Many lighthouses are tall brick or stone conical towers, such as the Little Sable tower , and most folks think of this shape when they think of lighthouses. The photo below on the left is yet another of this type – this is the YAQUINA HEAD lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. The middle picture is also a common type – the light is housed in a structure, called the “Lantern”, that rises out of the roof of the keeper’s house. This one, YAQUINA BAY, is also in Oregon. Another common type is seen in the photo on the right. This is the WHITEFISH POINT lighthouse, on Lake Superior, just west of Sault Ste. Marie. There are also lighthouses built completely offshore, on a rock ledge, or a created concrete caisson. Use the “Lighthouse Friends” link below to view Minot’s Ledge in Massachusetts, or Tillamook Rock in Oregon.
Pennsylvania Jack has several hobbies. One of them is serving as a Volunteer Lighthouse Keeper. So let’s call him “Lighthouse Jack.” Each summer, Jack and his wife travel somewhere in the good old U.S.A. and volunteer their time and knowlegde as “keepers/tourguides/docents” at a Lighthouse somewhere. So far they have been at two lighthouses in Maine, one in Oregon, four in southern Michigan, one “In” Lake Michigan, two on Lake Superior on the “UP” (Upper Peninsula – it really is different “up there”), and another on the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. Information and photos of all of these are found below. When we first volunteered back in 2005, we really knew very little about lighthouses, and in fact didn’t even know we liked them all that much. Many summers later it has become a journey that we just can’t imagine never having embarked upon.
Along the way we have learned much about lighthouses, their operation, history, and lore, and would like to share it with you. So this page will include some lighthouse information and lore, as well as photos of all of the places we’ve been, and links to some very interesting websites about lighthouses too. Then you too can claim to be a “Pharologist”, one who studies lighthouses.
Interested in lighthouses and their history? Consider subscribing to the “Lighthouse Digest,” a bi-monthly magazine chock-full of informative articles and historic photos. Visit the “Lighthouse Digest” website.
To find out about almost any lighthouse in the U.S. or Canada, use the “Lighthouse Friends” website.
Visit an excellent site about New England Lighthouses – “A Virtual Guide”
For almost everything else you’ll ever want to know about lighthouses, visit the website of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, the foremost lighthouse education and preservation organization. “U.S. Lighthouse Society”
MICHIGAN The photo above is a sunset shot of the LITTLE SABLE POINT Lighthouse on the east shore of Lake Michigan, one of the lighthouses where we have been volunteers. More on this one, and all the others where we have served follows. Lighthouses, in addition to usually being architecturally pleasing structures located in scenic locations, provided much needed beacons of light to guide mariners along treacherous shores. The first lighthouse in the United States was built in Boston harbor in 1716, and over the next two centuries, hundreds more were built along the coasts and rivers of our nation. Today, far too many are gone. Those that remain display either no light at all, or an automated one, but these historic structures have captured the imagination of historically minded Americans. Although a few remain under the juristiction of the U.S. Coast Guard, the agency that took over American lighthouse administation in 1939, most are owned and maintained by federal, state, or local parks, town governments, or non-profit “Friends” groups formed to preserve a specific light. Seek one out. Volunteer today. They need your help.
MAINE These photos are of the lighthouse on SEGUIN ISLAND, Maine, and of the island itself as you approach. This 65-acre hump of rock is located about three miles off the mouth of the Kennebec River south of Bath, Maine. There has been a lighthouse there since 1795. The one in the picture, and the duplex residence that served the Keeper and his Assistant Keeper, date from 1857. We were fortunate to live here on the island, tending to many minor maintenance duties, and providing tours and island history to the many visitors, for the entire summer of 2005. The north side of the duplex houses a small museum and gift shop. This is a relatively short lighthouse, but wait til you see the one in Oregon. As you can see in the photos, the top of the island is well over a hundred feet above the water, so the light from this lighthouse is the highest in Maine.
This tower still has the original classic glass prismatic Fresnel lens, seen in the third photo, which is still illuminated with a “fixed” white light. Made by the firm of Henry-Lapaute in Paris, this is the only first-order Fresnel lens still in use north of Virginia. It is an iconic artifact, and to see this lens is well worth the awkward trip to Seguin.
Find out more about this lighthouse at:“Seguin Island”.
By the way, if I asked which state has the most lighthouses, most folks quickly answer, “Maine.” But that is not correct. Maine is number three. Think about it. The answer will be found somewhere below.
MICHGAN – The three lighthouses pictured above are on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. All are now maintained and operated for visitation by the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association. On the left is LITTLE SABLE POINT Lighthouse, the one pictured in the sunset shot above. Only the brick tower itself remains from the days when this was a complete “light station”, with a Keeper’s residence and other support structures. It is located within Silver Lake State Park, just south of Ludington MI.
The center picture is of BIG SABLE POINT Lighthouse. It is the same size as Little Sable. They are named not for their size, but for the geographic points on which they are located. Also made of brick, this lighthouse was covered with iron plates when the brick began to deteriorate. It is located in Ludington State Park. The lighthouse on the right is the LUDINGTON PIER Lighthouse, in the harbor of Ludington. Much more exposed to the violent waves of Lake Michigan storms, this lighthouse is wedge-shaped on the side facing the lake. “Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Assoc.”
