DeTour Reef Light
By Dave Wobser
A Textbook Example of Lighthouse Restoration

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Great Laker magazine.
Why would anyone or any group want to tackle a project to restore a 1930’s lighthouse that is located more than a mile from the nearest land? To make it even less inviting, the light is located on a concrete crib with limited room to work. There is no island surrounding the light to make it more attractive.

"A lighthouse needs a constituency" explains Dr. Charles ‘Chuck’ Feltner, president of the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society (DRLPS), as the reason the Art Deco-style light station is a candidate for restoration. "DeTour Reef is a guiding light to commercial vessels, pleasure craft, fishermen, divers and is a point of pride for residents of both Drummond Island and DeTour Village. A lot of people want to see this light saved."

With these words, Feltner explains why this difficult to reach lighthouse is about to receive nearly a million dollars worth of restoration and preservation. The ultimate goal is even more ambitious. DRLPS wants to make the light station accessible to visitors, tourists and lighthouse enthusiasts for the 2005 season.

Early sailing vessels were guided from Lake Huron into the mouth of the St. Marys River by beacons located on shore. The first light had been lighted on the Upper Michigan mainland near DeTour Village in 1848, on a sprit of land known as DeTour Point. This was seven years before the first State Lock opened at Sault Ste. Marie.

Following the opening of the first U. S. Soo Lock in 1855, marine traffic increased at a rapid rate. The first light was replaced in 1861 by a skeletal tower light similar to the Manitou Island Light and the Whitefish Point Light. This second light was also located on DeTour Point.

As commercial traffic continued to increase and vessels of deeper draft became more common, the area of shallow water known as Detour Reef became a concern to vessel masters. The reef, located about a mile off DeTour Point, is only covered by 20 feet of water. By the 1920’s as many as 70 vessels per day were traversing the region. A new lighthouse was needed to make the shoal and the entrance to the St. Marys River.

The present Art Deco-style DeTour Reef Lighthouse has been guiding vessels into the mouth of the St. Marys River since 1931. Often called the ‘Gateway to Lake Superior’, this important lighthouse has been a welcome beacon to commercial and pleasure craft alike as they seek to make the passage between Lake Huron and Lake Superior via the Soo Locks. Automated in 1974, the light was declared to be ‘excess property’ by the Federal Government in 1997.

Construction of the concrete foundation is very similar to the Martin Reef Light which is located about 10 miles to the west of DeTour, and Poe Reef Light located near Cheboygan. All three stations were built by the same crew at about the same time. The light was constructed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers after the commercial bids received by the U. S. Lighthouse Service were determined to be unsatisfactory. The Corps completed the structure in 327 working days with a budget of $141,000.

The concrete foundation is 60 feet square and 20 feet above the water. The first story of the light station is a steel framed structure measuring 31 feet square. The tower portion is 12 feet square and supports a 10-sided watch room and lantern room. The total height is 63 feet to the top of the ventilator ball. The spiral staircase, lantern room and lens were relocated from the 1861 light to the present lighthouse during construction in 1931.

The original Third-and-a-half Order Fresnel lens with four flash panels is displayed in the DeTour Passage Historical Museum near the Drummond Island ferry dock in DeTour. The lens was made in 1908 by Barbier, Benard & Turenne of Paris. The lens rotated every 40 seconds and produced a 10 second interval between flashes and was visible up to 17 miles away. Part of the original clockwork mechanism remains in the lighthouse.

The original foghorn was recovered and restored by Jeff Laser of Bellville, Ohio. The diaphone relic was in a storage warehouse owned by the Great Lakes Historical Society of Vermilion, Ohio. Laser used his own funds and vacation time to work on the DeTour project. He was also the moving force in getting the diaphone foghorn restored and reactivated in Duluth, Minnesota. Laser has also done extensive research and recording of foghorns, and was recently named Keeper of the Quarter by the United States Lighthouse Society. The foghorn is currently displayed in the Drummond Island Historical Museum.

DRLPS Organized
Feltner gives much of the credit for the start of the restoration effort to long-time friend Dick Moehl, president of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA). As Feltner tells it "In January 1998, after it became known the DeTour Reef Lighthouse would be put on the government’s ‘excess property’ list, Moehl came to DeTour and helped get some people from DeTour Village and Drummond Island together and started the DRLPS." In addition to Dick Moehl, the DRLPS original incorporators were Jeri Feltner, Jim Charles, Barb Snider, and the late Bob Jones.

