History of Michigan Lighthouses

The library thanks John L. Wagner for permission to use images taken from his book, Michigan Lighthouses: An Aerial Photographic Perspective (East Lansing, MI: John L. Wagner, 1994).


In 1825 the first lighthouse was constructed in what would become the state of Michigan. Built on Lake Huron, the Fort Gratiot Light was named for a nearby military outpost, at the time one of the few European settlements north of Detroit. Over the next 170 years the nature of Great Lakes navigation, the kinds of ships on the lakes, the cargoes being hauled over water, and virtually everything else about the state would change in ways that would make the world of 1997 unrecognizable to George McDougall, Jr., the man who first lit the Fort Gratiot light. McDougall would, however, recognize one thing, the lights themselves; beacons in the night which from his day to ours aid sailors throughout the Great Lakes.

Purpose and Administration

From the earliest days of the Republic, the federal government has assumed responsibility for the construction, operation, and maintenance of America's lighthouses and other aids to navigation. Congress's intent has been to facilitate water-born commerce. Although the military occasionally raised national security concerns in an effort to assert greater control over navigational aids, Congress has consistently placed the needs of commerce above possible military needs. Throughout our nation's history lighthouses have been constructed and maintained to serve the needs of commercial sailors.

From 1820 through 1852 responsibility for constructing and operating lighthouses was vested in the Fifth Auditor of the United State Treasury, who was given the title "General Superintendent of Lights." Stephen Pleasonton, who held the Fifth Auditor position from 1820 through 1852 was responsible not only for lighthouses but also audited the records of a half-dozen federal agencies.

His time divided between many, generally unrelated tasks, Pleasanton proved not particularly insightful regarding the nation's lighthouses, who tended to emphasize economy over any other consideration. During his thirty-two years of responsibility for America's lighthouses, the physical structures housing the lights deteriorated while the lighting mechanisms themselves grew vastly inferior to more advanced, and more expensive, lights used by other nations.

Over the years criticism of Pleasanton's administration of the lights grew and although Congress tinkered with the system at several points, little changed. Finally, in March 1851 Congress directed the Secretary of the Treasury to conduct a full-scale investigation of the nation's lighthouses. In January 1852 Congress received a 760 page report that, among other reforms, asked Congress to completely change lighthouse administration. Although Pleasanton attempted to defend himself, in October 1852 Congress enacted the reforms called for in the report, including the creation within the Treasury Department of a new, nine-member Lighthouse Board that took over administration of the nation's lighthouses.

The Lighthouse Board quickly set about establishing much needed new lights, updating the decaying physical structures that housed existing lights, adopted newer and far more effective lighting technology, and attempted to reform the system used to select keepers. In the main the Lighthouse Board proved very successful. By the beginning of the twentieth century America's lighthouses and other aids to navigation were among the best in the world.

Despite this success, as the new century began various critics of the Board began to call for a more streamlined agency run by a single executive officer. As a result of these criticisms in June 1910 Congress officially abolished the Lighthouse Board and replaced it with a Bureau of Lighthouses, commonly called the Lighthouse Service. The Lighthouse Service was to be run by a single officer, who reported to the Department of Commerce. George R. Putnam, a distinguished civil engineer, was appointed to head the new Service. During his twenty-five years in this post, Putnam the Service continued to expand and remained a world-wide leader in technological innovation. In 1912 the Service also introduced new accounting and inspection procedures that markedly improved the effectiveness of the Service.

In 1939, in a governmental consolidation inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt, the Bureau of Lighthouses became of a part of the United States Coast Guard, which is, in turn, a part of the Treasury Department. The Coast Guard, created in 1915, had long been discussed as the "logical" home for the Lighthouse Service. Indeed, in 1912 President William Howard Taft had suggested to Congress that the Life Saving, Lighthouse, and Revenue Cutter Services be merged to form the Coast Guard. Although Congress, in 1915, merged only the Life Saving and Revenue Cutter Services while allowing the Lighthouse Service to remain independent, talk of uniting the Lighthouse Service with these other two agencies persisted. By merging the Lighthouse Service with the Coast Guard in 1939 Roosevelt essentially convinced Congress to complete the 1912 recommendations of President Taft. The Coast Guard continues to this day to be responsible for all navigational aids, including lighthouses, on the Great Lakes and throughout the country.