MOST LIGHTHOUSES – The state that had, and still has the greatest number of lighthouses is – MICHIGAN ! Think about it. Michigan is two peninsulas, surrounded by the waters of three of the Great Lakes, lakes that were and are heavily used by commercial ships. New York is number two by the way.
OREGON – The photos above are of the lighthouse at CAPE MEARES, just west of Tillamook,Oregon. Only 38 feet tall from the ground to the top of the round ventilator on the roof, this lighthouse, like many along the Pacific coast, sits on a high ledge and doesn’t need to be tall. Its light shines many miles out over the ocean. Like many others, it was deactivated by the Coast Guard years ago (a modern light shines from a tall metal tower nearby) and the keeper’s house and all the other buildings were removed. The small room attached to the lighthouse is a recreation of the “work room” that was originally there. Today it houses a small gift shop. Located within Oregon’s Cape Meares State Park, it is operated by the Friends of Cape Meares. “Cape Meares Lighthouse”
In these pictures you also get a good view of one of the fabulous prismatic lenses that allowed a single lightbulb (or oil lamp in earlier days) to be magified into a powerful beam seen for miles. Developed by a French engineer named Augustin Fresnel (Fre-nell), these lenses come in many sizes, and collectively are referred to still by the name “Fresnel”, although they were made by several firms in France and England. In all too many cases, these amazing devices were removed from lighthouse towers years ago, replaced by more modern, but no more efficient, light devices. Fortunately many do remain in lighthouses, or in museums where they can be appreciated. This specific lens, also a first-order lens built by the French firm of Henry-Lapaute, sadly is no longer illuminated, and in fact is missing a significant number of its prisms. To add more insult, vandals recently shot the lens several times with rifles, destroying even more of this priceless piece of history.
UPPER MICHIGAN – These three photos are of the AU SABLE POINT lighthouse, on the south shore of Lake Superior. It is in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a unit of the National Park Service. The shot on the left shows a good overview of the entire “light station,” the name for not only the lighthouse tower, but the keepers’residences, oil storage houses, privies, sheds, boathouse, fog signal buildings and any other associated structures that supported the light.
The center photo shows a view of the lighthouse from the Lake Superior beach down below. Since Lake Superior is fresh water, you won’t find many “seashells”, but you will find a neverending rainbow of stones of all sizes and hues that have been polished and tossed ashore by the waves. The photo on the right is a closer-up view of the “new” (1909) residence built for the head keeper. Summer volunteers live on the second floor; the museum/gift-shop is on the lower floor. Although the tower still retains its classic 3rd Order Fresnel lens, it sadly is no longer illuminated. A solar powered modern optic, mounted on the gallery rail, provides a light to mariners on the lake.
Check out the park website at: “Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore”
MINNESOTA – This photo is of the SPLIT ROCK lighthouse, on the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. We spent September 2010 as a part of the talented and dedicated interpretive staff there. Located in Minnesota’s Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, it is operated and maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society. First put into service in 1910, 2010 marked the centennial year and celebration was in order, including a special illumination of the original Fresnel lens (a magnificent “bi-valve” manufactured by Barbier, Benard and Turenne), on the first Friday of each month. A very complete “light station”, in addition to the tower itself, the fog signal building, oil house, three keeper residences with their adjacent garage/barns, and remnants of the once extensive tramway still remain. Built on a rock outcrop high above the lake, the tower itself is relatively short. For more on this lighthouse visit: “Minnesota Historical Sites”
The leftmost photo shows some of the structures that make up the Split Rock Light Station. In addition to the tower itself, with attached work room, the adjacent fog signal building and a portion of the head keeper’s residence can be seen. The center photo, shows the illuminated lens, as well as the horns that directed the fog signal out over the lake. The right photo shows the original mecanical, weight-driven gearbox. Replaced by an electric motor in 1940 when electricity reached the site, the gearbox was miraculously recovered and reinstalled as part of the lighthouse restoration. It is one of the few stations where the original Fresnel lens is being rotated by the original mechanical gearbox. Split Rock’s lens revolves on a layer of liquid mercury, one of only a few sites in the U.S. where this system is still in use.
THE LIGHT STATION – As noted earlier, the lighthouse “tower” was just one of many structures that was part of the light station. The photos below show some of the more important of these. The leftmost photo is of the oil house at STURGEON POINT on Lake Huron. Prior to electricity, which didn’t come to many remote lighthouse sites until the 1950s, kerosene was the fuel of the lamp, and for household use too. It was stored in a fireproof building away from other structures. Prior to kerosene, lard oil was a primary fuel.
The center photo below is of the Fog Signal building at 40 MILE POINT, also on Lake Huron in Michigan. Most major lighthouses had a device to sound a warning when fog obscured the beam of the light. Early on bells were used; then steam-powered whistles. Steam whistles were replaced by air horns, shown here, powered by large air compressors in the building below. Light stations also had one or more boats for the use of the keepers. They were pulled up out of the water and kept in boathouses, such as the one shown on the right, located at AU SABLE Light Station. Barns for livestock, sheds, garages, and privies would also have been part of the scene at most sites.
Several more links to other lighthouse information appear below.