DRLPS is a non-profit 501c3 organization whose purpose is " to establish, support and promote efforts in the preservation and restoration of the DeTour Reef Light; to achieve the safe keeping of the building, artifacts and records; to educate and inform the public on its history; and to raise awareness about the importance of volunteers in maintaining and preserving DeTour Reef Light for all present and future generations."

Bob Jones, who passed away in March 2002, was the first president of the DRLPS. A DeTour resident he had been the assistant director of the Eastern Upper Peninsula Transportation Authority which operates the Drummond Island, Neebish Island and Sugar Island ferry services. He was described by Chuck Feltner as "the guiding light for DRLPS and the person who had the ultimate passion for preserving the light".

Barb Snider, and her husband Tom, are Drummond Island residents who own the Fogcutter Restaurant adjacent to the Drummond Island ferry dock in DeTour Village. Tom is the son of the late Clare J. Snider who was Maritime Operations Manager for Ford Motor Company and was in charge of the Ford Fleet from 1958 to 1975. Jim Charles, a DeTour Village resident, is retired from the US Army Corps of Engineers and head of the local Chamber of Commerce.

The Feltners were able to recruit a number of people who had an interest in saving the lighthouse and were able to provide expertise and enthusiasm to the group. Denny Bailey, owner of the Drummond Island Yacht Haven and President of the Drummond Island Tourist Association, was joined by local residents Dave and Paula Bardsley, Clif Haley, Bruce Glupker, Mary Rogers, Sheryl LaMotte and Dotty Witten. Feltners credit much of the organization’s success to date to the strength and dedication of the team.

Mrs. Feltner notes "The DRLPS is a society of people and the Society’s success is based on their support, talent, commitment, dedication, loyalty and integrity." "I am honored to be a part of the team to preserve the DeTour Light as a monument to Michigan’s maritime history."

Clif Haley, a retired attorney and former COE of Budget Rent-A-Car, became a member of the DRLPS Board of Directors in 2000. He brought additional expertise to the grant writing process. Haley believes that "DRLPS is a wonderful opportunity to preserve for future humanity an important symbol of the history of mankind".

Board members and other volunteers have organized a variety of fund-raising events, including raffles, benefit dinners and the sale of DeTour Reef memorabilia. The organization sells their merchandise at local gift shops and through their website at One of the more popular events is an annual Father’s Day cruise to see the light station up close, followed by a narrated trip up the St. Marys River and through the Soo Locks. Cruisers are returned to DeTour via chartered bus.

DRLPS membership now totals 670 from sixteen different states. The group has also received a 20-year lease from the US Coast Guard with a 20-year extension option.

DRLPS received national recognition when the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Michigan’s historic lighthouses, exemplified by DeTour Reef Light, to their 1998 List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This was the first time a lighthouse was included on the annual list.

The light station has also been declared eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which helps in obtaining grant funding. DeTour Reef was featured in the national TV program ‘Legendary lighthouses" which was shown on the History Channel in 2001.

Clif Haley and Jeri Feltner became the designated grant writers, and it is grant funding that has made the restoration possible. Writing is not new to Jeri. She and her husband have co-authored two books on Great Lakes maritime history. Their Shipwrecks of the Straits of Mackinac includes stories of 41 discovered shipwrecks and 43 known, but as yet undiscovered, wrecks. Their Drummond Island home has a view of the DeTour Reef Light and one room has been turned into the nerve center for the DRLPS. Jeri is also president of Seajay Publications, a firm dedicated to the publication of high quality material on maritime history.

To aid the restoration effort, noted lighthouse preservationist Cullen Chambers (of Tybee Island, Georgia) donated his services to DRLPS in 2000. Chambers conducted a conditions survey and prepared a 186-page report that outlines recommendations for restoration and preservation. The report served as a foundation to the restoration plans and grant applications.

The first grant application, filed by Jeri Feltner in 1999, was to produce a museum display, oral history video and color brochure. The application was approved by the Michigan Coastal Management Program (MCMP) for $10,000 and DRLPS matched the grant with $10,000 worth of volunteer labor.

Part of this grant produced 120 interpretive panels explaining the history if the lighthouse. The panels with pictures and drawings are currently displayed in the Drummond Island Museum and are viewed by visitors to the museum. The oral history includes an interview with DeTour resident Alfred Lemieux, who is believed to be the last surviving member of the DeTour Reef Light construction crew.

