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Great Lakes Lighthouse History

Sodus Bay LighthouseThe following history of lighthouses on the Great Lakes was written with our children in mind – for they truly are, The Next Generation of Lighthouse Keepers.

There are over 300 lighthouses on all of the Great Lakes shorelines, which include the United States and Canada. Our Great Lakes Lighthouses are located very close to each other, and many can be visited in a single day!

Lighthouses are a popular tourist attraction, and quite a few lighthouses offer museums, gift shops and parks.



As our country grew, the number of ships on the Great Lakes began to increase. More lighthouses were built to help the ships navigate into the new territories.

In 1781, the British established the first light on Lake Ontario. At first, the ship owners had to pay a fee or toll to the British for the use of the lights. The fee was a penny for each ton of cargo on board. This fee helped pay for the cost of building the lighthouse and its maintenance. Most boats at this time could hold 150 tons – which would cost $1.50 to use the lighthouse.


Many of the dangerous areas on the Great Lakes, shallow spots and rocky reefs, can be found just below the water’s surface. The schooner, an early type of sailing ship, was one of the most common ships on the Great Lakes. The schooner did not have radar to guide them – only a compass. The schooner did not have a motor, so if the sailors needed to change directions, it was difficult and took a long time. Sailors looked for the lighthouses to warn them of the dangerous areas in enough time to change their direction and avoid a crash.

In extremely stormy weather, or foggy conditions when the light could not be seen, the ships depended on the light station’s fog signals. These signals consisted of whistles, bells, and horns. The horns were a low pitched, sad and eerie sound. Each foghorn signal was unique – their own combination of sound and silence.

In some places it was too dangerous, too difficult or too expensive to build a lighthouse. Lightships that acted like floating lighthouses were anchored in those places. The last lightship on the Great Lakes was the Huron Lightship that stood

post just six miles north of the Bluewater Bridge. It was retired in 1971 and can now be visited in Port Huron, MI.



1361397415The Great Lakes are huge! Did you know that by boat, the lakes are navigational for 1,200 miles from Duluth, MN at their western tip to the eastern end of Lake Ontario?

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made it possible for thousands of people to travel the territories around the Great Lakes and settle in the area. These settlers needed many supplies that they could not grow or make themselves. Ships brought the supplies to these people. Grain was the first true bulk product to be transported across the lakes. The western states would bring their grain to the port in Chicago, IL. From Chicago, the grain traveled thru the Great Lakes to Buffalo & Oswego, NY.

In 1854, with the opening of the Soo Locks, the way was clear for the ore in Lake Superior to feed the massive steel plants on the Lower Lakes. The lumber that was cut down from the woods in Michigan was shipped westward to help build new homes and towns. Coal became the primary fuel source of the region. Everyone needed it so it was shipped everywhere!

As you can see, our lakes were very popular for transporting people and all types of goods. Lighthouses helped the lake boats get to the correct destination safely and in one piece.



Not all of the lighthouses are built in the style that we are most familiar with – round, or cone shaped. On the Great Lakes, we also have Skeletal, Pyramidal, Schoolhouse, octagonal (8 sides), and square lighthouses.


The materials used to build the lighthouse also make each lighthouse unique. Some lighthouses are built with stone, concrete, wood, steel, brick, or cast iron. Builders used the materials that were readily available in that area.


To help the sailors know their whereabouts during the daylight hours, the Lighthouse Board issued an order to have each lighthouse painted in different colors and/or designs. We call these different colors/designs DAYMARKS.


At night, mariners could not see the lighthouse’s daymarks or structure. They could only see the light. Each lighthouse had its own flash patterns – a flash of light followed by a period of darkness. Stopwatches were issued to the supervisors of the Great Lakes Lighthouses to inspect the flash patterns for complete accuracy. If the flash pattern was off – that could send the wrong message to the sailors in the water. The mariners may actually think that they were much closer or further away than where they thought they should be, and that might cause them to wreck on a shoal. Some lighthouses also had a different color of light. Most were white, but green and red lights were also used.

Mariners carried with them a chart which listed each light’s characteristic and the color of the light, the lighthouse’s daymarks, as well as the description of the fog signals so they could always determine where they were.



The first lights were made of wood and coal fires. By the late 1600’s they started putting candles in a ”lantern” room so the candles wouldn’t blow out. After candles came a lamp that was fueled by kerosene oil.

In 1822, a French scientist, Augustin Fresnel (fray-nel), invented the fresnel lens.

The fresnel lens is made of hundreds of pieces of beautiful, specially cut glass, that surrounds the lamp. The lens collects and directs light rays to produce a beam more powerful than ever before!

The Fresnel lens is made in 6 types or “Orders” of lens’ – first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth orders.

The first order lens is the brightest and its light can reach the furthest out into the waters. The higher you go up in the Order of lens, the shorter their light beam can travel and it becomes less bright.

Most fresnel lens look like a beehive or barrel, and can weigh as much as 4 tons! The lens’ height ranged from almost 8’ high for a 1st order lens to 1 ½’ for the 6th order lens.

