a new boat landing was erected, and a barbed-wire fence installed across the point to keep visitors off the property. 1907 saw the arrival of a crew to upgrade Corgan's diminutive boathouse with a more substantial structure and to erect a new stone-filled timber boat landing.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter the abolishment of the Lighthouse Board in 1909, and the transfer of responsibility for the nation's to the newly formed Lighthouse Service under the direction of George Putnam, major strides were taken to incorporate new technology throughout the system. With recent advances in acetylene lighting technology, and the reliable sun valve which could be used to automatically illuminate and extinguish the light at dusk and dawn, a move was on to automate a number of the nation's lighthouses, thereby eliminating the cost of keepers at the stations. To this end, an acetylene illumination system was installed within the Copper Harbor Fourth Order Fresnel lens on June 23, 1919, and the light's characteristic simultaneously changed to a white flash of 0.3-second duration followed by a 2.7-second eclipse. Emitting 750 candlepower, the new light was now visible from a distance of 15 miles at sea. No longer needed to tend the light, the 66-year old Corgan accepted a transfer to the St. Clair Flats South Ship Canal Light, leaving Copper Harbor for good.

Click to view enlarged imageOnly needing access to the tower to service the lens and acetylene system, the Lighthouse Service began leasing the lighthouse dwelling to private individuals as a summer cottage in 1927. With the tower stairs serving double duty as the only access to the second floor of the dwelling and to the lantern, it was difficult to maintain privacy for the tenants when crews arrived at the station to maintain the light. Thus, in 1933, the decision was made to erect a 62-foot high steel skeleton tower close to the site of the original 1848 tower. The Fresnel lens in the old lantern was a delicate assembly, and not intended to be installed in a location where it would be directly exposed to the elements. The Fourth Order lens was thus disassembled and shipped to the Detroit depot for storage, and the new steel tower capped with a 300-mm lens, which was plumbed into the acetylene system, which had been relocated from the old tower.

The Coast Guard, which had assumed responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation in 1939, decided that it no longer wished to serve as landlord at Copper Harbor, and placed the building and reservation up for sale in 1957. The State of Michigan purchased the buildings for $5,000, and incorporated them into the Fort Wilkins State Park. Restoration efforts began in the early 1970's, and the buildings were eventually opened-up as a museum in 1975. The main lighthouse has been restored to reflect its appearance at the turn of the twentieth century, and the original keepers dwelling has been converted into a museum, with exhibits showing aspects of daily life at the station.
Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Take US41 into Copper Harbor, and continue North through the village. You will find Fort Wilkins State Park on the right, and a parking area on the left. Park your vehicle in the parking area and walk to the lakeshore. The lighthouse can be seen across the bay.

For the best view of the light station, the Copper Harbor Lighthouse Ferry Service is the only way to go. Their boat leaves the municipal dock three times a day for an enjoyable 15-minute cruise across Copper Harbor, and ties up at the same dock used by the keepers many years ago.

After arriving at the dock, you join a Michigan Department of History staff member who provides an informative and comprehensive tour of the entire light station complex.

For more information on tour schedules and fees, click here to visit the Copper Harbor Lighthouse website, or telephone (906) 289-4966 for information. 

Contact information

Fort Wilkins State Park
East US-41
Copper Harbor, MI 49918
(906) 289-4215

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury 1848 & 1849
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board. Various - 1856 through 1907
Annual report of the Lake Carriers Association, Various - 1919 through 1937
Great Lakes Light Lists Various - 1849 through 2004
1858 & 1910 surveys of the Copper Harbor Lighthouse. USCG CD database
History & Archaeology of the First Copper Harbor Lighthouse. Barry James & Grant Day. 1995.
Copper Harbor Light Station, Mich. Plan showing location of original drawings. NARA RHL 704-679
History of the Great Lakes. Volume I . J. B. Mansfield. 1889
Adventures in the wilds of the United States and British American provinces." Charles Lanman. 1856.
The metallic wealth of the United States" Josiah Dwight Whitney. Pub. 1856.
Lake Superior. Grace Lee Nute. 1944
Copper Harbor lighthouse Michigan Department of Arts, Histories and Libraries website
Information contained on interpretive displays at the Copper Harbor lighthouse itself.

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

This page last updated 09/08/2005

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