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 Stannard Rock, MI    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: Stannard Rock, a substantial reef barely covered by the waters of Lake Superior, was named for its discoverer, Captain Charles C. Stannard of the American Fur Company, who charted the hazard in 1835. Because of its remoteness – the nearest land is twenty-five miles away, and the harbor at Marquette is distant forty-five miles – the lighthouse atop the reef has been called “the loneliest spot in the United States” and “the loneliest lighthouse in the world.”

The first plan to mark the reef came in 1849, when $1,000 was appropriated for “a floating bell at Stannard rock,” but as this amount was insufficient to moor a vessel with a bell there, it appears the effort was abandoned. In 1866, the Lighthouse Board determined the time had come to mark the nearly hidden menace to navigation:

Stannard's rock, lying about twenty-three miles southeast of Manitou Island light, is the most serious danger to navigation in Lake Superior. This shoal is about three-fourths of a mile in extent; it rises two and a half to three feet above the water, and is fifteen or twenty feet in diameter. Its exact locality is known to but few; being so far from land it is seldom seen, and is much dreaded by all navigators. The increasing commerce of the lakes will, at no distant day, demand that it be marked by a light-house, the construction of which will, from the circumstances of its location, be a serious engineering difficulty. As a preliminary to this, and to render navigators familiar with its location, the board recommend that it be marked by a day-beacon, to be composed of a single wrought-iron shaft, not less than one foot in diameter, surmounted by a cage that would be visible not less than five or six miles.

On March 2, 1867, Congress provided $10,000 to erect a day beacon on Stannard Rock, and in June 1868, the steam barge Wm. Cowie, fitted with a hoisting apparatus, living quarters, and a blacksmith shop, arrived at the reef with the necessary materials. Over the next month, the rock was leveled and a stone conical frustum was built around an eighteen-and-a-half-foot-tall iron shaft topped by a spherical cage with a diameter of six feet.

Stannard Rock Lighthouse circa 1910 - note original sheathing on pier and steel-plate fog signal building
Photograph courtesy Archives of Michigan
In 1871, Orlando M. Poe, the recently appointed engineer of the eleventh lighthouse district, recommended a lighthouse be built on the reef:

The rapid increase of the commerce between Du Luth, the eastern terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and the lower lakes, will demand, at no distant day, the erection of a Light-house on this danger, so much dreaded by all vessels bound to or from points above Keweenaw Point and ports below. The case will be similar to that of Spectacle Reef, and all the costly apparatus and machinery purchased for the latter can be made available for the former, thereby greatly reducing the cost of construction.

It is not proposed, however, to do anything further at this time than to make the preliminary examinations and mature plans for the work, for which purpose an estimate of $10,000 is submitted.

Congress provided $10,000 on March 3, 1873 for “surveys and examinations to determine the practicability of building a light-house on Stannard’s Rock,” and that August, Henry Gillman visited the reef and selected a site atop the rock where the depth was most regular, varying from ten to twelve feet, as the site for a lighthouse. Godfrey Weitzel, who had replaced Poe as district engineer, estimated that the erection of a lighthouse and fog signal would cost at least $300,000 and requested $200,000 to begin the work. The need for a fog signal at the reef was evidenced by a report, made by the keeper at Manitou Island Lighthouse, which noted that during the month of June 1874 there were only five fog-free days in the vicinity of Stannard Rock.

Before Congress finally appropriated $50,000 on March 3, 1877 to commence construction of the lighthouse, Weitzel had the governor of Michigan convey title to the submarine lighthouse site to the federal government. On June 1, 1877, the lighthouse tender Warrington left Detroit with two scows in tow and stopped at Scammon’s Harbor to pick up the equipment and support buildings used for the construction of Spectacle Reef Lighthouse. Roughly two weeks later, the Warrington arrived at Huron Bay, where work began on a depot named Stannardsville, which would have all the necessary quarters, docks, and shops for supporting the project. Construction of the wooden protection crib used for building the lighthouse began in July 1877, and in August, the bottom portion was taken out and fitted to the reef in August and then returned to the depot and built up to a height of fourteen courses. That fall, a quarry was opened up on Huron Island to provide stone for ballast and concrete.

