This river, (or, properly, strait,) connecting lakes Huron and Superior, is navigable for vessels of the largest class in use on the lakes, as far up as the falls, and within a mile of the junction with lake Superior. Steamboats of 600 tons burden have traversed the waters of this strait to Sault Ste. Marie. The gross amount of tonnage arriving at the Sault, in the year 1837, was 2,505 tons; and this year, prior to the 22d of September, 3,304 tons: showing a large increase from the previous season. One-fourth of this amount was from lake Superior.
When the proposed ship canal (already commenced) shall be completed around the falls of St. Mary, a large trade will be opened with the fisheries, minerals, and other valuable productions of lake Superior and its borders. The statement of the commerce annually afloat on this stream, will, I trust, justify me in recommending the erection of a lighthouse near its entrance into lake Huron; the best site for which I judged to be on the left-hand point on entering, where the ground is favorable, and can be farthest seen by vessels on the lake.
On March 3, 1847, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse at DeTour Point, and later that year a conical, stone tower, with a height of fifty-seven feet was built on the west side of the entrance to Saint Marys River along with a stone one-and-a-half-story keeper’s dwelling. Thirteen lamps set in fourteen-inch reflectors were used atop the tower to produce a fixed white light until a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room in 1857.
In 1850, Henry B. Miller inspected the lighthouse and reported: “water drives through the wall in such quantities as to stand to the depth of three inches on the lower floor of the tower; the steps are always wet, and cannot help rotting if suffered to remain in this condition.” Miller recommended that a “hard finish” be applied to the tower and melted lead be used to caulk the crevices between the stones in the lantern room deck to make the structure watertight, but by 1859 the tower had deteriorated to the point that it had to be rebuilt. A contract for an iron pile lighthouse for DeTour Point was entered into in 1860, and this tower was finished in the spring of 1861, along with similar ones built at Whitefish Point and Manitou Island on Lake Superior.
The fourth-order lens from the old lighthouse was transferred to the new one in 1861 and served until it was replaced by a third-order lens that went into service with the opening of navigation in 1871. In 1902, the Lighthouse Board noted that a change in the light at DeTour was needed “to make it more conspicuous and also more definite,” and requested funds for a new lens. Congress appropriated $4,000 for a lens on March 3, 1905, and the light from a third-and-a-half-order, Barbier, Benard, & Turenne Fresnel lens was exhibited from DeTour Lighthouse for the first time on May 12, 1908. The lens had four flash-panels and revolved every forty seconds to produce bright white flashes, spaced by ten seconds. In June 1909, the illuminant was changed to incandescent oil vapor, increasing the intensity of the light sevenfold.
A ten-inch steam whistle was established at the station in 1872, and in 1877 a second whistle was added as a backup. One keeper had been responsible for DeTour Lighthouse up until the fog signal was constructed, but the additional workload required by the steam whistle necessitated the hiring of an assistant keeper. The signature of the whistle was an eight-second blast every minute, but in 1901 a second signature was added to inform mariners of conditions on the St. Marys River. When both the river and lake were foggy, the original signature was used, but if the lake were foggy and the river clear, the whistle would sound in this manner: eight-second blast, two seconds silence, three-second blast, forty-seven seconds silence. In 1906, a brick fog signal, measuring twenty-two by forty feet, was built to house the steam whistles, and the dwelling was converted into a duplex.
As an additional aid to mariners, an electrically operated submarine bell was placed offshore from the lighthouse in 1907, but when it was found that the bell was in a “hollow,” it was moved 1,700 feet farther out in the lake in 1909. In its new location, the bell, which was suspended inside a twenty-one-foot-tall tripod, was situated twenty-eight feet below the surface of the lake. Originally built and maintained by the Submarine Signal Company, the bell was purchased by the government in 1911.
