Marquette Harbor Light Seeing The Light

Lighthouse Point, Marquette, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

With the Jackson Mining Company active a few miles inland, a thriving community sprang up around the natural harbor at the foot of Marquette Bay. Incorporated in 1849, docks and wharves soon appeared to support the shipment of ore. With plans underway for the construction of the new lock at Sault Ste Marie, it was plain that Marquette was destined to become the premier shipping point and destination for Superior maritime traffic. To serve as a guide to vessels entering the harbor, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the construction of a lighthouse on September 28, 1850. 

1853 LighthouseSelecting a rocky peninsula jutting from the western shore of the bay between Marquette and Presque Isle as a site for the new lighthouse, work began on the structure early in 1852, and reached completion on October 1. However, with the navigation season almost over for the year, the station was not activated until June of 1853, when the station's first keeper Harvey Moore arrived at the station. While no drawings of the building have surfaced to this point, it was likely typical of other such structures built on the Great Lakes at that time, and consisted of a short rubble stone tower outfitted with seven 14-inch Lewis lamps and a small detached 24 by 30 dwelling constructed of similar materials. With the creation of the Lighthouse Board in 1853, a major system-wide upgrading of the nation's aids to navigation was undertaken, with the inferior Lewis lamps replaced by the significantly improved French Fresnel lenses. As part of this upgrading, the district Lampist arrived in Marquette in 1856, and installed a fixed white Sixth Order Fresnel lens with a visible range of ten miles in the Marquette lantern.

After only a decade of operation, the structures were found to be deteriorating rapidly, likely contributing to the succession of five keepers that had been assigned to the station since its establishment. Of these keepers, perhaps the most notable are the Truckey's. Assigned to the station in 1861, Nelson Truckey helped form Company B, 27th Infantry Regiment, Michigan volunteers, and was thus succeeded by his wife Anastasia. Anastasia tended the light for three years until 1865 when she was removed from the position. Likely making her the first of a number of female keepers to work the lakes. 

Click to view enlarged imageRealizing the buildings had deteriorated to the point that repair was futile, the Lighthouse Board petitioned Congress for funds to build a replacement structure in its 1865 annual report. $13,000 was appropriated for the project, and construction began almost immediately on the area of highest elevation on Lighthouse Point. Plans drawn-up for the structure called for a brick combination dwelling and tower of a design which would again be used in the construction of a number of stations around the lakes, including those on nearby Granite Island, Gull Rock and Huron Island. The new 1-story dwelling featured an integrated square tower 38' 9" inches in height with a circular inner brick wall containing a set of cast-iron spiral stairs which wound from the first floor to the lantern. With a landing on the second floor, these stairs also served as the only method of moving between the floors within the dwelling. Centered on the square gallery atop the tower, a decagonal cast-iron lantern was installed, and a new fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens with a 190 arc of visibility was assembled atop its' cast-iron pedestal. By virtue of its location at the highest point on the island, the new light boasted a focal plane of 70 feet above the lake, and was visible for a distance of 16 miles in clear weather.

Click ti view enlarged imageWhile the new station's location atop the steep rocky rise was well suited for the light's visibility, it made the movement of supplies into the lighthouse difficult, forcing the keepers to carry everything up the rocks and steps to the summit. To ease the situation, a construction crew arrived on the point in 1870 and added a large brick service room to the north side of the dwelling. A hand cranked cable hoist within this addition provided power to a tramway which ran up the rocks from the sheltered bay to the north of the point. The addition was large enough to also serve as a work room and storage area for heating coal and lantern oil. While on the Point, the crew also constructed a wooden barn for keeper Earl Clark's horse and wagon.

