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 Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Inner, MN    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Privately owned, no access without permission.
Description: The St. Louis River, the last portion of which forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, feeds into Superior Bay before emptying into Lake Superior at Superior Entry, the natural opening between Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point. Together, seven-mile-long Minnesota Point and three-mile-long Wisconsin Point form the world’s longest freshwater sandbar.

When locks were completed at Sault Ste. Marie in 1855, allowing vessels to navigate between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes, Superior Bay immediately became an important harbor. The cities of Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota sprung up on the bay and became bitter rivals. A lighthouse was established on Minnesota Point in 1858 to guide vessels through Superior Entry, but to reach Duluth after entering Superior Bay, vessels had to follow a circuitous channel.

Duluth South Pier Front Lighthouse in 1893
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
A railroad connecting Duluth to St. Paul was completed in 1870, and railroad authorities were eager for harbor improvements at Duluth. Railroad interests and the city joined forces to cut a channel through Minnesota Point to give Duluth direct access to Lake Superior. This work started in the fall of 1870, and the following spring the cut was opened, with the first boat passing through the canal in August 1871. Superior and the State of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against Duluth, claiming that the new canal would decrease the flow of the St. Louis River through Superior Entry, and as a result, sediments would build up at the natural entrance. To resolve the issue, Duluth was required to build a dike across Superior Bay, between Rices Point and Minnesota Point, to prevent the St. Louis River from flowing into Lake Superior through the Duluth Canal.

After the dike was completed in 1872, Superior filed another lawsuit alleging that the dike was a nuisance and deprived its citizens of unrestricted access to the waters of Superior Bay. This case made it all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in an opening being made in the dike to allow free navigation in Superior Bay. The dike, which had a length of over a mile, was finally removed in 1896, and a harbor committee was formed between the two cities to build up the port of Duluth-Superior as one harbor.

The Lighthouse Board asked Congress for $10,000 in 1870 to build a lighthouse at Duluth, after having received six petitions for its construction. The numerous petitioners represented: “that while the harbor of Duluth is easy of access and safe during the day, or when land-marks are visible, it being without beacons, is difficult and dangerous at night when the weather is thick; that vessels are now arriving and departing daily, and with the prospect of greatly increased trade to follow the completion of the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad, which will be ready for through traffic in a few weeks; that the Northern Pacific Railroad Company is about forwarding the iron and other materials for building its line to Red River (over 200 miles) to this port, which will make the trade this season exceedingly large. An immense future commerce is also assured by the building of the above named two (rail) roads to this port, the most westerly point to which the great lakes can be navigated.”

Duluth South Pier Rear Lighthouse in 1893
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Congress appropriated $10,000 for a lighthouse at the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and a contract for its erection was made in 1872. By the following May, a seven-room keeper’s dwelling and a portion of an elevated walkway were completed, but as the south pier, the outer limit of which was the intended site for the lighthouse, had been damaged by a storm the previous fall, work was suspended until the pier could be repaired. The south piers’ lighthouse, a square, open-framework tower surmounted by a nine-sided, iron lantern, was commissioned on June 2, 1874. In 1880, a fog bell, previously used on South Manitou Island, was mounted in a house near the tower and was struck by machinery when needed.

Construction of a fog signal building near the light began in August 1885, and a ten-inch steam whistle was put into operation on October 26th. During its first decade of operation, the fog whistle was in operation an average of 472 hours each year. After residents of Duluth complained about the noisy whistle, a parabolic reflector, built in a box filled with sawdust, was installed to deaden the sound on the landward side, and no further complaints from sleepless citizens were received.

In 1886, the light’s characteristic was changed from flashing red and white produced by a fifth-order lens to fixed red produced by a fourth-order lens.

The Lighthouse Board requested a light on the inner end of the southern pier to form a range with the existing light starting in 1880, but it was until 1889 that money was appropriated. The rear lighthouse was built in 1889 for $2,264.58 and consisted of a four-story, wooden, pyramidal tower topped by a lantern room. The lower three stories were open framework, while the top story was enclosed to form a watch room. The lantern room housed a fourth-order Barbier & Fenestre lens with ten flash panels that revolved to produce a red flash every six seconds. The light was lit for the first time on September 1, 1889.

