Ile North Channel Range Front Light
By Brian E. Loftus, with
special thanks to
During the 19th century, industry and commerce rapidly expanded throughout the Midwest, and all the ports of the Upper and Western Great Lakes were accessed by transiting the Detroit River. As traffic in the river increased, the Cleveland Vessel Owners Association petitioned Congress to establish navigation lights to enable 24 hour operations of their steam powered ships.
The request was granted in 1891 when the first pair of channel guidance lights – range lights – were established on Hennepin Point to guide up bound ships past the sandbar off the southwest point of Fighting Island.
Three years later Congress appropriated money to establish another set of lights to serve down bound traffic, the Grosse Ile North Channel range lights. They were lighted on July 16, 1894 and identified the Fighting Island channel north of Mamajuda Island.
The northernmost of these lights was the Grosse Ile North Channel Front Range Light, now the only remaining light on the island. The companion beacon, the taller rear range light, was built on land north of Horsemill Road just east of what is now Parke Lane.
The original 1894 front range light resembled a water tower on stilts as it was constructed on wooden pilings along a 170 foot pier from the shore. It was rebuilt in 1906, and remains the classic white structure that still exists today. The interior of the lighthouse is paneled with the traditional Michigan tongue and groove varnished pine while the exterior is painted cedar. An impressive circular wooden staircase winds to the light stanchion, now empty.
A lighthouse keeper, with his family, lived in a one room cabin near the rear tower until a larger house was built on the property in 1904 (and still stands today as a private residence).
In addition to keeping the front and rear lights burning, the keeper was responsible for all maintenance of the lighthouses. Oil for the lamps was stored in metal structures near the lights, as was a supply of glycerin which was used to clean the windows and keep them from freezing during the winter.
After the opening of the Livingstone Channel in 1912, other channels in the lower Detroit River were dredged and straightened. The Grosse Ile North Channel ceased to exist and the rear light was decommissioned. The rear range tower was later demolished and today exists only in a few photographs.
In the 1920’s the remaining lights were electrified, with the Grosse Ile Light an occulting (flashing) white beacon, one second on and one second off. The light was permanently extinguished in 1963 and the Fresnel lens was removed by the Coast Guard. Of the original four lights on Grosse Ile, only this light was saved from demolition.
In 1965, the Township purchased the light from the Interior Department for $350, with funds provided by the Grosse Ile Historical Society. The Society has the responsibility to preserve and maintain the lighthouse and is supported strictly by private contributions. Through the Lighthouse Endowment Fund and this summer’s Centennial Celebration, concerned citizens, organizations and corporations provide the assets for the continuous upkeep this classic structure requires. Please join us in the preservation of this part of Great Lakes maritime history.
The Grosse Ile Historical Society now maintains the light and it can be toured by calling 734-675-1250.
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