As ore shipments from the bustling harbor increased, the Army Corps of Engineers arrived in 1866, and began construction of a breakwater to further protect the harbor. Starting where Lighthouse Point joined the mainland on its southern side, on its completion in 1875, this wooden crib structure protruded 2,000 feet southward into the bay, and was designed to dissipate the strength of waves before they entered the harbor area. Concurrent to this ongoing harbor improvement, the Lighthouse Board determined that a fog signal at the station would be a vital enhancement to guide vessels into the harbor through the thick weather which frequently enveloped the area. Requesting an appropriation of $4,000 for the project in 1873, Congress allocated the funds for construction that same year, and work began immediately, continuing into 1874 after a break for the winter. With Lighthouse Point being craggy along its entire length, it was determined that the only suitable location for the new fog signal was at the extreme end of the Point. A flat area approximately ten feet above the water was blasted and carved in the rock, and a wood-framed signal building with single 10" steam whistle was erected. With the additional workload represented by the impending activation of the new fog signal, Keeper Samuel Barney arranged to have his brother Albert appointed as the station's first Assistant Keeper, with Albert appearing on payroll records ate the station on April 4, 1874. From the very beginning, the fog signal's location so close to the water at the extreme end of the point created problems for the keepers, as waves crashing against the rocks frequently inundated the fog signal building, and in an attempt to alleviate the problem, a protective wall was built in front of the building in 1875. With the completion of work on the new breakwater the same year, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a beacon at its outer end, and the tending of this new light was added to the list of duties of the Marquette Keepers.

Albert Barney proved to be less successful as an Assistant Keeper than his brother likely hoped, and Albert was removed after only one year of service, to be replaced by Acting Assistant Samuel Torrence on September 29, 1875. While Samuel Barney had distinguished himself during his prior five years service at Grand Island Harbor Range lights and Granite Island, he also proved to be ill-suited for the rigors of operating a first-class shore station with fog signal and breakwater light, and was himself removed from the position at the opening of the 1877 navigation season, to be replaced by newly hired Philip Morgan. The Marquette fog signal quickly established itself as one of the busiest on the lakes, serving not only during fog, rain and snow, but during the numerous forest fires which plagued the area. In the first of many mentions of smoky conditions in the station log books, Keeper Morgan's entry for May 31, 1877 stated in part "Strong wind from the South. Smoky. Washing fog signal and finished painting funnel at fog station. The woods all on fire."

Click to view enlarged imageWith the importance of the fog signal and the maintenance self destructive nature of the steam-operated equipment, the decision was made to install two separate fog signal plants at the station, in order to have a backup standing by in the event of failure of the primary signal. The lighthouse tender AMARANTH arrived at Marquette on August 6, 1880, and Eleventh District construction Supervisor Thomas Miller and his work crew unloaded the materials to begin the replacement of the original fog signal. After blasting away the rock to enlarge the foundation area, work began on two wood-framed signal buildings and the construction of an unloading dock on the south side of the point. Prior to completion of the new signal buildings in 1881, Miller erected an elevated catwalk leading from the tower door above the craggy spine of Lighthouse Point to a set of steps which lead down to the fog signal buildings.

In retrospect, it would appear that the Lighthouse Establishment had an unfortunate propensity for staffing the station with less than competent keepers. By 1882 in its 29 years of operation, ten keepers had either been removed or resigning from the service. To make matters worse, in the 8 short years since the assistant position was added, six assistants had left the station under similar circumstances. At the opening of the 1882 season of navigation, the District Inspector removed both Philip Morgan and Assistant Richard Barney from their positions. In an attempt to provide the station with a keeper of greater competence, Patrick H "Bill" McGuire was selected as the station's new keeper. McGuire had served as Keeper at Thunder Bay Island since March 1874, with his wife Catherine serving as his Assistant. Since the Thunder Bay station had been outfitted with a fog signal in 1871, McGuire and his wife appeared to have the qualifications needed to make the Marquette station "click." The McGuires arrived in Marquette on May 1, and found the stationed abandoned and in complete disarray, with McGuire made the following first entry in the station's log book: "Keeper Bill McGuire & Family arrived in Marquette from St. Ignace on the cars at 2 o'clock PM. Came to the light -house. Found Mr. Morgan & family absent. Got possession of the station on the 5th & found it in a bad and dirty condition." That following year, Supervisor Miller arrived with a work crew to replace the floors in the station's kitchen, built a porch on the rear of the dwelling, and constructed a storm house to protect the main lighthouse entry door.

