|Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Outer, MN|
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.
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.”
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.
Work on the combination structure for the outer end of the south pier was completed in August 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 1873 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 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.
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.
In 2014, an LED beacon replaced the active Fresnel lens in the lantern room. The change reduced the range of the light from about sixteen nautical miles to thirteen nautical miles, but the historic lens will no longer be subjected to temperature fluctuations and ultraviolet rays that can cause the lens to deteriorate.
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).
Located at the end of the southern breakwater, marking the entrance to the
canal in Duluth. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.