Grand Island East Channel Range Light
By Dave Wobser

The following article originally appeared in Great Laker magazine.

One of the Great Lakes most photogenic lighthouses has been in danger of collapse. But thanks to a small, but dedicated group of local volunteers the Grand Island East Channel Light has been saved for future generations to see.

First lighted in August, 1868, the light only served until 1908 when the new Munising East Channel Range Lights were put into operation. It was deactivated five years later. For the next 90 years, the structure was left to the elements which have changed the formerly white landmark into a driftwood-colored structure that is a magnet for the cameras of tourists passing by on the local tour boats.

Douglass Houghton had issued his mineral survey report of Lake Superior in 1841, and the Treaty of LaPointe with the Chippewa Nation opened the area to exploration. In 1844, iron and copper were discovered in the Upper Peninsula, and in 1845 the first iron mine was opened in Nauganee and the first copper mining started in the Keweenaw Peninsula. These discoveries created a demand for vessels to carry the goods to the America’s population located around the lower lakes and on the East Coast.

The first schooner on Lake Superior was the Algonquin which had been portaged around the Soo rapids in 1839. The new demands of iron and copper mining created a demand for vessels on Lake Superior. A few vessels were portaged around the Soo, and a few were built above the Soo.

The demand for vessels was followed by the need for aids to navigation. The first two lighthouses on Lake Superior were built in 1849 at Whitefish Point and Copper Harbor. These were soon followed by lights to mark other port facilities at Eagle Harbor (1851), Ontonagon (1852), Marquette (1853) and Eagle River (1854).

The opening of the first Soo Locks in 1855 permitted a great increase in the number of vessels on Lake Superior and generated a number of requests for more coastal navigation lights. One of the first was Grand Island North Light which is more than 70 miles west of Whitefish Point.

Munising Bay, with Grand Island sitting in the middle of the bay, is a natural shelter from the storms that frequent the largest of the Great Lakes. However, vessels seeking refuge were often caught by shoals in the narrow passage on the east side of the island between Sand Point, on the mainland, and the point eventually chosen as the site for the Grand Island East Channel Light.

In two different appropriations Congress approved $16,000 for a light to mark the location and guide the sailing vessels of the day to a place of safety. The style chosen was the “schoolhouse” lighthouse typical of the day. Similar lights were constructed on the north end of Grand Island, Granite Island, Gull Rock, Ontonagon and Copper Harbor.

The structure consists of a forty-five foot square tower attached to a 1-1/2 story dwelling, on a 44 acre site. A low-ceiling, rubble stone basement supports the building. The kitchen was a shed-roof room attached to the rear of the main building. The oil-fired original lantern was replaced with a fixed Fifth Order Fresnel lens in 1869 and gave the light a visibility of 13 miles.

The East Channel light differs from the others in two significant ways. It was constructed of local timber, as opposed to brick used in the other lights, and sits on a sandy peninsula beach. Both differences have contributed to the lighthouse’s deterioration over the years. Beach erosion was a constant problem for the lighthouse engineers. Over the years, cribbing was installed on several occasions to protect the lighthouse from being undermined by the action of the waves. Steps that once lead up to the front door have vanished long ago and the water is near the foundation.

By 1904, the number of and size vessels using the harbor had increased to the point that a set of range lights were determined to be more appropriate. The constant maintenance of the existing light contributed to the decision, and the Munising Range Lights were put in operation 1908 and the picturesque Grand Island East Channel Light was deactivated and abandoned in 1913.

The light station was declared excess in 1915, and sold to a group of 20 persons who divided the property into individual parcels. Each of the parcels has a narrow beach front and includes a share of the lighthouse building. A number of summer cottages and hunting camps were built on the individual parcels, but the lighthouse was left to the elements. The wooden structure took on the look of driftwood and the beach cribs eroded away to the point that Lake Superior was lapping at the foundation. At one point, Lighthouse Digest magazine designated the East Channel Light as the “Most Endangered Light”.

By 1999, the structure was in danger of being lost and a group of local citizens formed the Grand Island East Channel Light Rescue Project in an attempt to save the historic structure. The committee is working in cooperation with the property owners, the Alger County Historical Society and the U. S. National Forest Service who administers the Grand Island National Recreation Area.

Working with a minimum of funding, the group has been able to install a protective crib of cedar posts in front of the light to keep the wave action away from the foundation. Rocks have been placed in the crib and the sand beach is slowly rebuilding itself around the light.

Inside the tower the volunteers discovered that one of the four large corner timbers that support the lantern was cracked. Jacks were used to raise the tower back into position and the timber received a ‘splint’ to hold everything in place.

Little has been done to the building interior which has suffered the ravages of time and vandals. Very little of the original lath and plaster remains on the walls. The wooden floors have some open spaces. Some wall studding has been replaced to maintain the structural integrity of the building and to seal the window openings from the weather. Only a portion of the kitchen foundation remains.

The roof has been replaced with replica shingles and some siding has been replaced. Replica wood brackets were made to replace the originals that support the gallery around the lantern.

All the work has been with the goal of having the building stabilized for the future. Because the land is privately owned, there is no intention to open the lighthouse for tours or close-up visits. But, the outward appearance has been maintained as the weathered structure that is a favorite with photographers. This will please the many tourists who pass the light on the tour boats of the Pictured Rocks Cruises or the Lake Superior Shipwreck Tours.

Work continues on the project, and you can be part of stabilization effort. Tax-free donations may be made to the East Channel Lighthouse Rescue Project, c/o Alger County Historical Society, PO Box 201, Munising, MI 49862, or you can volunteer to help on site by calling project coordinator Chris Case at 906-387-5149.

Click on image to enlarge

1994 Photograph by John Meyland

2006 pictures by Dave Wobser

Location: Grand Island, Michigan
Date Built: 1863
Active: No

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