Click to view enlarged imageUnlike many lights throughout the lakes, the Marquette keepers and their families spent the whole year living at the station. With the season of navigation usually lasting until the closing of the locks at the Soo in December, the station's lights and fog signal were extinguished and the proximity of the station to the city of Marquette allowed the McGuire's to lead a fairly normal civilian life until the lights were re-lighted with the May thaw. The station logs indicate that the first few years of the McGuire's tenure at the station were both relatively uneventful and pleasant. Besides noting the coming and goings of Government vessels, general repairs to the dwelling and fog signals, McGuire also made mention of his children skating in the frozen harbor during winter and spending enjoyable Christmases with the family at the lighthouse However the complexion of life changed dramatically toward the latter part of the decade as the area experienced some of the worst storms on record. The station logs for 1887 indicate that Bill and Catherine were kept busy keeping the station's fog signals screaming for a station record 697 hours. On a number of occasions during this time period, the Breakwater beacon was damaged, requiring McGuire to make his way out the breakwater to erect a temporary light until repairs could be made. A particularly violent sea on the night of November 29, 1889 ripped the Breakwater beacon from its mountings, and destroyed large sections of the breakwater itself. While the beacon was found washed up on a beach to the south of town, it was found to be a complete loss, and with little salvageable, required complete replacement.

With the station being located so close to the bustling city, fine summer days always found large numbers of visitors on Lighthouse Point, strolling the beach and holding picnics on the grounds. Sundays were normally considered a virtual "day off" from mundane housekeeping chores beyond tending the light and fog signal as needed. Lighthouse regulations specified that "Keepers must be courteous and polite to all visitors and show them everything of interest about the station at such times as will not interfere with light-house duties." Thus, the McGuires frequently found themselves busier on Sundays than any other, as they answered visitor's questions and provided tours around the station.

In 1890, the United State Life Saving Service decided to build a life saving station in Marquette, and with Federal ownership of the full extent of Lighthouse Point, it was natural that new station was located next to the lighthouse on the harbor side of the point. The station was placed into service on May 9th, 1981 with a crew of 8 surfmen serving under Captain Cleary, who was placed in charge of the new station. Also that year, the sea wall in front of the fog signals was thoroughly repaired and a house was built to protect and insulate the water intake pipes for the fog signals.

For reasons that we have yet been unable to determine, Patrick McGuire was removed as the keeper of the Marquette Light Station on April 19, 1893. McGuire was replaced by William H. Wheatley, who after signing on as Acting 2nd Assistant on Huron Island for a year in 1882, had been quickly promoted, spending the previous nine years as Keeper of the Green Island and Granite Island light stations. A new city water plant was constructed at the foot of Lighthouse Point in 1895, and with such a ready supply of pressurized water in close proximity, the keeper's dwelling was connected into the system. Prior to this time, the Assistant Keepers lived in rented quarters in town, and that September, construction supervisor James Smith arrived from Detroit, and with the assistance of a hired local carpenter began the work of converting the station's barn into a dwelling for the Assistant Keeper.

With the construction of the first ore dock in Presque Isle Harbor by the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad in 1896, the Army Corps of Engineers built a timber breakwater to provide protection for the new dock. To mark the end of this breakwater, a simple pole with a lens lantern was installed, with the tending and maintenance of this new aid added to the Marquette Keeper's list of responsibilities. Thus, on a daily basis either Wheatley or his current Assistant Henry Baker would have to check the lantern every night to ensure that it was illuminated, and make frequent trips in the station boat to adjust and repair it whenever it's light was found to be deficient.

Click to view enlarged imageWith increasing ore shipments being made from the three ore dock in the harbor, Marquette in the late nineties was in a state of metamorphosis. Undergoing the inevitable "gentrification" that results from a massive influx of business people and wealth, many of the newer residents found their sensibilities insulted by the caterwauling of the fog whistles on Lighthouse Point, and began raising their voices in disgust and concern. Taking up their call after one particularly long night of thick fog, the local Mining Gazette reported that "Sensitive nerves were tortured again last night by the dismal tooting of the fiendish fog horn. This vociferous nuisance is a necessary evil, to be sure, but that consideration doesn't help to reconcile those whom it keeps from obtaining necessary sleep." A similar set of circumstances had unfolded in 1895 at the Duluth South Breakwater Light, where the sound of the fog signal bounced from the hillsides around the harbor, upsetting the city residents. Needing the support of the local maritime community, the Lighthouse Board had undertaken an experiment whereby a large wooden parabolic reflector had been constructed around the Duluth whistles. Designed to concentrate the sound on the lake side of the whistle, while simultaneously shielding the city side from the noise, the experiment had been considered to be an unqualified success. Thus the decision was made to undertake a similar modification to the Marquette whistles, and Thomas Miller again arrived in Marquette on April 21, 1897 and crafted a reflector framework of pine, sheathed in iron and packed with sawdust to deaden the sound. Both whistles were the re-piped into the center of the reflector, and a semblance of peace was restored to the citizenry.

