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Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations

Lighthouses and life-saving stations have played an integral role in the history of the Thunder Bay region. The frequency of shipwrecks in the vicinity of Thunder Bay led to the establishment of U.S. Life-Saving Service Stations at Thunder Bay Island and Middle Island. These facilities were manned by crews that trained extensively in the use of rescue boats and other lifesaving equipment. They were among the busiest stations on Lake Huron, assisting hundreds of vessels every year and saving thousands of lives. Starting in 1915, the U.S. Life-Saving, Lighthouse, and Revenue Cutter Services were consolidated to form the U.S. Coast Guard. An auxiliary division of the U.S. Coast Guard is stationed in Alpena and the Coast Guard continues to maintain the lights that are still in operation in the region.

Six lighthouses are located within or near the sanctuary. Of these six, all but the Old Presque Isle Light continue to serve as navigational aids to commercial and recreational vessels passing through the region.

 

Old Presque Isle Lighthouse Old Presque Isle LightThe original Presque Isle Lighthouse and its adjoining keeper's cottage were built in 1840 to signal the entrance to Presque Isle Harbor. The light was replaced by the "new" Presque Isle Lighthouse in 1870. In the early 1900s the old lighthouse and cottage were bought and restored by the Stebbins family. The light is no longer in operation, but the cottage is now a museum, filled with 19th-century antiques and artifacts. The 40-foot lighthouse tower is accessible to the public via a hand-chiseled stone staircase. The old harbor range lights are also located near the lighthouse. Timbers from the unlucky ship FAME, which foundered on the shores of Presque Isle in 1887 after a series of other accidents, are believed to be incorporated into the keeper's cottage. The Old Presque Isle Lighthouse has also gained a reputation as one of the "ghost lights" of the Great Lakes.

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New Presque Isle Lighthouse New Presque Isle LightThe New Presque Isle Lighthouse was built in 1870, one of three Great Lakes towers built from the same plans. It replaced the smaller 1840 harbor light, located one mile to the south. The conical brick tower rises 113 feet and is connected to a keeper's dwelling by a covered walkway. The light's Third Order Fresnel lens was made by Henri LePaute of Paris, and the lamp was lit for the first time at the opening of the 1871 navigation season. In 1890 a fog signal (no longer in existence) was installed at the light , and in 1905 a second dwelling was built to house personnel to maintain the signal.

In 1939 the Coast Guard took over operation of the light. The Coast Guard automated the light in 1970, eliminating the need for a keeper. In 1973 the Coast Guard leased the grounds to Presque Isle Township for a public park, and in 1998 ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to the Township. The grounds and 1870 keeper's house are open to the public (May - October), and the tower is open daily for climbing during the summer months. The 1905 keeper's dwelling is presently being restored by the Presque Isle Township Museum Society for use as a museum.

The light still features its original, fully operational Fresnel lens, but the Coast Guard indicates that it is in need of repair and restoration. They would like to see the lens removed, moved to an area for public viewing, and replaced with a modern plastic optic. The Township hopes to restore the original lens and return it to the tower. Steps are currently being taken toward that end.

For more information about the Presque Isle lighthouses, contact Les Nichols, Presque Isle Township Parks & Recreation Committee, at 517-595-2653.

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Middle Island Lighthouse A U.S. Life-Saving Service Station was established on Middle Island in the 1880s. Middle Island is named for its location about halfway between the North Point of Thunder Bay and Presque Isle. The Middle Island Lighthouse was built in 1905. The 71-foot tower is made of brick and is painted white with an orange band in the middle. The light continues to be in operation.

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Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse Thunder Bay Island LightThe Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse was constructed in 1832 and is one of the oldest light stations on Lake Huron. It was built to warn mariners of the dangerous reefs extending out from the island. Thunder Bay Island is outermost in a group of islands connected to the North Point of Thunder Bay by a shallow bank of submerged rocks. The original tower was 40 feet tall and was raised 10 feet in 1857. The original lens was a Fourth Order Fresnel, manufactured by Sauttier of Paris. It has been replaced with a modern airport beacon. In 1858 a fog bell was added, and in 1868 the keeper's residence was constructed, linked to the tower by a covered walkway. The fog signal building was constructed in 1892. The original steam-driven fog signal equipment has been replaced by a pair of diesel engines driving Ingersoll-Rand air compressors.

In 1846, the first store in Alpena County was built on the island, which had developed a large fishing station. Twelve thousand barrels of fish were harvested that year, with 31 fishing boats and 160 inhabitants in the island community.

Thunder Bay Island
This postcard depicts the Thunder Bay Island Coast Guard complex in its heyday. A tram was used to transport equipment via the tracks visible on the right.

Thunder Bay Island Life-Saving Station was established in 1876 and was manned by the U.S. Lighthouse Service until 1939, when it became part of the U.S. Coast Guard. The lighthouse was automated in 1983 and the full-time crew was reassigned. The Light Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Over the course of its history, the lifesaving crew played a major role in countless rescues at sea. In 1997, the Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society signed a 10-year lease with the U.S. Coast Guard covering the Thunder Bay Island light station grounds. The Society is currently involved in restoring the light station and collecting information on the history of the island. For more information, write: Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society, P.O. Box 212, Alpena, MI 49707.

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Thunder Bay River (or Alpena) Lighthouse In 1875, a temporary light was placed on pilings at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River to carry out the important task of signaling the river's location to ships entering Alpena Harbor. In 1877, a wooden lighthouse was erected on a crib at the north-end pier. This light was reconstructed in 1888 and replaced by a red-painted steel structure in 1914.

Old Alpena Light
This 1880s-era photo depicts the wooden lighthouse that once marked the entrance to Alpena Harbor.

Alpena LightThe current light is about 80 feet tall; half of that height consists of an open steel frame. While the light may be overlooked by lighthouse seekers visiting the more picturesque Presque Isle and Sturgeon Point lights, local supporters endorse "L'il Red's" slogans: "Don't kick the can," and "Short on beauty, long on duty." (Drawing by Renee Dopplick.)

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Sturgeon Point Lighthouse Sturgeon Point LightIn 1869, the U.S. Lighthouse Service began construction of the lighthouse at Sturgeon Point to mark a hazardous reef that extends 1.5 miles out into Lake Huron at Sturgeon Point, just north of Harrisville. Sturgeon Point Lighthouse became operational in the spring of 1870 and has been in continuous service for 128 years. Although the last personnel left in 1941, it is still an operational lighthouse (the light apparatus is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard).

In 1982 the Alcona Historical Society leased the lighthouse and began a three-year restoration project. Thanks to volunteers, the interior of the keeper's house was completely restored, and the buildings were painted. Although the lighthouse tower is not open to the public, the keeper's house is now a maritime museum. The grounds are open all year. For more information, write: Alcona Historical Society, P.O. Box 174, Harrisville, MI 48740.

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