When the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse, the two deck cranes were cut up and removed from the lighthouse crib. Chuck Feltner, who is a former scuba diver, recruited scuba divers to help with a significant recovery. The divers, led by the Feltner’s friend Mike Spears, were able to locate many of the deck crane parts which had been dumped in the water as the cranes were cut up. While salvaging the crane parts the divers also made an engineering video of the underwater pier deck for the Coast Guard. The video documents the stability of the lighthouse foundation.

Mrs. Feltner then wrote a successful grant application to the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program in 1999. A grant of $20,000 was awarded and matched by DRLPS with $10,000 in cash and another $10,000 in volunteer labor. One deck crane was restored using many of the original parts and includes the builder’s plate, all of which was recovered from the waters of Lake Huron.

A second $8500 matching MCMP grant in 2001 provided funds to copy the original DeTour lighthouse logbooks which are located in the National Archives. The logbooks will be housed in the DeTour Village Public Library. With the aid of USCG civil engineer Jim Woodward, the Feltners also managed to acquire 150 original construction drawings of the lighthouse. Woodward is an environmental specialist in the Coats Guard’s Ninth District office in Cleveland. The drawings would prove to be invaluable for future restoration projects.

Major Projects
The early grants and projects were important in getting the preservation moving, but they are small in comparison to the actual restoration work and the funding that will be required. Matching grants are a way of life for agencies that fund projects such as lighthouse restorations. Following some investigation it was determined that Federal grant funds could be used to match State funding and visa-versa.

Clif Haley was responsible for the actual writing of the restoration grant applications that resulted in almost $1,000,000 in state and Federal grant funds for the project.. Jeri Feltner provided the research and acquired the actual grant application forms. Chuck Feltner, who earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois, drafted the restoration plan, work schedule and budget. Ken Czapski from UP Architects and Engineers of Marquette, Michigan assembled the restoration details and worked with State and federal officials to get the required approvals.

Together the grant applications are contained in two weighty volumes. Two grant applications were filed in 2000 that are the prime funding for the restoration projects that should be underway in the 2003 construction season. A Clean Michigan Initiative (CMI), Waterfront Redevelopment Grant for Michigan Lighthouses was matched with a Michigan Transportation Equity Act (MDOT TEA) grant. Together the grant funds totaled $946,500.

Local government entities assisted with the grant process. The CMI grant is sponsored by the Drummond Island Township and the MDOT TEA grant is sponsored by the Village of DeTour. The cooperation of the local governments was a key to the success of the grant funding, as state and federal governments prefer to deal with other government subdivisions.

Another MCMP grant has been approved to make a video of the history of the light station and actual scenes of the restoration. This part of the project is being headed by Dave Bardsley, another retired Ford Motor Co. executive, who lives on nearby James Island. Bardsley also has been involved preparing the work plan and details of the restoration project.

Bardsley takes a philosophical approach to the size of the restoration effort. "In working on the restoration of the DeTour Reef Light, it is easy to get focused on what the end product should be and become so fixed on how one looks forward to completion of the task. It’s something like many of our experiences in college, where one worked so hard and looked forward to graduating and beginning life, that we didn’t take sufficient time to enjoy the experience we were having. Rather, it is important to enjoy each task at hand, appreciate new adventures, the many small successes, the help and support from others, and being part of planning and executing a difficult plan."

He continues, "A member of a winning sports team will not only remember that they won, but they will relish the effort and teamwork that made them a winning team. The pleasure of having a restored DeTour Reef Light accessible to the public will be exceeded by the experience of working with people who had the vision, perseverance and dedication to years of work to make the restoration happen. Rather than being overwhelmed by the work ahead, we must remember to enjoy this elephant – each and every bite at a time"

Since its inception, the DRLPS has applied for $1,373,416 in grant funding from various sources. They have been awarded $1,007,208 which the group has matched with $28,500 in donated labor and $22,208 in cash from the organizations memberships and fundraising efforts.

2003 Work Plan
The real work of restoration and preservation began in 2003. Phase I was a $350,000 project that will concentrate on the building exterior, replacing windows and doors, painting and installing a new roof. Replacement of ornamental ironwork , the chain rails around the deck, and repairs to the concrete deck are included. The work weather-proofed the structure and provide a solid base for Phase II.

Phase II concentrated on restoration of the lighthouse interior. The Coast Guard had previously provided funds to remove asbestos and lead paint from the structure, which left the interior pretty much of a bare shell. Included in the work was restoration of the second-floor keeper’s quarters, reinstallation of the original diaphone fog horn and a compressor to operate the horn for demonstrations. The overall goal was to restore the interior including period furnishings and equipment, and to make the light station accessible to visitors.

