|Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entrance, MI|
Description: Sandbars at the mouth of Portage River blocked vessels from sailing inland until Ransom Shelden and his brother-in-law Chris Douglas formed the Portage Lake and River Improvement Company in 1860 and began dredging operations. Prior to this time, goods and passengers had to be unloaded at the mouth of the river and transferred to scows for navigating upstream. The improvement company removed the sandbar at the mouth of the river, dredged a twelve-foot-deep and one-hundred-foot-wide channel through the first three miles of the river, and then began charging ships tolls to use the improved waterway. Late in 1860, the steamer Illinois, loaded with 140 tons of cargo, became the first ship to sail up the river and reach the growing town of Houghton.
A committee dispatched to the Great Lakes in 1863 to report on the necessity of proposed lighthouses recommended several new lights be built on Lake Superior to support the burgeoning iron and copper trade. One of these lights was a small light at the end of the pier extending from the mouth of Portage River. The dredged entrance channel was not much wider than a steamer, and in order to enter it at night, a vessel had to first lower a small boat and send out a lantern to mark the entrance. The committee felt that the keeper of Portage River Lighthouse could mind the pier light, as it was only a fifteen-minute-walk away, and recommended that he be paid an additional $200 to do so.
At the opening of navigation in the spring of this year the value of the copper which had accumulated during the winter at Portage lake amounted to seven hundred thousand dollars. The whole yield of all the American copper mines in the region bordering on Lake Superior, during the preceding year, was estimated at ten thousand tons, which, at five hundred dollars per ton, would be equal to five millions of dollars. …
In 1866, Congress appropriated $1,500 on April 7 and another $6,000 on July 28 for the construction of range lights to mark the entrance to Portage River from Keweenaw Bay. Title to the proposed sites for the lights was obtained in May 1867, and the range lights were constructed during the 1868 season. The rear light was exhibited from a short tower atop a five-room keeper’s dwelling, while the front light shone from a wooden tower. The structures used for Portage Range were similar to those erected during the same time period at Eagle Harbor, Copper Harbor, Baileys Harbor, Grand Island, and Presque Isle. Earl Edgerton was hired as the first keeper responsible for Portage Entry Range Lights.
The range lights were situated in a low marsh on the west side of the river and connected by a plank walk that spanned the 728 between them. As the walkway was flooded during periods of high water or by the wash of passing steamboats, the Lighthouse Board requested $900 in 1870 to elevate the walkway and towers. In 1884, the crib around the front tower was raised one foot, and the keeper’s dwelling was raised two feet and a cellar placed under it.
After being damaged by lighting on July 26, 1899, the keeper’s dwelling was repaired and equipped with a lightning conductor. In 1900, a new wooden tower was built for the front light, and the following year, a brick oil house was erected near the keeper’s dwelling. The intensity of the rear light was increased in 1906 by substituting a fifth-order lens for the original sixth-order lens.
Work on a structure to mark the pier at Portage River began in June 1902, after the tender Amaranth delivered the necessary materials. A twenty-seven-foot-tall, two-story, frame tower was erected on the pierhead, and a 10,000-blow fog-bell apparatus was installed in its enclosed upper story. A small dynamo on shore, which was connected to the tower by 3,700-foot-long wires laid along the pier in grooved boxes, could be cranked by hand to start the bell tolling. The tower’s five-day lens lantern and fog bell were placed in operation in August 1902.
The new fog bell was declared inadequate as early as 1905, and pleas were made for a steam fog whistle and a second-order light to mark the river entrance. Mariners claimed that “the noise of the waves and the ship’s machinery” often made it impossible to hear the bell at a distance of more than 100 feet. As a stopgap, a new iron tower, fitted with a fourth-order fixed red light and a 1,500-pound fog bell, replaced the frame tower and its minor light on April 24, 1911.
The federal government purchased the twenty-five-mile-long Keweenaw Waterway on August 3, 1891, and then set about making improvements. In 1897, the Lighthouse Board published a Notice to Mariners describing a number of new lights along the waterway that were activated that August. In total, there were over twenty lights that marked the waterway.
On June 21, 1913 work began on a new harbor of refuge located just inside the mouth of Portage River consisting of a basin and a 2,000-foot-long mooring pier. As the improvements at Portage River were nearing completion, Congress provided $100,000 on June 12, 1917 for new navigation aids to mark the outer end of the breakwater and for electric lights along the Portage River portion of the waterway.
The former system of aids were [sic] inadequate, owing to extensive improvements of this important waterway by the United States Army Engineers. The new project included the construction of a light and fog signal station at the extremity of Portage Entry Breakwater, discontinuance of the old Portage River Lighthouse, rebuilding 11 and constructing 2 new minor light structures inside the harbor and along Portage River, also the construction of a power house and quarters for three keepers on shore and laying of electric transmission lines.
Oliver St. Andre was the first head keeper of the new breakwater light, known as Keweenaw Waterway Light, and he was awarded the lighthouse efficiency flag for having the model station in the district in 1922. On May 8, 1924, about 1,500 feet of the pipe that supplied air to the pierhead fog signal was swept of the pier. With the help of his three assistants, Keeper St. Andre raised the pipe and reconnected it, allowing the fog signal to resume operation on the morning of May 10.
Joseph St. Andre was one of twelve children that Keeper Oliver and his wife Eva raised at the lighthouses at Tawas Point, Marquette, and finally Keweenaw Waterway. Joseph joined the lighthouse service at age sixteen and served on a construction crew for twelve years, working at various lighthouses during the summer and repairing lighthouse tenders and lightships during the winter at Detroit. One Sunday, after the St. Andre family had rowed across Portage River and driven to church in Chassell, Joseph was reading the Sunday paper when he had a premonition that one of his younger siblings was in trouble.
Joseph raced out to the river and looked over the embankment to discover his brother Paul, ten years his junior, floating beneath the surface of the river. Still dressed in his suit and tie, Joseph ripped off his coat, kicked off his shoes, and jumped. After dragging Paul back to the embankment, Joseph called for help to lift his brother out of the water. Paul was all right after a little while, but the family never forgot the day when Joseph saved his brother’s life, and not long after the incident, all the St. Andre children learned how to swim.
The fog signal at Keweenaw Waterway Lighthouse was changed from an air siren to an air diaphone in 1943.
In May 2014, Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entrance Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was made available under the guidelines of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act “to eligible entities defined as Federal Agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations, for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes.” Interested parties were given six months to submit an application for ownership. Keweenaw Waterway Lighthouse Conservancy was formed in 2014 to protect lighthouses along Keweenaw Waterway, and the group was awarded the lighthouse on September 20, 2016.
Located at the end of a breakwater on the eastern side of the entrance to the
Portage River near Jacobsville. The lighthouse is owned by Keweenaw Waterway Lighthouse Conservancy. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by Keweenaw Waterway Lighthouse Conservancy. Grounds open, tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.