Whitefish Point Light Station – Long-standing Lake Superior Beacon

By Gordon Lightfoot The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald details the grayish end of the “greatest ship of its time” to navigate the Great Lakes. Seventeen miles northeast of the entrance to Whitefish Bay in Canadian waters are the wreckage of the 729-foot ore freighter. The ships sailing on Lake Superior had been protected for more than 150 years through the gales of the Great Lakes, except for that particular night, November 10, 1975, when the light and radio beacon at Whitefish Point went out. without prior notice.

The first ship to fall prey to the turbulence and violence of the lake’s open waters was the Invincible in 1816. The 60-foot merchant ship was the first known ship to sail Lake Superior and was brought down by hurricane force winds and waves off the coast of Whitefish Point. It was this incident and others on the 160-mile stretch of open water that led the Commerce Committee to allocate funds for the construction of the light station in 1847.

In March 1847, $ 5,000 was allocated and a surveyor was sent to explore the site for the future beacon. Once the 115-acre blueberry swamp and sand dunes site was selected at the point, plans for the station were drawn. Construction began in 1848 on a 65-foot stone conical tower with a stone roof. Six windows illuminated the interior pine spiral staircase that led to an iron staircase leading to the last eight feet and the door to the deck. The centerpiece of the platform was an octagonal lantern with 13 different lamps with reflectors that flashed at regulated intervals. Next to the light station was another stone building with two rooms and a sleeping area in the attic for the light men.

The original structure functioned well until the boom in maritime traffic in 1855. In addition to the increase in sailing ships, the high turnover of lighting men and regular visits by Indians and cattle made the need to improve the ship a reality. light station system. The Lincoln government approved the construction of the station that still stands: a cast iron tower painted dark brown, built in sections and assembled piece by piece. In 1869, it was decided that a fog signal should be added to the station and in 1871 a simple wood-framed building was constructed.

Due to the increase in workload over time, a second guardian was approved and in 1895 a duplex design for the guardians was completed. The tower was repainted from dark brown to white and a new lens system was installed that allows for faster rotation for better coverage of critical points in the waterways. Improvements over the years continued, including an electrically operated offshore underwater bell in 1912 to alert ships off the Whitefish Point shoreline of adverse weather conditions.

In the natural progression of things, the Coast Guard built a life-saving station on the Whitefish property in 1923. With new buildings and equipment, the treacherous waters of the “Shipwreck Coast” could be monitored 24 hours a day. New and improved fog signals were installed and, with the increasing use of ship radios, a radio beacon transmitter was installed at the facility allowing ships to fix their position between stations with similar equipment on the lake. When the wood-framed fog signal building met the same fate in 1935 as some of the ships it helped salvage, a new building equipped for electricity instead of coal was erected and designed specifically for radio and crosstalk operations.

Sailing ships and beacon technology had changed over the years and by 1971 the buildings and staff at Whitefish Point were no longer needed and the station was automated. But the network of buildings in “The Great Lakes Cemetery” at the tip of Whitefish Bay was not yet ready to be cut off from the world. In 1973, Lake Superior’s oldest active light station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tom Farnquist, a diver, and Sault Ste. Marie, a high school biology teacher, brought together other divers to create the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) in 1978. Their desire to further explore the historic shipwrecks that litter the Eastern sector of Lake Superior became the nationally known organization that it is today.

The complex has been re-designated as historic and one of the Coast Guard buildings houses the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Tours of the museum are offered, as well as the Shipwreck Video Theater, which shows a video of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s underwater site. Other must-sees are the restored neighborhoods of the lighthouse, the Edmund fitzgerald exhibit that includes the ship’s bell that was recovered in 1995, and the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory established by the Audabon Society of Michigan located directly across from the light station. For a truly unique experience, book a stay through the Overnight Program for the Whitefish Point Coast Guard Lifeboat Station. The station, which dates back to 1923, has five themed rooms on the top floor with private baths, queen-size beds, and period furnishings. Gaze at the stars, relax with coffee in the living room, or watch the ships go by at night.

With its history, nature, and innovation, Whitefish Point Light Station remains a hotspot on the Lake Superior shoreline. For more information on the history of Whitefish Point Light Station, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, or how to get involved in preservation efforts, visit www.shipwreckmuseum.com

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