Digest>Archives> March 2002

Women Tended the Forgotten Eagle Harbor Range Lights

By Don Nelson


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The Eagle Harbor Range Lights where Catherine ...

When in Eagle Harbor, it is impossible to be unaware of its lighthouse. It is the main attraction, standing proudly on the rocky point near the harbor entrance. It has served the maritime industry faithfully for well over 125 years.

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The Eagle Harbor Range Lights where Catherine ...

Not to be forgotten, and equally if not more important to Eagle Harbor than the main lighthouse, were the range lights built in 1877. The main beacon warned vessels of danger and guided vessels to the entrance. However, getting into the harbor and docks was another problem. Both sides of the entrance were rock-laden below the water, just waiting for an unwary vessel.

Without the range lights, Eagle Harbor would be virtually useless as a harbor, even with the lighthouse. People unfamiliar with lake or sea travel are awestruck with the lighthouses, but seldom give a second look at range lights. Usually a small tower sits near the shore with a higher tower way back and usually atop a dwelling of sorts. Neither the lights nor the white day beacons were very visible except when they were lined up from out on the water designating safe passage in or out.

Eagle Harbor was opened for large commercial boat and vessel traffic in 1877 with a channel 13-1/2 feet deep. It provided excellent refuge for vessels except in severe northerly winds. Cost of channel preparation and the range lights (front and rear) was $90,000 by government appropriation ($1,346,012 in today’s money). It consisted of a tower on the shore and a house 1,000 feet inland, each equipped with marine signal lens lantern lights.

The two large cribs which vessels passed through upon lining up with the new range lights in the channel, were built of cedar logs, bolted together and filled with rocks. They were built on the ice and upon completion, filled with rock. The ice was then cut away around the cribs and they were lowered into place on the bottom.

McDougal Contracting of Duluth was the contractor, hiring local miners and laborers to do the rock work, blasting, hauling, etc. The rock came from the area of the old Eagle Harbor Hotel. A government engineer was brought in to blast the rock from the bottom and dredge the channel to get the 13-1/2 foot depth for large freight, passenger and lighthouse vessels.

Vessels entering with supplies, passengers, or for refuge, must enter from the lake, straight in between these cribs. To aid this entry, range lights were installed on the south shore in line with the channel. It would be foolhardy to enter Eagle Harbor in snow or fog or not keep the range lights lined up bow to stern, even today. During daylight, they were recognizable white painted day beacons. A keeper and his family were assigned and lived there to maintain both oil lamps. An oil house and privy completed this complex.

The public usually doesn’t recognize the value of these little known range light installations. Without them there would be more boat and vessel mishaps. One might say this was a cushy job. In reality, it was. The keeper was furnished a house, paid wages and all he had to do was maintain the two lanterns, fuel them and be sure they were burning every night. He also had to maintain the structures and keep a clean, safe and efficient station.

The dwelling originally had three rooms on the first floor and two bedrooms upstairs. In later years, they built an addition to the back and moved the kitchen there for more room. The same was done to the main lighthouse. The dwelling and rooms were small by today’s standards, but very adequate and one might say, cozy. Heating was by the usual wood and coal round stove in the living room and the kitchen cook stove. A wood staircase led to the second floor with a door, and another wood staircase led up to the lantern room in the roof’s canopy-type tower.

The lantern room was small with a cast iron table that the oil-fed marine signal lantern sat upon. Shelves and compartments on one wall contained spare wicks, cleaning supplies and tools to maintain the lantern and lens. No oil storage was permitted in the lantern room, only in the outside brick oil house. Refueling the oil reservoir was done each morning after the flame was extinguished and the unit cooled down. One window faced forward to show the light inline with the front range light out in the lake between the two channel cribs. The upper walls and ceiling were unpainted copper-covered for fire protection. Vent holes in the center ceiling allowed heat and oil fumes to vent upwards through the ventilator ball on the roof. Adjustable side vents in the wall allowed outside air in. A similar setup was in the small lower front range light building. The keeper would make three trips a day to each lantern room, to light the lantern just before sunset, to extinguish it just after sunrise and midmorning to refill, clean and prepare the lantern for evening lighting.

