Digest>Archives> February 2003

The Old Standby Fades Away—but Never Dies

By Todd R. Berger

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The Minnesota Point Lighthouse in the early days.

The frumpy visage of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse in Duluth belies its distinguished history. Nicknamed “The Old Standby,” the lantern-less lighthouse that stands today is as old as the state of Minnesota itself and, when completed in 1858, was the first high-powered lighthouse on Lake Superior. The lighthouse marks the zero point for lake charts as established in 1823 by the early surveyor of Lake Superior Lieutenant Henry Woolsey Bayfield of the British Royal Navy. The designation as the zero point is believed to be the reason the lighthouse tower still stands here, some 125 years after the adjoining keeper’s house was demolished and the Minnesota Point Lighthouse was darkened forever.

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The Duluth North Breakwater Light.
Photo by: Todd R. Berger

When the U.S. Congress appropriated $15,000 on March 3, 1855, for the construction of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse, the city of Duluth did not exist. At that time, Ojibwe wigwams sprinkled the land around the lighthouse site on Minnesota Point, though the Ojibwe would soon relocate to reservations, ceding their land (including Minnesota Point) to the U.S. government under the terms of the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe. Settlers on Minnesota Point were few, though a fishing operation run by Bradshaw Brothers and Bly of Superior stood on the lake side of the point, and a dock and warehouse owned by George R. Stuntz, a relocated Pennsylvanian, stood on the bay side.

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The Duluth South Breakwater Light.
Photo by: Todd R. Berger

The government awarded a contract to Captain R.G. Coburn of Superior to construct the light tower, keeper’s house, and two wooden piers to mark the Superior Entry, the natural break in the nine-mile-long sandbar guarding Superior Bay. Coburn chose a site for the light station right on top of Bayfield’s zero point about a quarter of a mile from the Superior Entry, with construction beginning in late summer 1856.

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The Minnesota Point Lighthouse as it appears ...
Photo by: Todd R. Berger

The station Coburn erected included a fifty-foot, cylindrical, Cleveland red-brick, mortar-coated, whitewashed tower topped by a five-sided lantern room. The adjacent two-story keeper’s house was also made of brick, though the dwelling was never whitewashed like the tower. When the tower was finally lit for the first time in 1858, the station’s fifth-order Fresnel lens exhibited a fixed red signal fueled by kerosene. The construction of the light station came in under budget: Coburn reported to the Lighthouse Board a final cost of $13,675.89. R.H. Barrett of West Superior was the first keeper.

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Now that a lighthouse was established, the real battles began over the future of the Duluth-Superior Harbor. In 1858, the only access into Superior Bay from the lake was via the 2,000-foot-wide, eight-to-nine-foot-deep Superior Entry. In addition to the problem of the shallow depth, the Superior Entry led to a deep-but-crooked channel in the lakebed of the bay, a winding route ships entering the harbor had to follow to get to the docks in Superior.

In 1866, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the harbor and recommended the deepening of the natural entry and the construction of two wooden piers, one two thousand feet long and the other three thousand feet long, one on each side of the entry. Congress agreed, and in 1867 passed the River and Harbor Act, granting $63,000 for the projects. Work began on the improvements in July, 1868.

With the arrival of the railroad in Duluth on August 1, 1870, the need for better harbor facilities intensified. At the time, ships bound for Duluth sailed with the guidance of the Minnesota Point Light through the Superior Entry, and then followed another narrow, shallow, winding channel across the bay to De Costa’s Dock on the Duluth shoreline, a pier built by the railroad company. But ships frequently ran aground attempting to bring their goods to harbor. Duluth’s first solution was to build harbor facilities outside of the sandbar by constructing a breakwater parallel to Minnesota Point in Lake Superior. A dock stretching out from Minnesota Point was soon added, as well as a grain elevator. But the lakeside harbor provided only small-scale facilities for ships and was only available for use in fair weather. Given the ambitions of the railroad, the state of Minnesota, and the city of Duluth, this just wasn’t sufficient.