On a fine Spring morning on April 30, 1898, Keeper Wheatley and his friend William Braidon decided to take the station sail boat fishing off the Little Garlic River. Caught in a squall off Little Presque Isle, their small craft capsized around 2.30 in the afternoon. While Braidon managed to make his way to shore, Wheatley was not so fortunate. Captain Cleary immediately went to the rescue with his crew, and while they found the boat floating upside-down in the water about three miles from the river, they were unable to locate Keeper Wheatley's body. The Lifesaving crew stayed out all that night, dragging the area to no avail. While a number of other boats joined in the search over the subsequent eight days, the body could not be found, and the search was abandoned. Wheatley's body was finally found washed-up on shore near the river mouth on May 21, and he was buried the following day. Assistant Henry Baker took over the station until the arrival of Keeper Robert Carlson on May 28. Carlson arrived in Marquette after two years as Assistant on Outer Island, and five years as Keeper of the Michigan Island Light.

The day after moving into the dwelling, one of the Carlson girls was playing on the rocks on Lighthouse Point, when she slipped and broke her arm. While Carlson indicated in the station log that he was concerned that the break was severe enough that it would likely result in the girl having a stiff arm for the rest of her life, he never mentioned that matter again. Captain Cleary and Keeper Carlson appear to have established a close working and personal relationship, as they frequently went fishing and boating together, and eventually ended up sharing ownership in a steam launch in which they took great pride in maintaining in tip top condition. Carlson was evidently an accomplished woodworker, as over the years he would undertake a number of improvements around the station, built a number of boats, and oversee the repair of both the Stannard Rock and Granite Island station boats.

Click to view enlarged imageWith electrification of the City, the Detroit office made the decision to try electrification of the breakwater light at Marquette, and Thomas Miller again arrived in 1898 to make plans for an electric cable along the breakwater light, and to identify changes necessary to the beacon itself in preparation for the installation of an electric lamp. On January 26, 1899, one of the worst blizzards in memory hit the area, and Carlson was concerned that the thick coating of ice and snow on the fog signal buildings would cause their collapse. The following day, he hired a local man to help him thaw out the water lines supplying the dwelling, and spent the next 9 full days digging and thawing with fires before the flow was restored to the dwellings. Thomas Miller returned on May 27 to complete the laying of cable through the breakwater to the light. This process was extremely time consuming, since the heavy cable had to be run all the way out to the beacon through the access tunnel running through the concrete core of the structure. Damp and cramped, the cable had to be installed in a wooden conduit in order to protest it from moisture. The job was nearing completion on June 28 when a fierce gale scoured the area. The force of the water crashing against the breakwater was so strong that it moved approximately 30 of the 4 -ton concrete blocks of which the breakwater was constructed. All of Millers construction lumber stacked on the breakwater was spread throughout the harbor, but most of it was saved by way of boat and line. All told, Miller estimated that the damage of the storm had put him over a month behind schedule. Miller finally completed the wiring to the breakwater on July 3, and made his first test of the circuit, finding that the switches and junctions within the tunnel were all too damp to conduct properly. The light was successfully hooked-up on July 17, making Marquette Breakwater the light on the Great Lakes to be electrified. Carlson helped Miller pack his tools and load them on the steamer CITY OF MARQUETTE for the trip to his next construction assignment at Big Bay Light Station.

While one might assume that electrification would have made Carlson's life considerably easier, this was not entirely the case. The quality of the electric power in the those early days was extremely poor, and with frequent blackouts Carlson and Assistant Henry Baker were forced to make frequent trips out the breakwater to place the old kerosene lamp in the beacon until the power was restored.

The advent of the new century saw one of the coldest winters on record, with the water intake for the City waterworks becoming frozen solid on New Years Day. Good friends with the waterworks superintendent, Carlson worked for the next ten days in bone chilling winds attempting to thaw the pipe with salt and fires before restoring the flow of water to the city just in time for a fire alarm to called-in. With no abatement in the chilling temperatures, the intake froze solid again two days later, and Carlson was back on the job for three more days before once again restoring the flow.

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This page last modified 12/07/2003

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