Grand Marais Light Seeing The Light

Grand Marais, Minnesota Home Back

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Historical Information

Both Chippewa and Voyageur had long used this large bite out of Superior's north shore as a refuge from the lake's fury, with the voyageurs giving it the name Grand Marais, which in the dialect spoken by the trappers translates as "Large harbor."

Richard Godfrey was the areas first white settler, arriving in the bay in 1854 to establish an independent fur trading post. Soon after his arrival, Godfrey arranged to have himself appointed as the areas first postmaster, and convinced that the bay held considerable commercial potential, began lobbying the Federal Government to undertake harbor improvements. On May 26, 1856, Minnesota Territorial Representative Edmund Rice took up Godfrey's cause in the House of Representatives, presenting a memorial on behalf of citizens of Minnesota Territory, praying "for the erection of light-houses at Beaver Bay and Grand Marais." Unaware of the issues at such a distant point on the frontier, the matter was forwarded to the House Committee on Commerce for evaluation and recommendations. Evidently, the Commerce Committee returned with a favorable recommendation, as Congress appropriated the sun of $6,000 for the construction of a Light at Grand Marais on August 18 of that same year. While the Lighthouse Board reported that an examination of the site was to be undertaken in its annual report for 1856, history indicates that even though the funds were made available, no further steps were taken towards establishing either the light at Beaver Bay or Grand Marais. Richard Godfrey abandoned his interests at Grand Marais in 1857 and returned to Detroit, and it appeared in all respects that neither the town of Grand Marais, nor its lighthouse were destined to become a reality.

Click to view enlarged imageAt the turn of the 1880's, a second influx of settlers arrived in the area to take advantage of fishing and lumbering opportunities, and with maritime commerce growing throughout lake Superior, the Army Corps of Engineers arrived in the harbor to begin the construction of piers to guard the harbor entry. With the Engineer's work on the harbor well underway, the Lighthouse Board approached Congress for funds for the construction of a light and fog signal to guide mariners between the new piers. Congress appropriated $9,552 for the project in 1885, and Eleventh District Engineer Captain Charles E. L. B. Davis set about planning for the construction of a pierhead light and integrated fog signal at the end of the east pier.

In order to reduce costs, Davis decided to make extensive use of surplus components. On the grounds of the Detroit depot, a surplus octagonal cast lantern was incorporated into a timber-framed enclosed pyramid timber tower of approximately 32 feet in height. The 1,500 pound fog bell and automatic striking apparatus removed from the Passage Island Light in 1884 was installed in the structure with the bell suspended from a bracket on the exterior of the structure, and the automatic striking apparatus within an enclosed room below the lantern. On completion, the structure was disassembled, loaded onto the lighthouse tender WARRINGTON, and transported to Grand Marais, where it was erected at the end of the east pier. A fixed white Fifth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Sautter & Cie., of Paris was carefully assembled in the lantern, and the automated fog bell apparatus adjusted to emit the predetermined characteristic of a double blow every 30 seconds.

While construction was completed in 1885, it appears that the light was not exhibited until after February 23, 1886, when Acting Keeper Joseph E Mayhew first appears listed at the station in official District records. With an official survey of the growing village of Grand Marais imminent, the decision to delay construction of the keepers dwelling until the completion of the survey was made, in order to identify the most appropriate location.

Click to view enlarged imageEvidently Mayhew experience recurring problems with the automated bell striking apparatus that first year, as a number of repairs to the mechanism were reported. Mayhew was promoted to the position of Head Keeper on September 10, however for some reason the appointment was rescinded on October 13, and he was again returned to the status of Acting Keeper. The following month during a violent storm, significant damage was caused to the lower level of the tower, and a work crew was dispatched to effect repairs. The tower was again damaged in a similar manner in September of 1888, and additional reinforcing plank protection was added to the lower level of the structure in an attempt to dissipate the force of the waves . Negotiations also began with the owner of a piece of property selected for the keepers dwelling, however at the close of the year no agreement on the terms of the purchase had been reached.

The base of the tower was again damaged in 1890, and a work crew dispatched to renew the timber protection. While at the site, the crew also erected a 42-foot long set of boat ways and boat house outfitted with a pair of davits for the safe storage of the keeper's boat. However, negotiations on the reservation for the keeper's dwelling were still frustratingly unresolved, and Mayhew continued to serve without an official dwelling. With the portion of the original appropriation allocated for the dwelling unexpended, the funds were recalled by the Treasury Department. With the appropriation no longer available, negotiations for the property were discontinued. A new appropriation for the construction was not made until March 2, 1895, when $4,000 was appropriated for the purpose. Eleventh District Inspector Commander William W. Mead tendered an offer for an alternate site for the dwelling, and on acceptance by the owners, the process of obtaining clear title was well underway by the end of the year.