Lighthouse Design and Construction

Between 1852 and 1860 twenty-six new lights were erected on the Great Lakes. Although the Civil War and its aftermath greatly slowed construction of new lights during the 1860s, a dozen new lights were still lit. In 1870 the Board had again begun construction of new lights in earnest. Between 1870 and 1880 forty-three new lights were lit on the Lakes and in the next decade more than one hundred new lights appeared on the Great Lakes. By the beginning of the twentieth century the Lighthouse Board oversaw 334 major lights, 67 fog signals, and 563 buoys on the Great Lakes.

During the nineteenth century the design of Great Lakes lights slowly evolved. Until 1870 the most common design was to build a keeper's dwelling and place the light either on the dwelling's roof or on a relatively small square tower attached to the dwelling. In the 1870's, in order to raise lights to a higher focal plane, conical brick towers, usually between eighty to one hundred feet in height, began to be constructed. In the 1890s steel framed towers began to replace the older generation of brick structures.

Between 1870 and 1910 engineers also began to face challenges created by building lights on isolated islands, reefs, and shoals that posed significant hazards to passing ships. These remote lights often replaced lightships, which was the only practical way originally available to the Lighthouse Board to warn sailors away from dangerous underwater rock formations. Ships, however, proved difficult to maintain. They could not be put in place until after the start of navigation season and often had to be removed before the season's end. Worse, regardless of the type of anchors used lightships could be blown off their expected location in severe storms, making them a potential liability in the worst weather when captains would depend on the charted location of these lights to measure their own ship's distance from dangerous rocks.

Usually built on underwater cribs, the first of these new generation of remote lights was constructed at Waugoshance Shoal in 1851. A new level of expertise, however, was reached with the construction of the Spectacle Shoal Light in 1874, the Stannard Rock Light in 1882 and the Detroit River Entrance Light in 1885. The long and expensive process of building lights in isolated or difficult locations ended in nationally publicized engineering projects that constructed the Rock of Ages (1908) and White Shoal Lights (1910).

Throughout the early years of the twentieth century the Lighthouse Board and the new Lighthouse Service continued to build new lights. In 1925, 433 major lights existed on the lakes, ten lightships were still operational, 129 fog signals were maintained, as were about 1,000 buoys. Of these 1,771 navigational aids, in 1925 only about 160 stations had resident keepers. Even at this early date, the vast majority of navigational aids had been automated. By 1925 virtually all of the Great Lakes lighthouses that today exist had been constructed.

In 1925 ten lightships were stationed on the lakes, however twenty years later only one ship, the Huron, was still in service. The Huron would remained stationed off Corsica Shoals in Lake Huron until 1970, when this last active lightship on the lakes was decommissioned. Automation also slowly changed the face of navigational aids. Throughout the twentieth century both the Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard worked to eliminate the need for attended lights. In 1983 the last attended light station in Michigan, Point Betsie on Lake Michigan, was fully automated. Improved navigational aids, such as radio beacons, also supplanted some lights and led to the ongoing abandonment of no longer needed light stations. Although the number of navigational aids continued to grow, in 1986 there were almost 2,500 aids maintained by the Coast Guard, virtually all of the additions were buoys placed in the water while many venerable lights which no longer served commercial needs were extinguished.

The Lights

The keeper's residence, the tower, and all the other buildings and structures that were constructed at a light station existed to make visible and maintain one piece of equipment, the light itself.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, under the administration of James Pleasanton, Michigan's lighthouses generally used a lighting system designed by Captain Winslow Lewis. The Lewis apparatus used a lightly silvered parabolic shaped reflector to amplify the light created by an Argand lamp that burned whale oil. In the field, the reflector in the Lewis apparatus warped very quickly and the lightly silvered surface was quickly abraded away by the tripoli powder, an abrasive of the day commonly used to clean brass, that was used to clean it. The result was that lights quickly grew dim and were of minimal help to sailors.

