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Spectacle Reef, MI  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Privately owned, no access without permission.   

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Spectacle Reef Lighthouse

At the eastern end of the Straits of Mackinac lie two limestone shoals named Spectacle Reef, due to their resemblance to a pair of eyeglasses. After the barques Annie Vought and Alice Richards wrecked on the reef in the fall of 1867, the Lighthouse Board called for the construction of a lighthouse to mark the navigational hazard that was “more dreaded by navigators than any other danger now unmarked throughout the entire chain of lakes.” As the reef is exposed to the whole sweep of Lake Huron, the Board recognized that construction of a lighthouse would be dangerous and expensive, likely costing over three hundred thousand dollars. Though significant, this amount was less than the loss suffered by the owners of the two barques shipwrecked on the reef in 1867.

Cross-section of Spectacle Reef Lighthouse
On March 3, 1869, Congress appropriated $100,000 to allow plans to be made for the lighthouse, and later that year, a first-class iron can-buoy was placed between the shoals in sixteen feet of water as a temporary marker. A careful survey of the reef was made in July 1869, and the following spring a work depot, outfitted with a wharf, storehouse, and temporary quarters, was established at Scammon’s Harbor on Government Island, seventeen miles northeast of the reef. A ninety-two-foot-square wooden crib, with a central forty-eight-foot-square opening to receive a cofferdam, was built to conform to the contour of the northern shoal at Spectacle Reef during the summer of 1870. In September 1869, the ore-laden schooner Nightingale ran aground on the reef and went to pieces, and the shoal had to be cleared of the wreckage before the crib could be put in place.

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.

Spectacle Reef Lighthouse circa 1902. Note duplicate steam whistles and stairs leading up to tower.
Photograph courtesy National Archives
During the 1872 season, an entire course of stone could be set, drilled, and bolted in roughly three days, and by the end of work that October, the solid portion of the tower was finished along with five courses in the upper part of the tower. On the night of September 28, 1872, a gale of unusual severity struck the tower and inflicted the following damage, as reported by the superintendent of construction:
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.

Keepers opening lighthouse in 1902
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Eighteen-year-old Alfred Cardran bailed out the skiff and set out for the sailboat. With prudence that equaled his heroism, young Alfred decided to save just one keeper at a time in order to avoid overloading the skiff. Edward Lasley, who was badly injured in the accident, was brought ashore first, followed by Edward Chambers. Keeper Marshall was carried into the lighthouse, where he was rubbed and treated for five hours before he was restored and learned the heart-rending news that his son had perished. Joseph and Alfred Cardran were both awarded a gold lifesaving medal on June 7, 1883, for “rescuing from drowning, after heroic and persistent effort and at the imminent risk of [their own lives], the keeper of the Spectacle Reef lighthouse, Lake Huron, and two of his assistants.” Both of the Cardrans later served brief stints as assistants under Keeper Marshall.

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.

Lighthouse after construction of iron fog signal building
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
On February 22, 1959, Sergeant William J. Wyman’s plane disappeared over Lake Huron while he was flying from Saginaw to Kinross Air Force Base in the Upper Peninsula. The search for the missing pilot was called off on March 5 after not trace of Wyman or the plane had been found. When the keepers arrived at Spectacle Reef on April 8, 1959 to reopen the lighthouse, they found a note written by Wyman that explained how his plane’s engine had quit when he was flying at 5,000 feet, about a mile from the lighthouse. “I tried to make it in but could not stretch my glide this far,” Wyman Wrote. “I landed in the water. I did not try to land on the ice as it did not appear to be thick enough…the plane went down within two minutes. But before it did it floated close enough to an ice floe for me to jump. The ice was not over two inches thick. Another large body of water separated me from the lighthouse, so I waited. Suddenly the wind shifted to the northeast and the ice I was on started to move. At the very last moment one corner of the ice grounded against the ice packed around the lighthouse.”

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.