At 4:30 a.m. on August 4, 1878, the steamers Warrington and Ira Chaffee and the tug Dudley started for the reef with the protection crib in tow and arrived there at 11 a.m. the following day. The crib was placed in position on August 7, and the work of filling its ballast pockets commenced. Over the next two years, a foundation pier, having a diameter of sixty-two feet and consisting of concrete encased in a wrought-iron cylinder, was built inside the protection crib. When completed in August 1880, the foundation pier rose twenty-three feet above the lake, weighed 7,246 tons, and its upper portion contained two rooms, the lower for coal and the upper for a workshop.

Work on the reef was suspended on August 22, 1880 as not enough limestone from the quarry in Marblehead, Ohio had been delivered and finished at Huron Bay to commence construction of the lighthouse proper. Stonecutting at Stannardsville continued until November 10 and was then resumed on April 12, 1881 by a crew of eighteen stone-cutters. A workforce returned to the rock on June 18 and set up derricks and machinery for hoisting the massive stone blocks in place. The first and second courses of stone were landed on the pier on July 4, and the limestone tower steadily rose atop the pier until August 31, when the thirty-third and final course was set in place. While waiting for the tower’s ironwork to arrive, a small crew pointed the tower and laid the interior brickwork until work was suspended on October 14.

Workers returned to the lighthouse on May 24, 1882, and for the rest of that month, fifteen men were engaged in clearing the ice, which covered the foundation pier and the lower eighteen feet of the tower. During the month of June, the spiral staircase and lantern room were put in place, allowing the lens to be installed in time to exhibit the light for the first time on July 4, 1882. The tower’s second-order Fresnel lens, manufactured by Henry-LePaute in France, was equipped with twelve flash panels and revolved to produce a white flash every thirty seconds.

Stannard Rock Lighthouse stands seventy-eight feet tall and exhibits its light at a height of 102 feet above Lake Superior. The tower tapers from a diameter of twenty-nine feet at the pier to just under eighteen feet at the lantern room, while the seven floors inside the tower all have a diameter of fourteen feet.

During the 1883 season, a few remaining work items were completed at the station, including the installation of boat-hoisting engines, chocks for the station’s sailboats to set in, and a lightning conductor. Removal of the wooden protection pier was completed on September 7, 1883.

Lens and pedestal in Marquette
The station’s twin ten-inch steam whistles were housed in the lighthouse until 1888 when a fog signal building was constructed atop the pier against the southeast side of the tower. The structure was built with steel plate riveted to a steel frame, and the main door of the tower was accessed via a flight of open iron stairs from inside the fog signal building.

John Pasque, who had been serving as head keeper at Sturgeon Point Lighthouse, accepted a transfer to become the first head keeper at the higher paying Stannard Rock Lighthouse. After one season, Keeper Pasque transferred to Michigan Island Lighthouse, and John Armbruster, the head keeper at Outer Island Lighthouse, took charge of Stannard Rock for just one month before returning to Outer Island.

The next three head keepers were brothers, who each managed to cope with life at the remote lighthouse for multiple seasons. James Prior served as head keeper from 1883 to 1888, before being transferred to Duluth, and then George Prior, who had been serving as one of his brother’s assistant, took charge of the station until being transferred to Grand Island Harbor Lighthouse in 1893. William H. Prior, the third and oldest of the three siblings, served as head keeper from 1893 to 1896, before accepting a transfer to Big Bay Point Lighthouse.

Keeper Edward Chambers and his assistants didn’t learn that Theodore Roosevelt had been elected President of the United States until five weeks after the 1904 election. The Hamford Fish Company of Marquette had been contracted to remove the keepers from Stannard Rock Lighthouse on November 26, 1904, but they sent their tug to Duluth to engage in mackerel fishing and instead hired the tug Ward to retrieve the keepers. Delayed towing barges, the Ward didn’t make it out to the rock until December 14, by which time the four keepers had consumed all their provisions. In fact, the men had spent the previous night making a canvas sail for the station’s yawl, and, faced with starvation, had planned to attempt a likely suicidal journey to shore in the tiny craft.

