At 8 p.m. on July 18, 1871, the tugs Champion and Magnet left Government Island with the timber pier in tow. The tender Warrington and the schooner Belle followed with a workforce of 140 men aboard, and they were accompanied by the tug Stranger, pulling the barges Ritchie and Emerald, and the tug Hand, trailed by two Lighthouse Establishment barges. These four barges were loaded with a total of 1,550 tons of stone for anchoring the pier to the reef.
After six hours of slow progress, the flotilla arrived at Spectacle Reef at 2 a.m. the following day. The pier was placed in position at daylight, and all hands then set to work filling the pier’s compartments with the ballast stone. The Belle was moored nearby to house the workforce, which built up the pier to a height of twelve feet above the lake. When the pier was finished in mid-September, quarters for the crew were built atop it, allowing the Belle to return to harbor.
After a diver had cleared off the shoal bounded by the pier’s central opening, a cofferdam, a hollow cylinder with a diameter of forty-one feet, was lowered in place. Made of wooden staves and hooped with iron bands, the cofferdam resembled a barrel, and once it was in position, each of its staves was driven flush with the shoal. The diver then filled in any gaps with Portland cement and pressed a loosely-twisted rope of oakum into the exterior angle between the cofferdam and shoal.
The nearly watertight cofferdam was pumped dry on October 14, and that same day a force of stonecutters was placed inside to level the shoal. The laying of the first course of cut stone for the tower was finished on October 27, and with the onset of winter, the cofferdam was filled with water and the workforce withdrawn. Two men were left behind until the close of the navigation season to tend a fourth-order light, placed atop the crews’ quarters, and a steam fog whistle.
A contractor had been hired to provide granite from a quarry at Duluth, Minnesota to build the lighthouse, but when he abandoned the job, Orlando M. Poe, the engineer in charge of the project, was forced to use Marblehead limestone from Ohio instead.
Work on Government Island, where the stone was dressed, opened for the 1872 season on May 3. As the inside of the cofferdam was still a block of solid ice at that date, work on the reef could not begin until the last of the ice was removed on May 20. The bottom course of the tower was bolted to the shoal with three-foot-long bolts that penetrated the limestone shoal to a depth of twenty-one-inches, while subsequent stone courses, each two feet thick, were linked together with two-foot-long bolts. The bottom seventeen courses of stone formed a solid tower, thirty-four feet tall, which extended from the shoal, eleven feet below the lake, to a height of twenty-three feet above water. The upper portion of the tower was hollow and held five rooms, one above the other, each with a diameter of fourteen feet.
The sea burst in the doors and windows of the workmen’s quarters, tore up the floors and all bunks on the side nearest the edge of the pier, carried off the walk between the privy and pier, and the privy itself, and tore up the platform between the quarters and the pier. Everything in the quarters was completely demolished, except the kitchen, which remained serviceable. The lens, showing a temporary light, and located on top of the quarters, was found intact, but out of level. Several timbers on the east side of the crib were driven in some four inches, and the temporary cribs were completely swept away. The north side is now so filled up that the steamer can no longer lie there. A stone weighing over thirty pounds was thrown across the pier, a distance of 70 feet; but the greatest feat accomplished by the gale was the moving of the revolving derrick from the northeast to the southwest corner. At 3 o’clock in the morning the men were obliged to run for their lives, and the only shelter they found was on the opposite (the west) side of the tower. The sea finally moderated sufficiently to allow them to seek refuge in the small cement shanty standing near the southeast corner of the crib. Many lost their clothing.
By the end of September 1873, the tower’s stonework was complete, and during the next month, the interior work was wrapped up. Four flights of stone stairs led up the tower, with winding iron stairs used in the top floor of the tower and in the service room beneath the lantern room.
Workers returned to the tower on May 14, 1874 to place a chimney outside the lantern, paint the inside of the brick-lined tower, and install a second-order Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens. The lens had a focal plane of ninety-seven feet and was equipped with sixteen flash panels, every-other one of which was covered by a ruby glass screen. As the lens completed a revolution every eight minutes, mariners would see alternate red and white flashes, spaced thirty seconds apart. Patrick J. McCann, the first head keeper of Spectacle Reef Lighthouse, exhibited the light for the first time on June 1, 1874. The total cost for the lighthouse came to $406,000.
After the steamer scheduled to return the keepers to the lighthouse in the spring of 1883 became disabled, Keeper William Marshall and his three assistants, one of whom was his son James, attempted to reach the station by sailboat on April 15. When they were roughly two miles from Bois Blanc Lighthouse, a great gust of wind struck the boat as the men were adjusting its sails, and the craft capsized instantly. The men clung to the upset sailboat in the ice-choked water, and when they drifted close to Bois Blanc Lighthouse, their cries were heard by its keeper and two young fishermen from Mackinac Island, Joseph and Alfred Cardran. Joseph Cardran immediately set out in a small skiff to help the keepers and managed to pick up Keeper Marshall and his son. As they approached the shore, the surf capsized the skiff, tossing the exhausted men into the water. Joseph Cardran valiantly swam the boat to shore, while the keepers tried to cling to its sides. The effort proved too much for Keeper Marshall and his son, as both were unconscious when pulled from the breakers.