Duluth South Pier Range Lights
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
A new south pier, with a concrete superstructure, was begun in 1898 and completed in the spring of 1900. A temporary pyramidal tower was built on the outer end of this pier in 1901, and a thirty-seven-foot-tall mast set up at the pier’s inner end. These lights served while work on a combined fog signal and light tower and a skeletal iron tower was carried out. The new rear tower, which remains standing today, was described as a “skeleton iron structure, about 70 feet high, composed of columns, sockets, struts, and tension rods, forming the frustrum of a square pyramid, surmounted by an architrave supporting an octagonal gallery, a circular parapet, and an octagonal lantern, and is accessible from below by a spiral stairway inclosed in a cast-iron cylinder. The watch room and lantern of the structure are painted black and the remainder of the work white.”

Work on the combination structure for the outer end of the south pier was completed in August of 1901, and the building was described as “a one-story brick structure, 22 feet wide and 45 feet long, with a tower 8 feet square and 11 ˝ feet high, rising from the east corner, and surmounted by a cast-iron circular lantern, erected on a cast-iron deck, and is 29 feet high to the focal plane. Circular stairs lead from the floor of the tower to the upper landing. The outside walls of the structure are of hydraulic-pressed buff brick, interior walls of hard-burned red brick, the foundation, water table, door, and window sills of stone, and the roof of corrugated iron.”

The structures’ fourth-order lights, transferred from their predecessors, were exhibited for the first time on September 1, 1901, and the temporary beacons were removed. A 1,150-foot tramway was laid on top of the new concrete pier, and the keepers were provided a car to enable them to reach the outer light in stormy weather. At this time, the head keeper resided in the 1874 dwelling, while his two assistants were forced to rent houses in the city at their own expense. The Lighthouse Board requested funds to construct a duplex for the assistants, but lacking an appropriation from Congress, the dwelling was not completed until February of 1913. The two-story brick duplex cost $7,178.81, and each of its apartments consisted of a vestibule, living room, dining room, kitchenette and pantry on the first floor and two bedrooms and a bath on the second floor.

Type “F” diaphones were installed in the fog signal building in 1923, and soon residents of Duluth were once again complaining about the fog horn. A sound deflector was installed, and the diaphones served until 1968 when they were replaced by an electronic signal. Amazingly, local citizens had grown fond of the characteristic “Bee-Oh” emitted by the diaphones, and in 1976 they formed TOOT (reTurn Our Old Tone), which raised nearly $100,000 to install a diaphone signal to Duluth. In 1981, the group acquired Type “F” diaphones, after they were removed from the lighthouse in Kewaunee, Wisconsin. Following a nearly two-decade effort, the diaphones were reactivated on April 1, 1995 to the delight of a large crowd gathered on the piers.

Not everyone was pleased to have the powerful diaphones active once again. Hotel owners complained that the signal disturbed their guests, and the diaphones’ hours of operation were limited to between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. In 2005, the three-phase power that operated the diaphones failed, and they fell silent. The Coast Guard refused to pay the $15,000 needed to restore the three-phase power. The city could have covered the cost of repairs and assumed responsibility for the signal, but they were scared off by the liability clause that would have held them responsible for maritime accidents related to the foghorn’s operation. In 2006, members of TOOT dismantled and removed what had been the last officially operating diaphone fog horn in North America.

The fourth-order lens formerly used in the Inner South Breakwater Lighthouse is on display at the Lake Superior Marine Museum.

In May 2007, the skeletal inner lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations. When no qualified group was found to take control of the lighthouse, an online auction for the property was opened on September 16, 2008. The auction closed on December 2, with the lighthouse selling for $31,000 to Steve Sola and Matt Kampf, from Duluth.

Head Keepers: Ernest R. Jefferson (1873 – 1888), James Prior (1888 – 1908), Alexander Shaw (1908 – 1910), Charles Lederle (1910 – at least 1918), Edwin C. Bishop (at least 1920 – at least 1930), John Woods (at least 1935 – at least 1940).

References

  1. Annual Report of the Light-House Board, various years.
  2. Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Professional memoirs, Engineer Bureau, United States Army, 1914.
  4. “Foghorn is gone, probably for good,” Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune, September 27, 2006.

Location: Located near the southern end of the lift bridge in Duluth.
Latitude: 46.77867
Longitude: -92.09195

For a larger map of Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Inner Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Interstate 35 in Duluth, take the 256-B exit and proceed to Lake Avenue. Turn south on Lake Avenue and continue over the lift bridge. The lighthouse will be on your left just after crossing the bridge.

The fourth-order lens formerly used in the Inner South Breakwater Lighthouse is on display at the Lake Superior Marine Museum.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower closed.

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