Eagle River Light Seeing The Light

Eagle River, Michigan Home Back

Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged image
Click thumbnails to view enlarged versions

Historical Information

With the bonanza strike of Cliff Lode in 1845, Eagle River suddenly found itself a bustling port. Outfitted with a huge new dock, a good road, stamp mills, warehouses, and streets lined solidly with boarding houses, saloons and miner's homes, Eagle River found itself well on the way to supplanting Copper Harbor as the Keweenaw's biggest boom town.

To guide maritime traffic into this busy harbor, Congress appropriated $6,500 for the construction of a light at Eagle River on September 28, 1850, and while a site for the station was selected that year, it took until the Michigan Legislature's 1853 session to obtain a clear title to the site, allowing work to commence.

While Lighthouse Board records indicate that the contractor was actively working at the site in 1855, construction was not completed until 1857. The contractor's work was evidently poor, since the District Inspector refused acceptance of the station due to it's not being constructed "in conformity to the terms of the contract." While the exact nature of the deficiencies were undefined, the contractor evidently undertook the appropriate modifications, since the Inspector subsequently accepted the structure after a second inspection.

Click to view enlarged imageSituated on the edge of a sand bluff on the west bank of the river, the station consisted of one-and-a-half story yellow brick keeper's dwelling with a twelve-foot square brick tower incorporated into its northeast corner. Although the tower stood only twenty-four feet in height, it's location on the bluff provided the station's fixed white Sixth Order Fresnel lens with a focal plane of 61 feet, allowing the light to be seen from a distance of ten nautical miles.

Evidently, the original concern for the station's construction were well-founded, as in 1867 large cracks were found to have developed at the base of the tower. When these cracks enlarged noticeably over the following winter, the District Inspector reported that the entire structure was in danger of collapse, and needed immediate repair or replacement. Congress appropriated $14,000 for the station's replacement on March 3, 1869, and while plans were put in place for the station's replacement the following year, the project was canceled when the appropriated funds were recalled by a financially strapped Congress on July 12, 1870.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile the Lighthouse Board reiterated its case for the funds to replace the deteriorating station in its annual report for that year, it would appear that its pleas fell on deaf ears, and without the necessary funds, only minor "patch and repair" work could be conducted over the following decade.

With every boom, there is an inevitable bust, and Eagle River was no exception. Reacting to rapidly declining copper prices, the Cliff Mine closed its doors in 1873, and Eagle River's once busy docks sat rotting. Without maritime traffic, the river mouth became silted to a point that the harbor became inaccessible to all but the shallowest draft vessels. However, serving as the only light between the Keweenaw Waterway and Eagle Harbor, the Eagle River light station continued to serve duty as a marker for vessels coasting the shore of the peninsula.

Finally, in 1884 the much needed work was conducted at the station, with the walls rebuilt and the entire keepers dwelling renovated. In its annual report for that year, the Eagle River station was once again reported as being "in good order."

By 1890, virtually the only vessel making its way into the decaying Eagle River harbor was the lighthouse tender on its annual supply trips, and the Lighthouse Board was well aware of the futility of continuing to maintain a light to protect the non-existent harbor. 

In its 1892 annual report, the Lighthouse Board noted that traffic patterns on the lake had changed, and that eastbound vessels were making a turn off Sand Hills, some seven miles to the west of Eagle River, and approximately midway between the coast lights of Ontonagon and Eagle Harbor. With the treacherous Sawtooth Reef located just offshore at this point, the Board recommended to Congress that $20,000 be appropriated to decommission the light at Eagle River, and construct a new coast light at Sand Hills.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress responded with an act authorizing the construction of the new station on February 15, 1893, but failed to make an appropriation for the necessary funds. While the Board reiterated the need for the appropriation in each of its' annual reports for the following seven years, no moneys were forthcoming. Citing rising costs, in its 1899 annual report, the Board increased its estimate of the necessary funds to $25,000, an amount which subsequently grew to $38,000 in its 1902 report, and yet Congress still failed to authorize the necessary funds.

The Board continued to request the $38,000 in every subsequent annual report through 1907, when it temporarily abandoned the project, and ceased to mention the planned station.

The Eagle River Light Station was decommissioned in 1908, and with its buildings no longer serving any purpose to maritime interests, Major Charles Keeler of the Eleventh Lighthouse District determined that it would be advantageous to offer the property for sale at public auction. An auction was held on Monday, August 2 of that year, at which the property was purchased by John Vertin of Calumet with his winning bid of $925.00, making the Eagle River light the first in the Keweenaw to pass into private ownership.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

The Eagle River light is in an interesting, and unfortunate situation.

As a result of early deactivation in 1908, this lighthouse was sold into private ownership early in the game. The various owners through the years have maintained the building in excellent condition.

Sadly, a four-unit condominium has been built on the small strip of land between the low bluff on which the lighthouse sits and the lakeshore. Being three stories high, this condominium serves as a modern intrusion to the station's historically commanding view of the lake.

Finding this Light

As M26 winds through the village of Eagle River, it crosses the Eagle River. Turn toward the lake immediately North of the river and find a place to park. Walk South across the old iron bridge, and the old lighthouse is right in front of you as you step of the bridge.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1855-1909
Inventory of Historic Light Stations
, National Parks Service, 1994.
Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1850 through 1909.
Great Lakes Light List, Lighthouse Board, 1861
Call it North Country, The story of Upper Michigan
, John Bartlow Martin, 1986
History of Eagle River, Michigan. Clarence J. Monette, 1987
Personal visit to Eagle River on 09/08/1999
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 04/15/2004

Home Back