A far superior apparatus was introduced by French physicist Augustin Fresnel in 1822. The Fresnel lens used a series of glass prisms that surrounded the light source in a lenticular (double convex) configuration. Looking a bit like a beehive the result was a bright, single beam of light that was far superior to anything else available in its day. Fresnel lens were classified into six "orders" based on the focal length of the lens, however seven sizes of light actually existed because a "third and a half" order lens was made. The largest, a first order lens, had a focal length of 36 inches, a lens diameter of six feet, and stood nearly twelve feet tall. In contrast a sixth order lens had a focal length of only 5.9 inches, a diameter of under one foot and was about two feet in height.

Lighthouse LightThe French and English quickly adopted this new lens for their lights and demonstrated the Fresnel lens superiority. Pleasanton, however, who had become close friends with Lewis and relied on him for technical advice, stubbornly refused to install the Fresnel lens in American lighthouses despite its obvious superiority. In 1851 Pleasanton oversaw over 300 lights nationwide of which only three had Fresnel lens, each installed because of direct congressional action.

In 1852, with the establishment of the Lighthouse Board, the Fresnel lens became the preferred lighting apparatus in American lighthouses. By the late nineteenth century the Fresnel lens was in service throughout the Great Lakes. No first order lens was ever installed on the lakes, leaving the five second order lens placed on the lakes the brightest to be lit. By the 1920's Fresnel lens began to slowly give way to other forms of lighting apparatus, however as late as 1986 about one hundred Fresnel lens were still in use on the lakes.

A variety of different lights replaced the Fresnel lens. Lenses similar to those used on train engines were often used as range lights. Self-contained lens-lantern lights, that relied on electricity for power, also were developed, and over time became the new standard light for light houses and other illuminated navigational aids.

About the time that the Fresnel lens first began to appear on the Great Lakes new lamps were also being placed in service to replace the Argand lamp. Several lamps were used but all shared similar designs, using from one to four concentric wicks, depending upon the amount of light desired. Because of the near extinction of the sperm whale, new fuels were also required. After extensive experimentation the Lighthouse Board in the late 1850s decided to fuel its lights with colza (rapeseed) oil. This decision, however quickly proved impractical as the oil was manufactured from a plant rarely grown in the United States.

In the 1860s preheated lard oil had become the most common fuel used in lighthouses. Preheating, however, was difficult and required keepers to somehow keep the oil warm as it was brought from a stove to the light. The development of the incandescent oil vapor lamp allowed the board in 1877 to adopt kerosene as the primary fuel for lights, and by 1889 incandescent oil vapor lamps fueled by kerosene were used in almost all the lights on the Great Lakes.

As early as 1886 the Lighthouse Board conducted experiments using electricity. It would not be until the twentieth century, however, when the electric power distribution grid became widespread and reliable portable electric generators were readily available, that electricity would become the common way to illuminate lighthouses. In 1925 sixty-eight major and forty-five minor Great Lakes lights, or about one-quarter of the total in service, used electrical power. By the early 1940s virtually all the lights on the lakes were powered by electricity.

The use of electricity also greatly facilitated the automation of the lights. As early as 1916 a device was introduced that could automatically replace a burned-out incandescent light bulb. Coupled with electrically run timers that turned the lights on and off, it became increasingly possible to run lighthouses with only an occasional visit for servicing and maintenance. Automation eventually replaced keepers and in 1983 Michigan's last keeper-tended light was automated. Today all the lights on the lakes are maintained through occasional visits by Coast Guard maintenance crews.


Information found in this history is largely drawn from Charles K. Hyde, The Northern Lights: Lighthouses of The Upper Great Lakes (Lansing: Two Peninsula Press, 1986).