First order lens were used on major seacoasts. They were very bright and when placed 100’ above sea level, the 1st order lens could reach 18 miles out into the ocean. Sixth order lights were used in bays where they didn’t have to shine as far or as brightly. Most of the lighthouses on the Great Lakes were equipped with 3rd and 4th Order Fresnel lens.

Today many lighthouses still have their original fresnel lens, while other lighthouses’ lens have been carefully removed to museums where we can all appreciate them. Unfortunately, some lens’ were destroyed when the lighthouses were abandoned and left unguarded.


When lighthouses were first built, the government hired keepers to take care of the lighthouses.

Most Great Lakes Lighthouses were manned by lighthouse keepers during the shipping season which ran from April to December. Ice, the enemy of lighthouses and the reason for a shorter shipping season, covered much of the Great Lakes during the winter months. When the keeper would return to open his or her lighthouse in the spring, many times their first job would be to chip away several inches of ice that formed over the winter.

As a keeper, you were required to do strenuous, around the clock tasks. Keepers had to light the lamp at sunset and keep it going all the way until sunrise. The keeper might have to climb to the top of the light every 4 hours to check on the flame, trim the wick, fill the oil or clean the glass. Some keepers had to climb over 100 steps each time they needed to complete a job at the top!

Donn Werling Lighthouse Keeper

It was also a very important job to keep the lantern room clean so the light’s beam would not be dimmed at night in any way. They shined the brass, cleaned the windows and walls, cleaned and polished the lamp and lens. Quite often it would take an entire day to clean and polish the huge lens alone! While cleaning and polishing the lens,

the keeper had to wear a cleaning coat. He could not wear a watch or any sharp objects. Do you know why? The glass of the lens was the heart of the lighthouse. If the lens was scratched or chipped, it could throw the lighting off at night.

Each and every day, the keeper would have to record all kinds of information in his log books. There were inventory books that recorded everything – even the silverware and china plates. There were books that recorded when the keeper came & when he left, where he went, births and deaths. There were also books that recorded the weather, the keeper’s chores, and the fuel that was used each day. Some keepers recorded just the bare minimum of what was required. Other keepers wrote a lot! Poetry, and short stories of their lives at the lighthouse were written by some keepers. The log books were very helpful in giving us an overall history of the keepers, their families, and what actually went on at the lighthouse.

Everything – the light, the home, and the gardens had to be kept in top order. Each lighthouse and home was issued with many brass items which needed to be kept polished. Dust pans, lanterns, buckets, and oil cans are just a few to mention. The keeper was given a Polishing Service Basket which looked like a picnic basket. You would open it up and find the polish and cleaning rags. It was brass too, so it needed to be polished!!

Fire protection was also a very important duty early on when kerosene oil was still used in the light. Each day at sunset, buckets were filled with water and kept up by the light. In colder temperature, sand was used.

An inspector could always come by, unannounced, to check up on things and give the “white glove treatment”. Even to the closets and drawers! Laundry could not be out on the line past 11 in the morning. If something was found out of order, the keeper would receive a demerit. Too many demerits and the keeper could lose his job. But if the keeper kept his station in top notch condition for many years in a row, he could earn an efficiency star, which was a real prize!

Many keepers had to take on other jobs as well because a keeper’s wage was quite low. Only $350.00/year in 1850! For extra income, they sold fish, piloted boats, built boats, raised chickens and sold their eggs, and grew vegetables.

Not all keepers were men. Fewer than 3% of all lighthouse keepers and assistant keepers were women. How did most women get the job of light keeper? While on duty, fathers taught their daughters and husbands taught their wives how to care for the light. It was very important that someone would be able to take over the position if the keeper should become ill, held up on shore because of the weather, helping out in a disaster somewhere else, or if the keeper should die.

Because most lighthouses were isolated from the rest of the world, the keepers that lived there usually led lonely lives. Lake Superior’s “Grave Yard Coast”, the area between Grand Marais and Whitefish Point, was one of the most isolated areas in the nation. Mosquitoes, biting black flies, extreme isolation, frigid weather, and cutting winds came with the stations in the “Grave Yard Coast”.

Where did the Keeper live?

Some keepers had to live right inside the lighthouse out in the middle of the lakes, where they might have to stay for weeks, sometimes months when the weather conditions were unfavorable, until a “tender” would relieve them and bring a new keeper. These lights were kept by men only. “Tenders” were boats that would transport the keepers and their families, their belongings, furniture, food and supplies to and from the lighthouses. Quarters for sleeping, eating, and recreation in the lake lighthouses were located on the various levels of the lighthouse itself. One room was located above the other and they were connected by a winding staircase.

Other keepers, like the keepers on Middle Island in Lake Huron, had much nicer living arrangements. They enjoyed electricity, they could bathe in a tub inside, the quarters had many bedrooms, a parlor, a fireplace in the living room and a huge kitchen. The keeper on Middle Island had his family with him. This made an often-lonely job, more bearable.

