Minnesota Point Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Duluth, Minnesota Home Back

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Historical Information

Click to view enlarged imageMinnesota Point is a natural wonder, being the longest freshwater sand bar in the world. Created through the millennia by silt and sand deposition from the St. Louis River, it is the longest freshwater sand bar in the world, and its location offshore creates a natural breakwater protecting the waters of Superior Bay. With the river established as the border between the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the rival ports of Duluth and Superior grew separately on each side of the river. In the early 1850's, there was but a single opening in the bar, known as Superior Entry, with all vessels entering either harbor forced to negotiate this single void.

With the new locks at Sault Ste Marie planned for completion in 1855, both cities on either side of the river were looking forward to a dramatic surge in commerce. Realizing that traffic through Superior Entry would increase dramatically as a result of vessel traffic being opened up to the lower lakes, Congress appropriated $15,000 for the construction of a station to light Superior Entry on August 3, 1854.

Click to view enlarged imageA site for the station on the Minnesota shore approximately three quarters of a mile from the entry was selected and surveyed in 1855, but work did not start on the structure until late the following year, with the delivery of the materials at the site and the laying of the foundation. Work resumed in 1857 and continued throughout the year until cold weather set in, and was stopped until the coming of spring. The light was finally completed in 1858, when RH Barett, the station's first keeper exhibited the fixed red Fifth Order Fresnel lens for the first time.

As was common with many of the lights constructed during the 1850's, the great distances involved in the district prevented frequent inspections, and thus most of the contractors worked largely unsupervised. As a result, workmanship and materials were frequently less than perfect, and the completed structures frequently deteriorated rapidly. This appears to have been the case at Minnesota Point, as Lighthouse Board annual reports indicate that the station was in a constant state of repair. In the 1868 report for the station it was stated that "The dwelling leaks badly around the chimneys. The rain and soot have discolored the walls. The plastering has fallen in many places, and is loose in nearly all the rooms."

Click to view enlarged imageAs Duluth grew through the 1860's, a strong rivalry began between the two towns at each end of Minnesota Point. Resenting that vessels making for Duluth had to pass through the Point at its Wisconsin end, the people of Duluth attempted to build docks on the outer side of the sand bar, to avoid having to use the Superior Entry. However, the docks were no match for Lake Superior's fury, and they quickly deteriorated. The citizens of Duluth petitioned the Government to construct a canal through Minnesota Point at its Duluth end. The Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study, and advised against the project, fearing that water levels behind Minnesota Point would be adversely affected. Undeterred, a consortium of Duluth businessmen arranged financial backing from Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke, and began excavation of the canal independently in 1871.

Representatives of the town of Superior were awarded a court injunction to end the works, but when Duluth Mayor J B Culver learned of the decision by telegraph, he organized a flurry of activity at the site, which managed to bring the project to completion before the official documentation could be delivered. Thus, vessels bound for Duluth were able to gain direct entry to the port, and Superior Entry began to be used only by vessels bound for the Wisconsin Port.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the construction of piers at Superior entry in 1885, the Lighthouse Board determined that the interests of navigation would be better served with the establishment of a light on the pierhead. Thus, the old Minnesota Point light was discontinued on August 6, 1885. However, the old keepers dwelling was completely refurbished, and continued to serve as the dwelling for the St. Louis Pierhead Light keeper.

The rivalry between the two cities did not end with the construction of the canal, but continued with each seeking to outdo the other with independent funding requests to the Federal Government. Finally, in 1895, with the formation of the Duluth-Superior River and Harbor Commission, the two ports were viewed a single entity by the Government, and both ports worked together to reap the benefits of shipping the bounties of the Missabe and Vermilion iron ranges.

Click to view enlarged imageAlso in 1895, the Lighthouse Board determined that with the completion of new piers at Superior Entry, navigation would be better served with a light on the pier on the Wisconsin side of the channel, and a new light and keepers dwelling were constructed across the channel on Wisconsin Point. Thus, the Minnesota Point keepers dwelling was abandoned, and without the constant care of the keepers, deteriorated rapidly.

While the story of Minnesota Point lighthouse was over at this time, the Lighthouse Board was not yet done with the property on which it sat. When searching for a location for its planned Duluth Buoy Depot in 1902, the Board selected the old lighthouse reservation as the best location for the new depot, with construction of the depot beginning the following year.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

After crossing the lift bridge at the canal, continue 4.3 miles to the SE via S. Lake Ave and then Minnesota Ave. You will come to the Sky Harbor Airport. Park your car somewhere near the airport entrance and walk around the airport fence to the N. You will find an unmarked trail which is known as Park Point Trail. Continue SE on Park Point Trail for miles alongside the airport. Once you pass the eastern end of the airport fence, continue mile southeast to the lighthouse and buoy depot building 650 feet further to the SE. Note that the trail starts out hard top, but is eventually pure sand.

GPS Coordinates: 4642'36.01"N x 92 1'33.08"W

Reference Sources

Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, Various reports from 1850 - 1912
Long Ships Passing,
Walter Havighurst, 1942.
6/20/01 email from Dan Tomhave on directions to the ruins.
HABS/HAER drawing of the Minnesota Point tower.
Photographs courtesy of Dennis O'hara of Northern Images 
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

Copyright Terry Pepper. This page last modified 10/07/2012

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