Marquette Harbor Lighthouse
In 2002 the Marquette Maritime Museum signed an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard for the lease of the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. The historic lease is for 30-years and includes not only the lighthouse but also approximately 2 1/2 acres of picturesque Lighthouse Point.
The agreement has been in process for several years and marks a crucial step in Museum development. Acquiring the lighthouse is important for a number of reasons.
The Museum will be able to preserve and protect the most historically important building in Marquette. The first lighthouse was built in the city in 1853. The present lighthouse was constructed in 1866 and a second story added in 1909. The lighthouse is the oldest significant structure in the city and more importantly, the lighthouse is one of the most historic navigation beacons on Lake Superior and critical to the development of the Great Lakes iron ore trade. Until the opening of the major Minnesota mines in the 1890s, Marquette was the premier shipping port for iron ore on the Great Lakes and this Marquette beacon was vital for the safe navigation of ships entering Marquette.
The Museum offers tours through the lighthouse and grounds. Because visitors must walk through the grounds of the Coast Guard station to reach the lighthouse, and the constraints of homeland security, Museum guides will escort all tours, a requirement established by the Coast Guard.
The Museum plans to develop the lighthouse as an integral interpretive display as an extension of the main museum building and eventually restoring one floor to reflect a period of the life of the light and ligthtkeepers. The first floor is already partially a museum!
Museum advisory board member Frederick Stonehouse stated, “Acquiring the lighthouse is a tremendous achievement. It is a win – win for everyone. The Coast Guard no longer has to maintain property they don’t need and the people of Marquette, through the Museum, gain access to this most important part of our history.”
Up until 1998, Coast Guard members and their families lived on two floors of the structure, which were intended as a family dwelling for the lightkeepers of an earlier era. The museum board plans to restore the interiors to more accurately reflect the lighthouse history. The Coast Guard will continue to operate the light in the tower as an aid to navigation and an important sentinel for Great Lakes mariners. The lighthouse will continue to guide ships into and out of Marquette Harbor just as it has for 139 years.
More History —
The original lighthouse was built in Marquette in 1853, four years after the city’s 1849 incorporation. No plans or drawing of this lighthouse exist, but it likely resembled very closely the old lighthouse at Copper Harbor, a story and a half building made of local rock with an unattached 35-foot tall rubble tower. The building was specified to be 34 by 20 feet, but since there are no drawings, we do not know if the specifications were actually met. The lantern room was to contain seven 14-inch Lewis lamps which were used until the introduction of the Fresnel lens in the 1850s. The quarters and tower were poorly constructed and were replaced in 1866 with the present lighthouse.
The 1866 lighthouse is not the structure we see today. It has been extensively modified. The 1860s were an intense period of lighthouse construction on the Great Lakes. On Lake Superior alone new lights were built at Whitefish Point, Marquette, Granite Island, Huron Island, Stannard’s Rock (day beacon) and Ontonagon. It is important to realize that lighthouses are not built as unique structures, rather from common plans reflecting the period and purpose, modified only to best fit the local conditions and terrain. The Marquette, Granite Island and Huron Island lights were virtually identical.
The 1866 Marquette Lighthouse was a story and a half brick structure with attached 40-foot square brick tower housing a fourth order Fresnel lens. An identical lens is on display in the Marquette Maritime Museum. The original lens showed an arc of 180 degrees. In 1870 it was increased to 270 degrees.
The keeper and his family lived in the lighthouse. As long as the keeper’s job was only to maintain the light, a single man was able to do the work. However when the light at the end of the breakwater was later added and a two whistle signal system installed at the end of the point, the work was more than one person could do and an assistant keeper was hired. The new man needed housing, a problem solved in 1898 when a barn behind he lighthouse was converted into quarters for the assistant.
In 1909 a more permanent solution was reached by adding a second story to the lighthouse. Later additions to the rear of the building were completed in the 1950s.These additions made the lighthouse unique on the Great Lakes. No other similar lighthouse was so altered. The lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There has been a persistent myth that the lighthouse was designed after a Spanish monastery. How this crazy idea started is unknown, but it is completely false. As previously stated, the light was built to a design common to many Great Lakes lighthouses, although heavily modified over time.
Over the years the lens has changed several times, from the original Fresnel lens to aero-beacon in the 1930s, to the current Lexan optic in the 1990s. The 1980 era aero-beacon is on display in the Marquette Maritime Museum.
As part of the detailed research the Museum has completed on the lighthouse, it has obtained a complete set of the keeper’s daily logbooks in a CD format. A copy of the CD is on sale in the Museum gift shop for $10.00.
In April 1891, the U.S. Life-Saving Service established a station at Marquette in the area just west of the lighthouse. Under the leadership of the legendary Captain Henry Cleary, the life-savers performed many notable rescues building a reputation of bravery and courage. It is important to realize that although both the Life-Saving Service and Lighthouse Service were agencies of the Treasury Department, they were in no way connected officially or unofficially. The story of the Life-Saving Service is completely separate from that of lighthouses.