The keeper on Middle Island also had an assistant with his family living in their own part of the huge Victorian House. When the storms were at their worst, the keeper and the assistant would share the around the clock tasks of tending the light or fog signals – 12 straight hours on and 12 hours off for each keeper.

No matter how hard the keepers and lighthouses worked to protect the ships, there were still shipwrecks!


Statistically, Lake Huron is responsible for more shipwrecks than any of the Great Lakes. More than 1,300 wrecks have occurred in Lake Huron. Why? Lake Huron had the highest volume of traffic. And, Lake Huron isn’t as deep as Lake

Michigan or Lake Superior. Its shorelines are also shallow and rocky which meant that boats had to be on a constant alert in her waters.

Many of the Great Lakes worst shipwrecks occurred in November when the most vicious storms often set in and the ice began to arrive. In their attempts to get just one more trip in before the season ended, ships took too many risks when they sailed in November.

The Loss of the LAMBTON

Lampden TenderThe keepers of Lake Superior’s lights risked their own lives to be at their stations as long as they could – sometimes until December 15th! In early spring they would return as soon as the ice was gone enough to get a boat in the water.

On the morning of April 18th, 1922, one of the 1st boats used as a tender, the Lambton, left Sault Ste. Marie with a passenger list vitally important to the beginning of the shipping season on Lake Superior. Three lighthouse keepers and two assistant keepers were all on board. The Lambton was only 108’ long – not nearly safe enough to be on the big waters of Lake Superior!

Upon entering Whitefish Bay, the Lambton was met by fierce gale winds and there was heavy ice in the bay. After clearing the ice floes, it was told that the Lambton’s steering gear had broken. After repairing it the best they could, it’s reported that the Lambton pressed on.

By the 20th of April, the little Lambton was gone with all 22 people on board. Three lighthouses remained dark that evening.

Shipwrecked NORDMEER

Shipwreck NordmeerIt’s not always some great storm that causes a shipwreck. On November 19, 1966, the German freighter, Nordmeer, was traveling at full speed on Lake Huron. It was a calm, clear night. Everything seemed to be going fine.

Unfortunately, a navigational error caused the Nordmeer to come within ½ mile of Thunder Bay Island’s Shoal. The Nordmeer turned sharply, but there just wasn’t enough time. She hit!

It took only minutes for the engine room and cargo holds to become flooded with the waters of Lake Huron. The entire crew was saved, but the captain and 7 crew men wanted to stay behind and try to salvage the ship – it was just sitting on the shoal. But before the captain could save her, the Nordmeer was caught in the middle of the worst November storm in years. Blinding snow and strong north winds broke her back and tore out the remainder of her bottom. She was lost! Captain Steinbeck put out an S.O.S. and they were soon rescued by Coast Guard helicopter.


By the 1920’s, lighthouses changed to electricity. The Statue of Liberty was the first lighthouse in the United States to use electricity. One by one, the lights on the Great Lakes were changed to electricity, and it didn’t take long for the keepers to be out of a job. The lighthouses became automated – automatic – the lighthouses could do the job on their own.

With the keepers gone, and the Coast Guard not around to check up on the abandoned lighthouses, these beautiful structures began to fall apart. Vandalism and the weather elements quickly took their toll.



Boats that once came close to shore can now take routes further out into the lakes. Taller lights replaced the smaller lights. In some situations, the cargo boats just did not come by the lighthouse any longer.


Think about it . . . it is cheaper to build and maintain a new steel structure or buoy rather than a huge lighthouse, and then have to get access to the top of the lighthouse tower maintain the light.


The biggest and most important factor was that almost anyone could purchase a hand held receiver for a few hundred dollars, hook up to the satellite, and know their way around the Great Lakes quite easily.

The Coast Guard does recognize that lighthouses are historical monuments, but the Coast Guard can’t afford to keep them all. Today the Coast Guard is transferring many active lighthouses to organizations that will preserve the lighthouse’s historic nature, but still allow the Coast Guard access to the lamp room to maintain the light.

The Coast Guard is also trying to find new homes for the abandoned lighthouses. Some lighthouses are being sold – they have become museums, a bed and breakfast, or homes for someone to live in.



Almost 20 years ago, two men sat down to discuss the overwhelming job of preserving all of the Great Lakes Lighthouses. At this time, many little lighthouse groups had formed to try to “save” their light. The groups were beginning to realize the enormous task of raising thousands of dollars to help restore, preserve, or “save” their lighthouses. Marvin Theut and Lynn Marvin agreed that there was more strength in numbers, and the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival was founded.

A Festival could give the more remote lights the same opportunities as the more popular lights. The Festival offers them the extra exposure they need to introduce themselves to a lot of people. We can learn the history of their lights, see pictures of their lights, and begin to understand what they need to accomplish to save their lights.

Over the four days of the festival, there are many fundraising events taking place to help save the Great Lakes Lighthouses . . . and all YOU have to do is come!

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