The importance of DeTour Point for mariners was further emphasized in 1925, when a radiobeacon was established there on October 9 and its fog signal was upgraded to a powerful air diaphone on November 16. The new fog signal also had two characteristics to indicate fog conditions: “When foggy in the lake and river at the same time, a single long blast is sounded every minute and when foggy in the lake and clear in the river, a group of 3 blasts is sounded every 60 seconds.”
In 1928, the Bureau of Lighthouses requested funds to establish a modern lighthouse on DeTour Reef and relocate the light, fog signal, and radiobeacon there from the point, while maintaining the onshore residence for the keepers’ families. Placing the navigational aids closer to the track of vessels would reduce the number of casualties caused by ships running aground on the reef.
After having been constructed onshore, a sixty-foot-square and twenty-foot-high wooden crib was towed a mile offshore and sunk on a prepared site in twenty-four feet of water on July 25, 1930. The crib was then filled with rock and concrete, and a portion of its concrete pier was poured before it was marked with a temporary light and work was suspended for the season. Work resumed on April 25, 1931, and the concrete pier, which contained vaulted rooms for storage and machinery, was extended to twenty feet above the lake. An eight-and-a-half-foot-wide steel band was placed at the waterline to protect the pier from ice, and the top of the pier was flared out by two feet to prevent the pier’s deck from being washed by seas.
The following description of the superstructure built atop the pier was published by the Lighthouse Service:
Upon this deck was erected the lighthouse proper, which was constructed of steel and cast iron throughout, backed up by solid masonry. The first two stories of the structure are 30 feet square, the second story forming the living quarters for the three keepers and the first story forming the upper part of the engine room and machinery space. With the exception of radio transmitting equipment, clock controls, etc., the machinery is all located at the basement floor level, 8 feet 6 inches above water level. This room is made considerably larger than the superstructure by vaulted spaces within the pier lighted both from the windows in the first story above and from deck lights in the pier proper. Radio transmitting equipment is located on the first floor gallery.
A square tower rises from this 2-story structure supporting a 3 1/2-order revolving lens, the focal plane of which is 74 feet above the water level. The lens, lantern, and watch room from the old shore structure were utilized, as was also the fog-signal engines and equipment from shore. The same characteristics and candlepower were retained. While the new lighthouse was under construction for one and one-half years, the work at the site was actually in progress only about 327 working days before the station was placed in service. In this northern climate and at this exposed location only the summer months were suitable for construction work.
DeTour Reef Lighthouse, which cost $144,976, was placed in operation on November 10, 1931, with the land-based keepers relocating to the offshore station.
The lighthouse was automated in 1974, and in 1978, its Fresnel lens was dismantled and replaced with a modern optic. The Fresnel lens can be seen at DeTour Passage Historical Museum in DeTour Village, while the station’s diaphone fog signal was located at Drummond Island Historical Museum for many years. Jeff Laser retrieved the fog horn from a storeroom at the Great Lakes Historical Society in 1998 and restored it to working order.
DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society was established in 1998, and two years later, it signed a twenty-year lease with the Coast Guard allowing it restore DeTour Reef Lighthouse. Major restoration was completed in 2004 with over a million dollars in funding from federal, state, and private grant entities, and public donations. Public tours of this unique offshore maritime monument are now being offered along with opportunities to serve as resident keepers.
In 2004, DeTour Reef Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society submitted an application for the lighthouse and was awarded ownership in 2005, but the official transfer was delayed due to the State of Michigan requiring a bottomlands lease for any owner besides the federal government. The bottomlands agreement was too cumbersome for the society to accept, but after years of negotiations and threatened legal action, an acceptable agreement was finally worked out between the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance. During the Great Lakes Lighthouse Preservation Conference held in June 2010, ceremonies were held to transfer DeTour Reef Lighthouse to the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society.
Using a Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Grant awarded in 2008, DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society returned the station’s diaphone fog signal to the lighthouse and installed an air delivery system. The restored foghorn was first sounded on August 27, 2010 and is one of the few operational diaphone foghorns at a U.S. lighthouse.