Another part of the Phase II project is to establish an on-shore visitor/viewing site and educational center. The center would include photos, drawings, correspondence, artifacts, logbooks and other collected materials that tell the history of DeTour Reef. The proposed site would be located on DeTour Point which was the site of the first two DeTour lighthouses and is the closest mainland site to the lighthouse. It is hoped that the presently private-owned land can be acquired by the organization.

Ultimate Goal
The ultimate goal of the DRLPS is to be able to take visitors to tour the lighthouse. The original access is via an iron ladder set in the concrete foundation. Stepping from a bobbing boat to the ladder could only be described as a risky proposition, and not conducive to the general public.

The final plan has included furnishing the light station as it would have been when it opened in 1931. DRLPS members have already started collecting period furniture and construction of replica items is underway. Upon completion, this will be a historical site that will attract many visitors, lighthouse enthusiasts and boat watchers. The shore side viewing platform, as well as the light station itself, will be great locations for ship photographers.

The five year history of DRLPS has been carefully chronicled by Jeri Feltner. She has prepared a paper entitled "Building and Operating a Volunteer Nonprofit Lighthouse Preservation Organization". Subtitled "A Case History – The DeTour Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society", the paper was presented in May, 2001 to the Strategies for Saving Michigan’s Lighthouses in Mackinaw City. The paper outlines the steps to be taken to develop a successful campaign to save a lighthouse. Interested groups can obtain a copy of the paper by contacting Mrs. Feltner through the DRLPS.

DRLPS is a nonprofit organization and donations are tax deductible. Memberships can be obtained for as little as $20.00 which includes the group’s newsletter. Applications are available on-line at or by writing to PO Box 519, DeTour Village, MI 49725-0519. You can help with this worthy project and a membership will get you all the information about the organization’s activities and progress. A membership is an investment in a great restoration-preservation project.

On March 15, 2005, it was announced that DeTour Reef Light had been designated as a National Historic Place and has been listed in the National Register.

The light is best observed from a private boat, but can be seen from several spots along the shore west of Detour.

NOTE: While most non-sailors refer to the DeTour Reef navigation aid as a ‘lighthouse’, the technically correct name is a ‘light’. . Lighthouses are listed on the Official Light List as ‘lights’. The ‘light’ part of a lighthouse is the only part that is important to mariners. Therefore, the DRLPS refers to DeTour as a light, not a lighthouse, even though it was a ‘lighthouse’ and keepers lived in the station.

Click on images to enlarge

2009 View - Herm Klein

2008 - after restoration
DRLPS photo

Click on image to enlarge

Photos taken in 2000 before restoration
by Dave Wobser

After Restoration Photos:
by Dave Bardsley

Location: DeTour Village, Michigan
Date Built: 1931
Active: Yes

Open to public:

Yes, see below for 2009 tours.

2009 Update

DeTour Reef Light Tours included in the tour is a spectacular boat ride to the Light followed by a 2 ˝ hour guided tour to all areas of the Light: the mechanical rooms, the Gallery area, the Keeper living area, the tower room, the lantern and upper deck. The tour ends with light refreshments and the opportunity to talk with the resident keepers of the Light. Tours to the Light are planned for the following dates in 2009 - June 20 and 27, July 5, 11, 19, and 25, and August 1, 9, 15, 22 and 29.

Each tour is limited to six individuals and assures personal attention by the tour guides. Visitors must be physically capable of climbing and descending the 20-foot ladder to reach the lighthouse deck. During ascent and descent of the ladder, each person will wear a safety harness, which requires visitors to be at least 50 inches tall and weigh less than 300 pounds.

The DeTour Reef Light Keeper program has received an overwhelming response from Lighthouse aficionados as well as the general public. The Weekend begins with an orientation on Friday afternoon and is 2 nights and 3 days on the Light. The process of becoming a Weekend Light Keeper includes a personal phone interview, a letter explaining why the individual wants to be a keeper with two letters of reference. Each weekend is limited to 6 keepers. DeTour Reef Light Keeper Weekends (Friday PM – Sunday PM) for 2009 will be June 19-21 and 26-28, July 3-5, 10-12, 17-19, and July 31-Aug. 2, and August 7-9, 14-16, 21-23 and 28-30.

To make reservations or for additional information, the DRLPS can be contacted: Website or Email or Phone (906) 493-5648 (May through August) or (616) 874-9458

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