The wooden pier surrounding the lighthouse was originally intended only to facilitate construction of the stone tower, but it was retained, and duplicate ten-inch steam whistles were erected upon it. On October 2, 1888, the Lighthouse Board was awarded $15,000 to renew the pier and repair the fog signals. Between May 19 and September 6, 1889, the upper portion of the pier was torn down and rebuilt.
In 1901, the timber pier was found to be “in about the last stages of decay,” and “radical measures” were deemed necessary to improve the current state of affairs. The Lighthouse Board requested $54,100 to place a concrete-filled, steel, oval casing around the tower. This amount was granted on March 3, 1903, but after having two years to reconsider its plan, the Board decided it would be a mistake to reduce the size of the crib around the tower. Besides, an oval pier would not afford the lee for docking small boats that a square pier did. Upgrading the present pier to a concrete one was estimated to cost $98,000, so the Lighthouse Board requested another $43,900 to fund the project.
The additional amount was awarded on April 28, 1904, and during the warmer months of 1904, 1905, and 1906, a concrete pier was built around the tower and topped by a new iron fog-signal building, which housed a duplicate fog-signal plant and a bathroom. By 1920, the edge of the pier had been badly eroded near the water line, with cuts as deep as four feet in some places, so in 1922 and 1923, a two-foot-thick belt of reinforced concrete was placed around the pier. In 1934, 110 interlocking steel sheet piles were driven around the pier by Luedtke Engineering to provide additional protection.
On October 25, 1912, the intensity of Spectacle Reef Lighthouse was increased by changing the illuminant from oil to incandescent oil vapor. The power of the improved light was 84,000 candles for the red flash and 340,000 candles for the white flash. On April 14, 1925, an air diaphone fog signal, capable of immediately starting at the approach of fog, replaced the outdated steam whistle.
After being trapped inside the lighthouse for four days by great masses of ice that had built up on the pier and blocked the tower’s doors, the three keepers at Spectacle Reef were rescued on December 14, 1927 by the crew of the Poe lightship. The keepers were forced to crawl out a two-foot window high in the tower, from which they were lowered to the ship by rope.
As his ice floe was breaking up fast, Wyman ran for the lighthouse and made it there but not without getting wet. His clothes froze before reaching the door of the tower, but once inside he used some towels and overshoes in the lighthouse to keep his feet from freezing. Wyman found a radio transmitter in the lighthouse but was unable to make it work, so instead he sat up all night sending out S-O-S by blinking the tower’s winter light.
Wyman doubted if rescuers would find him since he hadn’t filed a flight plan, so after two freezing nights thickened up the ice on the lake, he decided his best chance was to try to make the eleven-mile trek to the nearest land. After apologizing for making a mess of the lighthouse, Wyman concluded his note with the following: “I am going to take some equipment with me. Binoculars, coat, hat, blankets, etc. I will turn them in to the USCG as soon as I get ashore.”
Another search was initiated after the note was found, but no trace of Wyman was ever found.
This wasn’t the only tragedy at Spectacle Reef in 1959. That September, Cyril J. Jones and Joseph R. Gagnon were swimming ten feet from the base of the lighthouse when wind gusts swept them 200 feet out into the lake. Gagnon was able to make it back to the lighthouse, but Jones, a father of five, drowned.
Richard LeLievre served as the last officer in charge of Spectacle Reef from 1970 to 1972. At the opening of the 1970 season, LeLievre’s crew was transported out to the icebound lighthouse by the Coast Guard cutter Sundew, whose captain snapped this photograph during the voyage. It took several rams at the ice before the Sundew could reach the lighthouse, allowing the captain to put a few of his crew on the pier to chop through about five feet of ice to reach the door to the lighthouse. LeLievre and his men slept in sleeping bags for the first four nights at the lighthouse that season before the furnace was finally able to get the inside temperature up to sixty-five degrees. The last piece of ice finally melted off the northwest side of the pier that year around July 1.
The Coast Guard removed the last keepers from Spectacle Reef Lighthouse in 1972, and a decade later the Fresnel lens was taken out and replaced with a solar-powered optic. The second-order, Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens is on display at National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio.
In May 2014, Spectacle Reef Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was made available under the guidelines of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act “to eligible entities defined as Federal Agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations, for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes.” When a qualified owner was not found, an online auction for the lighthouse was initiated on June 15, 2015. Four bidders participated in the auction, which ended on September 21 with a high bid of $43,575. The winning bidder was Nick Korstad, then owner of Borden Flats Lighthouse in Massachusetts.
In December 2020, ownership of Spectacle Reef Lighthouse was transferred to the non-profit 501c3 Spectacle Reef Preservation Society. The society plans to restore the station for use as a public museum and an event and education center with a resident keeper program.