Vidal Shoal Range Lights
By
Terry Pepper & Dave Wobser

After 1883, lights were erected on the north and south piers at the upper entrance to the St. Marys canal. These lights were understandably known as the St. Marys Falls North and South Pier lights, and when ranged together, they assisted vessels in making their way around Vidal Shoals and lining up to enter the canal and the locks below.

In the 1890ís, the Army Corps of Engineers undertook a major dredging project to virtually remove Vidal Shoals and simultaneously straighten the channel leading to the canal. With the channel moved considerably from it original position, the north and south pier lights no longer served as a guide into the canal, and the decision was made to erect a new set of lights to guide mariners into the canal. These were known as the Vidal Shoals Channel Range Lights, and it is these two lights which are shown in the postcard photos.

To create the new Vidal Shoal Channel Range in 1899, the old north pier light was removed, and the old south pier light relocated to far outer (West) end of the north pier to serve as the Front Range of the new ranges. The Front Range was located some 1400-feet in front of the Rear Range light, had a Fourth Order lens and flashed red every 10 seconds. The circular cast iron tower was painted white with a black lantern. The focal plane was 40-feet above the water.

At the same, time a new Rear Range structure was erected on a pier close to the outer end of the south embankment of the International Railway Bridge. As originally built, the rear range structure took the form of an open framework iron skeleton tower with a horizontally slatted daymark and was capped by a lens lantern. The 8-sided, cast iron lantern showed a fixed red light through a Fourth Order lens manufactured by Barbier, Benard & Turenne of Paris.

In 1904, the Front Range tower was increased in height by inserting a new steel section with a new door opening beneath the existing tower. This is the conical structure shown in both of the old postcards. In the sunset photograph, you will clearly see the new section, with the old door opening sealed-in above it.

Also in 1904 a new octagonal timber-framed wood-sheathed tower was erected to serve as the rear range on the crib immediately in front of the old skeleton structure. The old skeleton structure was left in place for a number of years. This is the taller structure shown in the postcard photo showing the railroad bridge, and the original skeleton tower can clearly be seen immediately behind the white tower.

There was a keeper's dwelling of eight rooms located next to the canal approximately 100-feet south of the rear light, on the west side of the railroad embankment and north of Portage Avenue. Other structures included a privy, boat house, and a red brick oil house, all connected by concrete sidewalks. The dwelling had been built in 1899 and was renovated in 1904. Because the lights were located on the center pier, it was necessary for the keeper to use the station boat to go from the dwelling to the light. The other option was to walk back to the lock gates, cross the locks, then walk back out the pier. The boat house was located about 75-feet east of the dwelling.

As a result of further changes in dredging and channel headings, it was determined that the ranges again needed to be moved in 1915, and the old conical front range light was removed from the pier and placed in storage, to be replaced by a skeletal black iron structure located some 450 yards north of the canal wall and west of the International Bridge. At this time the timber frame rear range structure was found to be in deteriorated condition, was demolished, and the old iron skeletal tower behind it was refurbished and reactivated.

The old Front Range tower sat in storage for 12 years until 1927, when it used as the central tower and lantern for the new lighthouse being built at Fourteen Foot Shoal off the entrance to the Cheboygan River. While it has been reported erroneously in a number of places that the old conical Vidal Shoals Front Range tower was reused as the rear range for the Grand Island Range. The plans for Fourteen Foot Shoal lighthouse clearly state that the tower in the center of the lighthouse formerly served as the Vidal Shoal Front Range.

If you compare photographs of the tower, gallery and lantern at the Fourteen Foot Shoal light with the postcard photos of the Vidal Shoals Front Range light you will find the exact similarity to be immediately recognizable. Check out the gallery support corbels and the railing details.

Conversely, comparing the postcard photos with the same features at the Grand Island Rear Range you will see that it is definitely a different structure. However, there are a number of features of the Grand Island Rear Range light that indicate it was previously used elsewhere, and a number of people continue to try and identify its origin, but have so far been unsuccessful.

Note: Terry Pepper is the Executive Director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (www.GLLKA.com) in addition to having his own website dedicated to Great Lakes lighthouses (www.terrypepper.com).

Click on images to enlarge

Front range light tower pre-1904


Front range tower after 1904
Note USLSS building in foreground

Photographs courtesy Terry Pepper


Postcard photo of the Front Light tower
after height increase in 1904.
Note old entrance door above new entrance.


Postcard photo of 1904 Rear light
Note old skeletal tower behind tower.

Postcard photos from Theresa Graham

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Location: West center pier Soo Locks
Date Built: 1899, 1904, 1915
Active: No longer existing.

 

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