George Howard became the first keeper on August 11, 1877 and the range lights were in business. He remained until July 1879 and was replaced by Henry Pearce who had been keeper at Manitou Island for four years. Pearce was keeper for ten years until Keeper Stephen Cocking of the Eagle Harbor Light for the past twelve years died unexpectedly, and he replaced him. Thomas Thomson joined the Lighthouse Service in 1885 and was assigned duty as 3rd Assistant Keeper at Stannard Rock Lighthouse and worked his way up to 1st Assistant there by 1889. He was more than happy to accept the keeper’s job at the range lights, replacing Pearce. In 1893 he would again replace Pearce, who was removed for some reason, at the Eagle Harbor Light. Thomson, a devoted keeper, was later reassigned to Gull Rock for two years. Interestingly, Mary Wheatley became the first female keeper in 1898 at the range lights and would live alone and tend the lights and station for seven years. She abruptly resigned and Thomas Thomson’s wife, Mary, living in Eagle Harbor while her husband was on Gull Rock Light, took over the chores temporarily for three weeks until Thomas, who was reassigned back there, could take over. So she became the second and last female keeper there.

Range Light duty was really great and hardly a job - maintain the station as one would have to do with their own home and light the lanterns nightly. For this you got free rent and a paycheck. The Thomsons remained there for three years this time until 1908. He was more valued elsewhere and was transferred, replaced by Norman Smith who remained for four years and was replaced by Keeper Christensen in 1912.

The Lighthouse Board was well aware of the cushy job at the range lights, so from then on the range light keeper would assist at the Eagle Harbor Light whenever needed. It was just a short walk. During the Depression years the WPA (Works Progress Administration) installed poles and electricity arrived at Eagle Harbor. It wasn’t long before the Lighthouse Board replaced the oil lanterns with light bulbs and light sensors and the need for a keeper was eliminated at the Range Lights. Christensen was out of a job in 1928 and retired.

Shortly thereafter, the rear range light dwelling was made obsolete when a new tower was built and the electric light and lantern were installed farther back. In 1930 the dwelling was offered for sale in the newspapers with the provision it would have to be moved. Gertrude Rowe, who lived in Detroit and had property across and up the road, bid $400 ($3,667 in today’s money) and was successful. Gertrude was born in Phoenix, Michigan, a few miles inland, and was very familiar with the dwelling and the area. Her husband Charles had passed away in 1925, and she felt this would make an ideal summer residence for herself and her family.

During the winter of 1932-33 with the snow and frozen ground, the dwelling was moved by the County Road Commission for a fee. The large tractor used broke through frozen swampy ground, but with the help of another tractor, the move was completed. The dwelling had an attached kitchen to the back that broke away during the move. This was never re-attached. Gertrude hired a Mr. Lind from Calumet to remodel the interior and build a foundation for the dwelling. Over the years it has been well maintained and the integrity has remained as it originally was. The tower interior and exterior is exactly as it was when in operation, and lacks only the lantern and base. Today, Gertrude’s son Robert, his wife and family enjoy the dwelling as a summer home on the shore of Eagle Harbor.

A new rear range light was placed on a tower back from the original site. In 1936 when full electricity arrived at Eagle Harbor to the blessing of all, life changed for everyone in the area. Houses were wired and the sale of light bulbs exploded. The range lights and the light station were now fully electrified, and the lifestyle and living standards for everyone in Eagle Harbor was greatly improved. Today the automated range lights are on modern steel towers guiding only pleasure craft into the harbor.

All that remains of the original range light station is the brick oil storage building a few hundred feet back on the south side of the road.

This story appeared in the March 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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