When the Ward arrived, a heavy sea was running that would occasionally dash waves over the top of the lighthouse. The keepers climbed down a ladder and rope to reach their yawl and then rowed out to the tug as waves soaked them to the skin and their clothing froze solid. After battling the seas and skirting the ice forming near shore, the Ward safely delivered the men to Marquette. This brush with death would have deterred many a man from returning to the lighthouse, but Keeper Edwards served another three seasons at Stannard Rock.

On August 1, 1913, the intensity of Stannard Rock Light was increased from 59,000 to 330,000 candlepower by changing the illuminant from oil to incandescent oil vapor. That same year, a concrete fog signal house was built, and an electric siren was installed in it, replacing the antiquated steam whistles. The fog signal was changed to an air diaphone on November 6, 1922.

A flock of ducks flew into the lantern room at 3 a.m. on November 6, 1921, smashing two of the upper panes and sending glass pieces all over the lens and clock room. Flying glass broke the mantel on the vapor lamp and chipped a few of the prisms in the lens. Four of the ducks were killed instantly – three fell outside the lantern room and one was found inside.

When the keepers returned to the station at the opening of navigation in 1922, they found that most of the wrought-iron sheathing protecting the concrete pier had been torn away by ice during the winter. During the next two years, three-foot radial anchor trusses were attached to the pier and covered with steel plates, and the space between the pier and steel plates was then filled with concrete. This new layer of protection extended from bedrock to eighteen feet above the surface of the lake, and the remaining upper section of the pier was incased in concrete without a protective steel covering.

While the work on the pier was being performed, a radiotelephone was installed at the station so the keepers could communicate with their counterparts at Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. The usefulness of the shortwave radio was demonstrated on July 28, 1928, when Keeper Lawrence Pederson reported seeing an apparently disabled fishing boat about three miles from the lighthouse. The Coast Guard was informed of the sighting, and when a boat was reported missing from Munising the following day, a search was launched that found the boat fifteen miles from Stannard Rock.

The keepers at Marquette were gracious enough to read letters, telegrams, and important items from the morning paper over the radiotelephone to help those at Stannard Rock maintain contact with the world. The Stannard Rock keepers would also use the radiotelephone to check on weather conditions before they began the multi-hour trip to or from the station.

In 1929, Keeper Pederson made the following report of one of the worst storms to strike Lake Superior:

The condition of the weather during the latter part of November at Stannard Rock Lighthouse was the worst that I have ever experienced in my 30 years or more on the Great Lakes. It started in with light snow squalls from southwest on the 22d but gradually shifted to north on the 26th and blowing very fresh. On the 27th and 28th it blew a gale from northwest and snow squalls on and off and very cold. On the 29th it blew a gale from west…the worst gale that I have ever known at the station. The spray went over the dome every minute and plate glass outside of lantern became a solid mass of ice. I tied the vapor light down with wire, but as the mantles were thrown off faster than I could put them up I decided to change, and I put in the old wick burner lamp and this also had to be tied down.

We had to use the steam hose night and day during those days to thaw out trumpets and all outside piping, and to be ready to sound signal if it should be needed. Our aerial wire went down three times from the weight of ice. We repaired same twice, but when it came down again on December 1 we had no more wire to repair with.

The record for the longest service at Stannard Rock belongs to Elmer Sormunen, who served as an assistant at the station for twenty one years followed by one year as head keeper. Keeper Sormunen, who had earlier served at Passage Island and Fort Gratiot, applied for retirement after the 1957 season due to a recent illness and surgery. During his first year at Stannard Rock, Keeper Sormunen and Louis Derusha, a fellow assistant, set off for the station from Marquette in a forty-foot motorboat on April 29th. En route to the lighthouse, the pair encountered a severe snowstorm and high waves, and due to a faulty compass, missed the station. At 6:30 p.m. that day, their boat struck a bar forty miles from Marquette and sprang a leak. By manning the pumps, the keepers were able to keep their boat from sinking, but the rising water inside the boat fouled the ignition, forcing the men to drop anchor and ride out the storm near Huron Island. Suffering from exposure and fatigue, the men finally made it back to Marquette after a forty-eight-hour battle for survival.