In the fall of 1870, the city of Duluth contracted the firm of Dodge & Moses to start digging a canal near the base of Minnesota Point, 150 feet wide and 16 feet deep, protected by piers extending into the lake and into the bay. By April, 1871, the waters of Lake Superior were flowing through the canal into the bay, and by June 12, the steam-powered tug Frank C. Fero became the first vessel to pass through the Duluth Ship Canal.

The city of Superior, backed by the Wisconsin legislature, sued the city of Duluth, as the Wisconsinites feared that the new canal would divert the waters of the St. Louis River from the Superior Entry and therefore greatly damage access to Superior’s harbor facilities. The U.S. government sided with Superior, as officials believed the new canal would threaten the federal government’s significant investment in dredging and building breakwaters at the Superior Entry. An 1871 settlement between the parties left Duluth with its canal but also an obligation to fund the construction of a dike across Superior Bay, effectively dividing the harbor. In the fall of that year, workers started constructing the dike.

In June, 1871, after the settlement of the initial lawsuit, the governor of Wisconsin, Lucius Fairchild, wrote Secretary of War William W. Belknap complaining about the agreement arguing that the dike would cut Superior off from “the free, unobstructed navigation of the public waters of Superior Bay.” The governor’s primary concern was that Superior would be cutoff from the railroad terminus at Duluth. The governor’s grievances gained traction, and in June, 1872, the state of Wisconsin again sued to gain unfettered access to the bay in its entirety, to have the dike be completely dismantled (the 4,490-foot timber, stone, and steel dike had already deteriorated greatly over the previous winter), and to have the Duluth Ship Canal plugged.

The second suit dragged on until 1877, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally heard the case. In the meantime, the U.S. Congress appropriated funds for not only the improvement of the Superior Entry and Superior Harbor but of the Duluth Ship Canal and the Duluth Harbor as well. The Supreme Court sided with Duluth saying that Congress had already endorsed the ship canal by providing funds for its improvement, adding “Can this court decree that it must forever pursue the old channel by the natural outlet, over water too shallow for large vessels, unsafe for small ones and by a longer and much more tedious route?” The answer, based on the ruling of the court, was “no.” Though Duluth and Superior would continue to haggle over related issues for many years, this ruling effectively ended the battle over the Duluth Ship Canal.

It also meant the end of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse as an aid to navigation. After the ruling, the federal government decided to build sturdier rock breakwaters at the Superior Entry to protect and deepen the channel. As part of this construction, the government erected a new Superior Entry Lighthouse on the west breakwater stretching from Minnesota Point. The Minnesota Point Lighthouse’s keeper’s dwelling was dismantled, and the brick was used in the construction of the new lighthouse. The government also removed the lantern room, the tower’s interior stairway, and the Fresnel lens. The lens was transferred to the new breakwater light, which was lit for the first time on September 1, 1878. The new lighthouse would serve until the current Superior Entry Lighthouse, across the waterway on a breakwater stretching from Wisconsin Point, was built in 1913.

Today, Minnesota Point Lighthouse sits on the edge of a field well back from Lake Superior and the Superior Entry. A two-mile, sandy hike from the end of Minnesota Avenue is required to reach the site, a hike which resulted in a lovely outbreak of poison ivy blisters on this writer’s knee. Overgrown by vegetation, some of which is growing out of the brick of the tower itself, the lighthouse is now surrounded by a chainlink fence to protect it from vandals. Though much of the whitewashed mortar is gone today, the light looks much as it did in photographs from the early twentieth century: a battered brick edifice lonely and abandoned in the tracks of the march of progress. The old lighthouse is recognized by Minnesota as a state historic site, and in 1974, the federal government placed the then 116-year-old tower on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the Minnesota Point Lighthouse also occupies a prominent place on Lighthouse Digest’s Doomsday List of endangered lighthouses. The lighthouse and the property surrounding it are owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Detroit District. At present, there are no public or private plans in place to restore the lighthouse.

Todd R. Berger is the author of Lighthouses of the Great Lakes: Your Guide to the Region’s Historic Lighthouses.

See also separate online only story of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse at www.LighthouseDigest.com

This story appeared in the February 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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