Eagle Harbor Range Lights Seeing The Light

Eagle Harbor, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

The village of Eagle Harbor sits on the western edge of a small bay some sixteen miles west of Copper Harbor, and first gained significance when Edward Taylor constructed a pier in the bay in 1844. A rocky shallow bar stretching across the mouth of the bay made entry into the harbor extremely treacherous, as vessels were forced to "thread the needle" through a narrow area in the bar, which was the only area where the water deepened, and even then only to a depth of under ten feet.

To assist vessels in locating the narrow opening in the bar, local mariners quickly installed a day range on the shore. While no record of the appearance or construction of this private range has survived, it likely consisted of two white wooden poles or skeletal towers placed on shore in a direct line with the opening in the bar. From a safe distance beyond the bar, mariners would move parallel to the shore to a point at which the two ranges lined-up one behind the other. Keeping the ranges thus aligned as they turned shoreward and entered the harbor  put them on a course safely through the opening. Since these ranges were unlighted, they only served their purpose during daylight hours, and vessels wishing to enter the harbor at night were forced to wait offshore until sunrise or chance breaking up on the rocks of the bar.

In the annual inspection of the area in 1863, the Lighthouse Board Inspector noted that a similar day range had been installed by private interests in Copper Harbor, and that both locations would benefit by the installation of lighted ranges to facilitate safe entry at all times of day. While it was further noted that of the two locations the need was most pressing at Eagle Harbor, no action was taken by the Board towards seeking the necessary funding, since the majority of Federal Government's funds being diverted to support the Civil War.

The Civil War behind them, the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers dispatched an officer to Eagle Harbor to supervise a project of harbor improvement in 1866. With a plan to enlarge the opening in the bar to a width of 130 feet and a depth of 14 feet, the resulting improvement opened the harbor to the largest vessels of the day, allowing it to serve as one of a chain of harbors of refuge planned for Superior's south shore.

With the exact location of the enlarged channel known in 1873, the engineer in charge suggested that the time was right for the construction of the range lights, and the Lighthouse Board in turn recommended their construction in its annual report for that year.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress responded favorably with an appropriation of $8,000 on March 3, 1875, and the District Inspector visited Eagle Harbor to negotiate for the purchase of the necessary land for the station on a location close to the mouth of the Cedar River. While the site selected was low and swampy, it was predicated by the location of the new channel. As was frequently the case, title to the land was not quickly obtained, and it was not until the spring of 1877 that a clear title was finally obtained. Construction of the ranges began immediately, just as work on opening the new channel through the bar was completed.

The plan drawn up for the Eagle Harbor range lights was a new design, but ended-up being duplicated at Copper Harbor in 1869, and at Presque Isle and Baileys Harbor in 1870. The rear range was a two-story wood frame keeper's dwelling with a small wooden lantern on the peak at the end of the roof facing the lake. The first floor contained a kitchen, living room and a bedroom, and the second floor one large bedroom. A wooden staircase connected the two floors and continued into the lantern, which was equipped with a tubular tin lamp atop a small cast iron pedestal. The lantern was lined with copper sheeting as a protection against fire, and shelves were built into the walls to hold wicks and other supplies.

Click to view enlarged imageThe front range consisted of a small 25-foot tall wooden structure, the lower section being square in plan, with the upper half octagonal, capped with an iron roof with round ventilator ball. A set of wooden stairs lead to a floor located at the point at which the building became octagonal, with a tubular tin lamp similar to that in the rear range mounted on a small cast iron pedestal centered on this floor. A window on the lake side of the structure limited the visibility of the light to a small arc out in the lake, to ensure that it was not visible until it was close to being lined-up below the light in the rear range. A second, smaller window was located on the opposite side, and was installed to allow the keeper to verify that the front range light was working from within the comfort of the rear range dwelling.

Click to view enlarged imageGeorge Howard was appointed as the station's first keeper, and reported for duty at the station on August 11, 1877. With work on the station complete, Howard officially exhibited the Eagle Harbor Range Lights for the first time on the evening of September 20, 1877.

In order to better mark the location of the channel through the bar, two huge pine lumber cribs were constructed on the ice at each side of the opening during the winter of 1878. Filled with rock blasted from an area onshore, the ice was subsequently cut away around the cribs, and they were lowered to the bottom.

Click to view enlarged imageBy virtue of the station's location, the area was evidently frequently soggy, if not covered with water. To help combat the rot that accompanies such dampness, the rear range building was elevated two feet above its foundation in 1884, and new foundation walls and a cellar were constructed beneath. 1894 saw the replacement of the old tin lanterns with newer lens lanterns, and the following year 1,000 feet of plank walk, elevated two feet off the ground, was installed to allow movement between the two structures without having to wade through the seemingly ever present standing water and mud.

Evidently the foundation modifications undertaken in 1884 were insufficient, as the rear range building was elevated a further two feet in 1901. The cellar floor was raised two feet and a new concrete cellar floor was poured. A two-story barn was built to the rear of the dwelling, and considerable re-grading was undertaken to allow the water to drain in the area of the walkway between the front and rear ranges.

Click to view enlarged imageUnfortunately, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, vessel traffic in and out of Eagle Harbor had dwindled significantly, with the lighthouse tenders being virtually the only large vessels entering the harbor. As a result, it was determined that the range lights no longer served their former vital function, and they were exhibited for the last time at the close of the 1911 season of navigation. Their only eulogy being an ignominious entry in a listing of "stations which were discontinued during the fiscal year" in the 1912 annual report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses.

Click to view enlarged imageNo longer serving any official purpose, the rear range dwelling was offered for sale at auction in 1930, with the stipulation that it would have to be moved from its existing site. Detroit resident Gertrude Rowe entered a bid of $400 for the structure, with the intention of moving it to her property across Highway 26 to serve as a summer cottage. Being the highest bidder, she arranged to pay the County Road Commission to use one of their large tractors to make the move. Waiting until the winter of 1932, when the ground would be frozen and the going easier, the tractor hitched up to the wheeled platform which had been placed beneath the structure, and the move was underway. Unfortunately, the wet conditions around the building reared their ugly head once again, as the tractor became mired in the mud beneath the snow. A second County tractor was dispatched to the site, and freed the first, whereupon the dwelling slowly made its way across the road to its new home.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile it is not known what became of the front range light, the rear range still serves as a summer cottage for Gertrudes' son Dr. Robert Rowe and his family, and is locally known as the "Tower and Lantern" cottage.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the range lights were replaced with a pair of simple steel poles with red and white daymarks and modern acrylic optics, which still serve to guide pleasure boaters making their way into Eagle Harbor. Although most visitors likely have no idea as to its original purpose, the old brick oil storage building still stands sentinel duty close to the new front range light. The lone reminder of a different time, and of faithful keepers long since departed.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Located round the bay to the east of the village of Eagle Harbor at the entrance to Cedar Creek. Keep an eye out for the old oil storage building.

Contact information

Eagle Harbor Light Station Museum Complex
Star Route 1
Eagle Harbor, MI 49951
(906) 337-1263

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1863 - 1901
Annual reports of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, 1909 -1912
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1877 through 1995
History of Eagle Harbor, Michigan, Clarence J. Monette, 1977
History of the Great Lakes, J. H. Beers Co, 1899
Original prints of lighthouses in the Michigan State Archives.
Historical photographs courtesy of the Robert F. King & Doctor Rowe Collections.
Email from George Hite, 10/15/00
Thanks to the Rowe family for allowing us to photograph their historic cottage in September 2004.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 09/30/2004

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