With harbor improvements planned, Congress allocated $10,000 on July 31, 1876 for range lights at the mouth of Cheboygan River, but as litigation was necessary to acquire one of the two range light sites on the west side of the river, construction could not start until June 1880. The front light was originally a lens lantern displayed from a nine-foot-square tower set atop the north gable of a two-story keeper’s dwelling, while a skeletal, wooden tower was built for the rear light. The focal plane for the front light was forty-two feet and sixty-eight feet for the rear light.
The lights were exhibited for the first time on the night of September 30, 1880. In 1884, a sixth-order, Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens was substituted for the lens lantern in the front light, and both lights were changed from fixed white to fixed red.
George P. Humphreys, the first keeper of the range lights, resigned after two years and was replaced by James W. Rich, who was transferred to Copper Harbor Lighthouse after just four months in Cheboygan. Ivory Littlefield, a veteran who had his left foot shot off during the Civil War, was appointed the third keeper of the range lights in 1883. During Littlefield’s tenure, an assistant keeper was assigned to the station to help with the added responsibility of minding Cheboygan Crib Lighthouse, which commenced operation off the mouth of the river in 1884.
When Keeper Littlefield passed away in August 1894, his wife, Philancy, served as keeper for one month before resigning. John Sinclair, Jr. was then appointed head keeper, and he served until 1899, when he was transferred and John Duffy was placed in charge of the range lights.
In 1892, a circular iron oil house, with a capacity of 360 gallons, was erected next to the dwelling, and a wood shed was built.
The skeletal, timber tower used for the rear light was replaced with a steel one in 1890. This new square, pyramidal, skeletal tower stood on six brick foundation piers and rose to a height of seventy-five feet. A small frame house was built at the base of the tower to store the lamp carriage that was run up and down the tower by a steel cable and winch. White horizontal boards were bolted to the tower’s frame to form an oval target or daymark that was twenty feet high and twelve feet wide at its middle. The tower was fourteen feet square at its base and just twenty-two inches square at its lantern.
The color of the combined tower and dwelling was changed from brown to white in 1901. By 1910, the dwelling had been painted venetian red, while the tower remained white with a black lantern room. On June 27, 1914, the intensity of the range lights was increased by changing the illuminating apparatus to reflectors.
Martin and Poe Reef Lightships were often moored at the front range light during the winter, and after permanent structures replaced these lightships, the front range light served as a supply point for these and other offshore stations. When the Coast Guard transferred its operations from Cheboygan River to St. Ignace in the 1980s, the U.S. Geological Survey and Department of Fisheries moved into the front range dwelling.
In 2001, Cheboygan Front Range Lighthouse was included in the first group of lighthouses excessed under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. After receiving the deed to the property in June 2004, the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA) used a grant from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program (MLAP) to commission an engineering study to determine needed restoration work. The lighthouse’s lantern box and gallery have since been rebuilt using a $21,000 MLAP grant, and guest keepers can now volunteer to live in the lighthouse and open it up to visitors on weekends and holidays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Besides giving tours and running the gift shop, these modern-day keepers also help clean the lighthouse and maintain the grounds.