Ontonagon Pierhead Light Seeing The Light

Ontonagon, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

With the copper boom of the 1850's, maritime traffic entering the Ontonagon river blossomed, as vessels entered to deliver supplies to the growing town, and departed laden with copper bound for the hungry industries on the southern lakes. To help guide vessels into the river, the Lighthouse Board constructed the Ontonagon lighthouse in 1853, close to shore on the west bank of the river.

Click to view enlarged imageAs the number of vessels entering the river continued to grow, the Army Corps of Engineers was dispatched to Ontonagon in 1860 to begin work on a series of harbor improvements, a major component of which was the construction of two stone-filled timber crib piers flanking the widened and deepened river entrance. Designed to both still the water within the river entrance and to reduce the amount of sand being deposited in the entry, on completion of the project the east pier stood seven hundred feet in length, and the west pier six hundred and fifty feet. While the Corps customarily lighted the end of its newly constructed piers, it was determined that the diminutive length of the piers and the proximity of the Ontonagon lighthouse made the erection of a pierhead beacon unnecessary.

With falling copper prices through the 1870's, Ontonagon's mines took the brunt, and with closure began decaying into the thick Porcupine Mountain forests. The surrounding forests had long been perceived as an obstacle t development by the mining interests, their only value being as timbers to support the stopes and drifts deep beneath the earth's surface. However, with the cities of the southern lakes screaming for lumber to support their phenomenal growth, the thick forests around Ontonagon were now almost worth their weight in copper for the dying town. With the establishment of a number of successful lumber operations, Ontonagon once again found itself in a major boom period, and the Army Corps of Engineers returned to undertake a series of harbor improvements to support the huge number of lumber hookers using the harbor.

Click to view enlarged imageThe two wooden crib piers were extended to double their original length, and the harbor was dredged to greater depth. With elongation of the piers, the main light was now located some distance from the end of the piers, no longer allowing it to serve double duty as a coast light and a guide for vessels seeking to find the relatively narrow way between the piers. To mark the new opening in 1875, a white wooden hexagonal tower with an open frame base was erected 200 feet from the outer end of the west pier. Capped with a fixed red Sixth Order Fresnel lens located at a focal plane of 27 feet, the light was visible for distance of eleven miles. Responsibility for tending the light was added to the duties of the Thomas Stripe, the keeper of the main light, a fact which no doubt played a key role in the decision to locate the new light on the west pier, since that was the same side on which the main light was located, and provided Stripe with easy access to the pierhead light.

Click to view enlarged imageOver the ensuing years, wave action along the outside of the western pier deposited sand along its length, in effect moving the both the shoreline and the river mouth further out to sea. To maintain the harbor protection, the piers were extended yet further, leaving the light a considerable distance from the new pierhead. Thus, in 1879 the beacon was picked up and relocated 535 feet towards the new pierhead. This was not to be the only time that the diminutive wooden structure took a "trip," since after further pier extensions were undertaken in 1884, the tower was again moved 865 feet northward to the relocated pierhead. The deck height of this new extension being 5 feet lower than the original pier to which it was connected, a 5-foot tall elevated wooden walk was constructed from the end of the old pier some 767 feet to the relocated light. The light's third "trip" occurred on September 30, 1893, when after the completion of a third extension to the piers, the structure was again moved 378 feet to the new pierhead.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile the tower's first three trips along the pier were carefully executed, the light's fourth "trip" in 1899 was completely unplanned. On December 12 of that year, a severe storm ripped the tower from its foundation bolts on the pier and carried it away to be lost in the pounding seas. Since the season of navigation was almost over, no steps were taken to re-light the pierhead until April 16, 1900, when a temporary square wooden structure with a square lantern housing a fixed red lantern light was erected to serve until the contract for new cast iron beacon and catwalk could be bid and filled. The beacon and materials finally arrived at the Detroit depot on July 31, when along with a work party, they were loaded onto the tender AMARANTH and transported to Ontonagon late that fall. The new beacon installed and lighted for the first time on the evening of November 10. The new structure consisted of a square steel pyramidal frame standing 26 feet 10 inches in height, with its upper portion enclosed to serve as shelter for the keepers working on the light. The octagonal cast iron lantern contained a new kerosene illuminated fixed red Fourth Order Fresnel lens with a 31 foot focal plane, effectively increasing the light's visible range to 11 miles in clear weather.

In 1912, an electrical cable from the city utility was run out the west pier, allowing the replacement of the kerosene lamp with a 200 candlepower incandescent electric bulb. While no fog signal was installed at either the pierhead or at the main light, Corgan was provided a hand cranked fog horn with which he answered signaling vessels with ten second blasts followed by ten seconds of silence. By 1939, the tower was outfitted with an electrically operated siren which emitted 3 second blasts followed by 27 seconds of silence during period of thick weather. Activated by a switch at the main light, the need for trips to the pierhead were virtually eliminated.

Click to view enlarged imageToday, both wooden piers have long been replaced by durable concrete and rip rap structures. The east pier now stands at an overall length of 2,315 feet, and the west pier at 2,575 feet. The west pier projects approximately 1,300 feet beyond the shore line, which still varies in its exact location as a result of the continually shifting sands. While maritime traffic in and out of Ontonagon harbor has dwindled considerably, consisting mostly of private pleasure boats and the odd freighter bringing coal to the generating plant, the old 1900 pierhead beacon stills stands guard over the harbor entrance. Standing forty-five feet from the end of the west pier, its lantern is now equipped with an electric 300 mm acrylic optic showing a 2 second red flash followed by a 4 second eclipse, visibility for a distance of 12 miles out in Lake Superior.

Keepers of this Light

The Ontonagon Pierhead Light was operated and maintained by the keeper of the Ontonagon main light. Click here to see a complete listing of all Ontonagon Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

We missed visiting the pierhead light during our previous trip to Ontonagon in 1999, and so drove to Ontonagon from Bayfield on an open afternoon during our July 2002 Apostle Islands field trip. While in town, we also stopped by the Ontonagon Historical Society Museum, and photographed some of the historical images of the pierhead light that they have in their collection. The Ontonagon Museum is a great place to spend some time, and we recommend stopping by.

Finding this Light

We found that views of the light are difficult to obtain, since the west pier projects from Jefferson Smurfit property, which is all fenced off. We found a place to park near the lakeshore on the east side of town, and walked the beach to the east pier, from which we took a couple of photographs. We then drove to the first road that went to the lake on the west side of town, and walked out on the beach to get some shots of the light from a distance. We did not have much time available, or else we would have walked the beach to see how close it is possible to get to the west pier.

Contact information

Ontonagon County Historical Museum
422 River St.
Ontonagon, MI
(906) 884-6165.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1876 - 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, 1910 - 1939
Great Lakes Light Lists, 1876, 1901, 1924 & 1939
Annual report of the Lake Carriers Association, 1933
Great Lakes Coast Pilot, Army Corps of Engineers, 1958
Lake Superior, Grace Lee Nute 1944
Report of Investigations
, US Army Corps of Engineers, NCSPD-ER-16
Personal observations made during visit to Ontonagon on 09/07/99 and 07/18/2002
Historic photographs courtesy of the Ontonagon Historical Society Museum. 
Photographs from author's personal collection.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/01/2007

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