  • Head: Patrick J. McCann (1874 – 1880), Allen W. Hulbert (1880 – 1881), Lorenzo O. Holden (1881), William Marshall (1881 – 1896), Frank R. Bogan (1896), Samuel F. Rogers (1896 – 1896), Frank R. Bogan (1896), Samuel F. Rogers (1896 – 1898), Walter G. Marshall (1898 – 1910), Edwin C. Bishop (1910 – 1913), Joseph Metivier (1913 – 1916), Fred L. Kling (1916 – at least 1919), Lawrence Clark (at least 1921), George W. Smith (at least 1924 – 1933), Stanley W. Clark (1933 – 1934), Wilbert H. Beloungea (1934 – 1941), John A. Hamann (1941 – 1947), Thomas P. Brander (1947 – 1958), Richard LeLievre (1971 – 1972).
  • First Assistant: Lorenzo O. Holden (1874 – 1881), Thomas Marshall (1881 – 1882), Edward Chambers (1882 – 1887), Walter G. Marshall (1887 – 1888), Louis Metivier (1888 – 1889), Patrick W. Chambers (1889), Frank R. Bogan (1889 – 1896), Thomas Gallagher (1896), Frank F. Witte (1897 – 1901), Edwin C. Bishop (1901 – 1910), Joseph Metivier (1910 – 1913), Lawrence W. Clark (1913 – at least 1919), Robert F. Meggitt (at least 1921 – at least 1924), John A. Hamann (at least 1939), Earl F. Duffy (1941 – at least 1942), Joseph R. Gagnon (at least 1959).
  • Second Assistant: John Mulcrone (1874 – 1877), Michael Mulcrone (1877 – 1879), Thomas Marshall (1879 – 1881), Edward Chambers (1881 – 1882), Frank E. Kimball (1882 – 1883), James C. Marshall (1883), Edward Lasley (1883), Walter G. Marshall (1883 – 1887), Louis Metivier (1887 – 1888), Patrick W. Chambers (1888 – 1889), Frank R. Bogan (1889), Alfred Cardran (1889 – 1890), Henry Metivier (1890 – 1894), Thomas Gallagher (1894 – 1896), William A. Burke (1896), David D. Spaulding (1896 – 1896), Rudolph Mueller (1897 – 1900), William J. O’Neil (1900 – 1902), Fred L. Kling (1902), Arthur S. Marshall (1902 – 1910), Richard Thompson (1910 – 1911), Lawrence W. Clark (1911 – 1913), William C. Myrick (1913 – ), Robert F. Meggitt (at least 1915 – at least 1919), Frank Davis (1921 – 1930), Stanley W. Clarke (1930 – 1936), William W. Ford (1936 – 1937), William J. Miller (1937 – 1939), Earl F. Duffy (1939 – 1941), Ambrose A. Bellant (1941), Cyril J. Jones ( – 1959).
  • Third Assistant: Charles Martin (1876 – 1877), William Marshall (1877 – 1881), Frank T. Chambers (1881 – 1882), James C. Marshall (1882 – 1883), Walter G. Marshall (1883), Charles A. Lindstrem (1883 – 1884), Joseph Cardran (1884 – 1885), Louis Metivier (1885 – 1887), Patrick W. Chambers (1887 – 1888), Frank R. Bogan (1888 – 1889), Alfred Cardran (1889), Henry Metivier (1889 – 1890), James Pottinger (1890 – 1891), Thomas Gallagher (1891 – 1894), William A. Burke (1894 – 1896), Edward D. Hoban (1896 – 1897), Theodore Welin (1897 – 1898), Edwin C. Bishop (1899 – 1901), Fred L. Kling (1901 – 1902), Arthur S. Marshall (1902), Andrew W. Henderson (1902 – 1904), Richard Thompson (1904 – 1910), Wilson LaPine (1910), James R. Anderson (1910 – 1911), Lawrence Clark (1911), William C. Myrick (1911 – 1913), John M. Isaacsen (1913 – ), Louis Hudak (at least 1915 – at least 1917), Frank Davis (1920 – 1921), Charles Dissett (1921 – ), Louis P. Beloungea (at least 1924).

Photo Gallery: 1 2


  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Annual Report of the Lake Carriers’ Association, various years.
  4. Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service, 1883.
  5. “Heroes of Spectacle Reef,” The Davenport Daily Leader, January 15, 1892.

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