While it could be dangerous, serving at Stannard Rock did have its perks. Fishing for lake trout was excellent, and under the Coast Guard, the keepers received one week of vacation of each month. Anyone who enjoys cribbage, pinochle, or reading might have found Stannard Rock to be paradise.

Stannard Rock Lighthouse was electrified in 1944 through the installation of generators and an array of batteries. A 500-watt light bulb took the place of the oil vapor lamp, and a small motor took over the job of rotating the lens.

On the night of June 18, 1961, a massive explosion, fueled by over a thousand gallons of propane and gasoline, ripped through the rooms in the upper portion of the pier and started a fire that swept up into the tower. Richard Horne, who was asleep in the lighthouse, was thrown from his bunk, and Oscar Daniels, who was standing in the doorway leading to the pier, received burns on his face, legs, and arms. Walter Scobie was hurled through the air by the blast but received no injuries. Scobie and Horne dropped roughly fifteen feet from windows in the lighthouse to escape the fire and reach the concrete apron encircling the tower.

Three days after the explosion, the Coast Guard cutter Woodrush arrived at the lighthouse to determine why the station had not been in radio contact with shore and found three keepers huddled in a makeshift shelter atop the pier. Unable to return to the lighthouse due to smoke and fumes that filled the structure, the men subsisted on two cans of beans until help arrived. “It was like seeing God when the Woodrush showed up,” said Richard Horne. “Scobie and I probably could have made it longer, but I don’t know about Daniels.” The Woodrush took Daniels to Houghton for medical attention and then returned to Stannard Rock to extinguish the blaze that was still smoldering in the coal bins located in the top of the pier. William A. Maxwell, the station’s commander and father of four, was killed during the Father’s Day explosion and fire. The surviving keepers believe he was either blown off the pier or burned in the fire. After the accident, the Fresnel lens was removed and automatic equipment was installed in Stannard Rock Lighthouse.

The tower’s second-order Fresnel lens, one of just five of that size to serve on the Great Lakes, was placed on display at the Marquette Maritime Museum in 1999, and the following year crewmembers aboard the Coast Guard buoy tender Sundew removed the six-ton pedestal from the lighthouse to join the lens at the museum. The whereabouts of the lens was a mystery for several years until Fred Stonehouse received word in August 1999 that the lens was likely at a Coast Guard warehouse in Maryland. Stonehouse flew to Maryland and found six large wooden crates boldly stenciled with “Soo St. Marie Coast Guard Base.” Closer examination revealed the very faint words “Stannard Rock Lens” on the box as well, proving that the missing artifact had been located. Prior to arriving in Maryland the previous year, the lens had been at the Coast Guard Academy at New London, Connecticut for a period of time.

On May 15, 2012, Stannard Rock Lighthouse was made available under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 to eligible organizations for educational, recreational, cultural, or historic preservation purposes. Interested entities were given two months to submit a letter of interest expressing their desire to submit an application for ownership.

Head Keepers: John Pasque (1882 – 1883), John Armbruster (1883), James Prior (1883 – 1888), George Prior (1888 – 1893), William H. Prior (1893 – 1896), Edward Chambers (1896 – 1908), Robert Davenport (1908 – 1913), Knut Olsen (1913 – 1921), Lawrence Pederson (1921 – at least 1930), Louis I. Wilks (1936 – 1956), Elmer A. Sormunen (1956 –1957), William A. Maxwell ( – 1961).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Lighthouse Service Bulletin, various years.
  3. “Wouldn’t Like to Go Back,” The Owosso Argus-Press, June 22, 1961.
  4. “Lighthouse Attendants Fight Way Ashore Despite Lake Gale,” The Owosso Argus-Press, May 2, 1935.

Location: Located in Lake Superior, 24 miles southeast of Manitou Island and 45 miles north of Marquette.
Latitude: 47.183506
Longitude: -87.225117

For a larger map of Stannard Rock Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Charters to Stannard Rock are possible through Daybreak Charters.

The second-order Fresnel lens used in the Stannard Rock Lighthouse is on display at the Marquette Maritime Museum. The museum is open daily from mid-May to mid-October from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.

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