Sable Point Light
This article originally appeared in the April-June issue of Great Laker magazine.
One of the more beautiful sections of the Lake Superior shoreline is located within the National Park Service (NPS) Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which extends from Grand Marais on the east to Munising on the west. The area includes the Pictured Rocks, Miners Castle, Grand Sable Dunes, miles of sandy beach and the Au Sable Point Light Station. This is an area where you will want to plan to spend some time.
The discovery of copper in the Keweenaw in the 1840’s, and iron ore in the Marquette Range in 1844, combined with the opening of the Soo Locks in 1855 generated a great amount of vessel traffic in the region.
By 1872, there were over 650 steamers and more than 1,650 sailing vessels operating on the Great Lakes. Many of these were involved with the iron ore trade and traveled along Michigan’s north shore. What is now known as the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore became known as the “The Shipwreck Coast’ or “The Graveyard Coast”.
The only aids to navigation were the Grand Marais light (1885) and the light located on the north end of Grand Island (1855) near Munising. This left some 80 miles of shoreline to be navigated by the early mariners.
Au Sable Point reef extends nearly a mile out into Lake Superior as a ridge of sandstone just a few feet under the water. The shallow water caught many a vessel that was following the shoreline, or was pushed in by violent storms out of the north and northwest. The area is also famous for thick fog caused by the cool lake air mixing with the warm air off the sand dunes. As early as 1622, French explorers called the region “most dangerous when there is any storms”.
Mariners began pressing for a lighthouse in the early 1860’s but it was not until 1872 that funds were appropriated and District Engineer Orlando M. Poe was authorized to select a site and design a light station for Au Sable Point. Poe was also in the process of designing a new light for Outer Island in the Apostle Islands. He decided to use the same design at both stations and they were of the design we now call “Poe-style” light towers.
The distinctive style begins with cut stone foundations, 16 feet in diameter, that support a double-walled brick tower that tapers to a twelve foot diameter below the gallery. The gallery is supported by cast-iron corbels. Just below the gallery are four arch-topped windows that feature curved stone pediments. Other Poe-style light towers were built at Presque Isle on Lake Huron, Grosse Point, Little Sable Point, South Manitou Island, Wind Point and Seul Choix all on Lake Michigan, and Outer Island on Lake Superior..
The 87-foot Au Sable tower supports a rare wood-paneled lantern room enclosing a Third Order Fresnel lens that is 107 feet above Lake Superior. The steady white light is visible for a distance of 17 miles. The tower is painted white, with contrasting black trim, to contrast with the surrounding forest and serve as a day mark. Built to stand the harsh winter Lake Superior storms, the tower walls are four foot thick at the base and three foot in the lower lantern room.
The original two-story keepers dwelling is attached to the tower by a short enclosed walkway. This building was enlarged and converted to a duplex to house the assistant keepers in 1909. At the same time a new 2-story head keepers dwelling was erected, along with a new cistern and brick privy.
A brick oil storage house was erected in 1895, followed by a fog signal building in 1897, and an iron oil storage building in 1915. The keepers were finally connected with the outside world in 1938 when a roadway was cut through the forest to a public road. For the 30 years prior, access to the station was by lighthouse tender vessel or a narrow pathway along the sand dunes to Grand Marais, a distance of nearly 12 miles.
A two-car garage was added in 1954, and the station was automated in 1958 with self-changing light bulbs. A 300 mm solar powered optic came a short time later, and the station was closed and abandoned.
The 1966 creation of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore surrounded the light station, and the station property was turned over to the Park Service in 1968. Beginning in 1973, Federal funds have been appropriated to stabilize and restore the station’s structures. Combined with local funds, donations, and grant funds, over $600,000 worth of work has been completed.
The work included a high-tech photovoltaic system that provides electricity to the site. The system is located 850 feet from the tower and does not spoil the natural surroundings of the site. Other major projects included restoration of the lantern room roof and glass, lead paint and asbestos removal, and reinstallation of the Fresnel lens which had been removed when the station was automated. The magnificent Third Order lens was manufactured by L. Sauter & Co. of Paris, France.
NPS Facility Manager Chris V. Case, who has been stationed at Pictured Rocks since 1989, is an avowed lighthouse enthusiast. He explains that the goal at Au Sable is to restore the building and grounds to the way they appeared in 1910. “We hope to be able to set up the keepers dwelling so that seasonal volunteer docents can live on the second floor. A mini-museum would be established on the first floor.” In his spare time, Chris is also the project coordinator for the East Channel Lighthouse Rescue, a photographic favorite of lighthouse fans.
Whoever said “getting there is half the fun” obviously had Au Sable Point in mind. The station is located 39 miles from the NPS Visitors Center in Munising. Only the first 19.5 miles are paved and the balance is pretty well maintained gravel roads. This brings you to the Hurricane River Campground where you park. From the campground it is a 1.5 mile walk along the Lake Superior shoreline. You have a choice of walking along beach and viewing the remains of several ship wrecks, or walking the scenic park service path along the top of the dunes. Either way it is a pleasant walk. Be sure to take along some water, and maybe your lunch.
From downtown Grand Marais the road is mostly paved and is a distance of about 14 miles. Whichever way you decide to travel, be sure to stop at the Log Slide Overlook located approximately 5 miles east of the campground. There is a tremendous view of Lake Superior, the sand dunes, the light station to the west and Grand Marais to the east.
While you are in the Munising-Grand Marais area, there are a number of other things to see in addition to the various attractions of the Pictured Rocks. The Munising East Channel Range Lights are located in downtown Munising and just east of town, on M-28 in Christmas, are the West Channel Range Lights and a little farther west is the Bay Furnace, one of the few remaining example of early iron smelting. At the east end of Munising’s Sand Point Road you will find the former USCG Life Saving station which is now the headquarters of Pictured Rock National Lakeshore. A small museum is located in the former boat house.
In Grand Marais you will find the Rear Range Light and former USCG station buildings which have been converted to a museum.
Be sure to stop at the NPS Visitors Center in Munising to pick up a free guide and map, and the latest information about the National Lakeshore. Further information can be received by calling 906-387-3700 or visiting their website at www.nps.gov/piro.
On July 8th and 22nd, and August 12th and 26th, the Park has partnered with Munising-based ALTRAN Company to provide van trips out to the station for people with mobility limitations. Also beginning July 1, 30-minute tour will be given through the first floor of the assistant keeper's dwelling and up the tower.
2006 will be the first year that the Park is will be seeking live-in volunteers to staff the museum and contact station. Volunteers will live in a new apartment on the second floor of the head keeper's dwelling. The apartment includes a kitchen, living room, bathroom and a single bedroom. Anyone interested in serving as volunteer can download an application a www.volunteer.gov. Questions about the volunteer program may also be directed to Pamela Baker at the Visitor Information Center.
The light station grounds are open form May through October, and the buildings will be open to the public from July 1 through September. For additional information telephone the Visitor Information Center at 906-387-3700 or visit the Pictured Rocks website at www.nps.gov/piro.
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