Click to view enlarged imagePlans for the dwelling were approved by District Engineer Major Milton B. Adams early in 1896, and the contract was advertised. However, after being awarded the work, the lowest bidder refused to honor the contract, and new bids were sought. A new contract was awarded, and the construction was completed in October 1896. After eleven years without a proper dwelling, Mayhew was likely relieved to finally be able to move his belongings into the new dwelling.

With the turn of the century, Grand Marais experienced a population surge as homesteaders moved into the area. Under the homestead act, an individual could obtain title to up to 160 acres of unimproved land at no cost, provided that a minimum of five acres were cleared and a permanent dwelling raised within the first five years. Once title was obtained, homesteaders could then sell the lumber and mineral rights to the property, making a good profit on part of their holdings. Without a large dock in town, there was not a great deal of vessel traffic in the harbor beyond those seeking refuge, and the supply boats from Duluth were forced to anchor in the deeper water out in the harbor while supplies were lightered to and from shore.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the entrance between the piers being somewhat narrow, the decision was made to place a second light on the west breakwater, and a crew arrived at Grand Marais in May, 1902 to install a cast iron post with a small oil storage house integrated into its base on the breakwater's outer end. A fixed red lens lantern was then suspended from a bracket at the top of this post at a focal plane of 30 feet above lake level. Perhaps as a result of the additional responsibility of maintaining the second light in combination with his never having been promoted beyond Acting Keeper after sixteen years at the station, Mayhew resigned from lighthouse service on December 9, 1902, to be replaced by John Woods. The thirty-one year old Woods arrived from Duluth on December 10, where he had served for four years as Second Assistant at the Duluth South Breakwater Light.

The following year, the decision was made to convert the west breakwater light to Pintsch gas illuminant, and contracts were awarded out of the Detroit office for a new tower and gas apparatus. Plans for the tower called for a square steel pyramid skeleton equipped with a platform and railing. The contractor delivered the tower components to the Detroit depot on June 15, 1903, and it was delivered to the breakwater in Grand Marais late that year. However, with the onset of winter, the installation was suspended and brought to completion the following spring.

Click to view enlarged imageLate in 1904, the main east pier light again suffered considerable damage during a fierce late season storm. While the light was still operational, sufficient damage was inflicted to the lower level of the structure that the fog bell was dislodged and the mechanical striking apparatus damaged. A crew was quickly dispatched from Detroit to make the necessary repairs to return the bell to operating condition, and in attempt to eliminate a reoccurrence, a series of 12-inch timbers were erected on the lake side of the structure to serve as a wave break.

John Woods resigned his position as Keeper on April 1, 1921, and the indomitable Emmanuel Luick was transferred in from the Sand Island Light in the Apostles. On July 19 of the following year, the characteristic of the main Pier Light was modified to an isophase characteristic consisting of 5 seconds of light followed by a 5-second eclipse.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the Army Corps of Engineers again in the harbor rebuilding the piers in 1923, it was plain that the east beacon would need to be relocated to the end of the extended pier. However, with the old timber structure now being thirty-eight years old, and having been subjected to numerous repairs over its life, the decision was made to replace the structure with one of more durable steel construction. To this end, a new steel pierhead beacon was shipped to the station in 1922 and erected on the revised east pierhead. With electrical power also available in town, the light was illuminated with an incandescent electric bulb. To reduce the possibility of confusing the pier light with the lights in town, the color of the light was also modified to red. With electrification, the new tower was also outfitted with an electric Sireno horn giving a 5 second blast followed by 30 seconds of silence.

Click to view enlarged imageAs a result poor performance encountered with the Pintsch gas system on the west pier, the apparatus was changed to an acetylene system on May 9, 1925, exhibiting a 20 candlepower red flash every 3 seconds. Both lights were finally automated in 1937, and with the services of a keeper no longer needed at station, Emmanuel Luick retired at the age of 71, after 34 years of lighthouse service.

While the west breakwater light was replaced by an ignominious D-9 cylinder in the 1960's, the 1923 east pier light still serves to guide pleasure boats into the harbor. The old keeper's dwelling is now owned by the Cook County Historical Society, which operates the building as a museum. The museum is open to the public during the summer months from 10.00 AM to 5.00 PM, and 12.00 PM to 5.00 PM on Sundays.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

Highway 61 hugs Superior's north shore all the way from Duluth to Grand Marais, and enters town right at the foot of the bay.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1892 - 1908
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, 1922 - 1925
Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994
History of the Great Lakes, J.H. Beers Company, 1889
Recent photographs courtesy of Dennis O'Hara
Email from Wayne Sapulski, 02/12/02
Lake Superior, Grace Lee Nute, 1944.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last updated 12/01/2007

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