Digest>Archives> January 1998

The Detroit River Light

By Tom Greenwood


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It's certainly evident from this photo taken in ...
Photo by: Courtesy of the Detroit News

The Coast Guard grudgingly referred to it as "The Rock." Thrusting its way up out of the water like an errant tooth, the Detroit River Light bore more than a passing resemblance to a mini Alcatraz.

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Boatswains mate Bob Johnson makes a daily check ...
Photo by: Courtesy of the Detroit News

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In this photo, taken May 1957, sailors William D. ...

Like real inmates on "The Rock" in San Francisco Bay, sailors pulling duty on this Great Lakes lighthouse were so near, yet so far, from civilization. Located seven miles off the downriver city of Gibraltar - where the Detroit River widens into Lake Erie - the lighthouse was only 28 miles from downtown Detroit.

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Sailors wave good-bye as the Coast Guard Cutter ...

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A view of the Detroit River Light, seven miles ...

On clear days, sailors could see smog from auto factories wrapping itself around the city's skyscrapers. At night, they could see the twinkling lights of Toledo and Monroe. Located in the midst of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, lonely light keepers on the Detroit River Light were passed by hundreds of freighters, ore carriers, and pleasure boats, but for all intents and purposes, sailors on "The Rock" may as well have been on a space station.

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A view of the Detroit River Light, taken through ...

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Coast Guardsman Jack O'Malley takes a break from ...

"Just about the only time the Coast Guardsmen at the light had a lot of company was during Prohibition," said John Polacsek, curator of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, located on Belle Isle, in the Detroit River.

"The Detroit River Light was a rendezvous for rum runners who would bring in alcohol from Amherstburg, on the Canadian side. From there, the rum runners would boat off to Toledo, Monroe or Sandusky. They had company...up to a certain point."

According to Polacsek, the Canadians were the first to try to establish a light where the current lighthouse still stands.

"In 1875, the Canadians established a lightship by a nearby shoal, but it proved too weak," Polacsek said. "Mariners said there were too many lights on both the Canadian and American shores, and it was too confusing."

"Congress approved $60,000 for the light in 1882 and 1883, with an additional $18,000 in 1885 to complete the job."

And quite a job it was.

"The lighthouse had to be built in the middle of nowhere," Polacsek said. "It had to be built on a big foundation, which was a big problem. The Army Corps of Engineers did the work."

Construction began in 1884, when a timber crib measuring 45 feet x 90 feet x 18 feet high was towed from Amherstburg to the site and sunk in 22 feet of water on July 3, 1884. The crib was then filled with concrete, a job which took more than two months.

"They then constructed the pier, consisting of cut stone blocks and measuring 43 feet x 90 feet x 15 feet high, with four feet below the water line," Polacsek said.

The pier was completed on November 21, 1884, but the settlement of the crib and pier had been uneven, some 16 inches out of level. Before stopping work for the winter, construction crews loaded 550 tons of rubble stone onto the pier, mostly on the high side. When they returned in the spring, gravity and Mother nature had taken over and leveled the pier.

They then began building the light tower and fog signal building.

The conical tower is built of cast iron plate, surmounted by a round watchroom and a 10-sided cast iron lantern with an inscribed diameter of seven feet, four inches. The tower itself is 49 feet high, 22 feet in diameter at the base and 18 feet in diameter at the parapet and lined with 12-inch thick brick walls.

"The station also included a rectangular wood-framed fog signal," Polacsek said. "The lens exhibited there has been changed several times in order to change its characteristics."

According to records, in 1909 the lens had a single fixed panel of 180 degrees and six bulls eye panels of 30 degrees. Each was installed, so that the light was fixed for 30 seconds and then showed six flashes at five second intervals, with the entire lens rotating once a minute.

The lens now exhibited has six panels of 60 degrees each, with three bulls eye flash panels each separated from the other by a degree blind panel.

The 62,000-candlepower light, with its conical tower, was first exhibited on August 20, 1885 and could be seen for 25 miles. Its official name was Detroit River Bar Point Lighthouse, which was shortened to the Detroit River Light Station in 1939.

"The foghorn, when operating, sounded two long blasts every three minutes," Polacsek said. "It was discontinued about four years ago. The conical tower was rebuilt in 1951. It's still a very active light in a very active area."

Today, the light flashes two long flashes and operates one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise.

"And the only way to get there is the same way as in 1885, by boat," Polacsek said.

Historically, the light was maintained by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which stationed a keeper and two assistants at the light until the Coast Guard took over in 1939. The light became automated in March 1975.

According to a Detroit Free Press newspaper clipping dated August 22, 1985, the last Coast Guard OIC on the light before it became automated was First Petty Officer David Klein, who said maintaining the light was "pretty good duty, but it was hard to lead a normal life."

According to reports, duty at the light stretched from March, when ice broke up on the river, till December. A five man crew took two week shifts at the light, and at any given time, three of five were on duty and two were on shore.

During their two week tours of duty, sailors had daily eight hour shifts, when they made sure the generators were in good working order; monitored radio channels and relayed weather information.

Between shifts, "There wasn't a lot to do, but you could do just about anything you wanted," Klein said in his 1985 interview. Card games, darts, bumper pool, reading, writing letters home and listening to the Detroit Tiger games helped pass the time.

"It was rather strange when you're out there and it was totally dark," Klein said of the man-made island. "Nothing else was around you."

Things weren't much different for Coast Guardsmen in earlier newspaper clippings from The Detroit News.

Sailors burned by the sun and the wind noted that the lighthouse was cold in March, hot in July and lonely all year round.

Shopping trips to the mainland were made once a week, when sailors also picked up mail and newspapers. The main meal of the day was dinner, when the main course was usually something hearty from the meat and potato menu, including stews, chowders, chops, burgers and lots of fresh vegetables during the summer.

The least favorite meal, according to a clipping from May 1957, was baked beans.

In a Detroit News clipping from May 1972, Botswain's Mate Robert Adisek readily admitted that it took "an unusual breed of man for duty out there."

Adisek confessed that he didn't mind the loneliness of his important outpost, but readily confirmed that the mournful moan of the foghorn on certain nights "was unlike anything I've ever heard."

In his interview, Adisek said there were unique benefits to duty on "The Rock."

"There's a lot of heat lightning in summer," Adisek said. "It really lights up the sky. And lake thunder is different from land thunder. When you're on land, it crashes into the street and has a hollow sound.

"Out on the lake it's sharper-crack, crack, crack!"

Still, lighthouse duty isn't for everyone. Reportedly, at least one man left "The Rock" a few years earlier, rowing madly for land and the life it offered.

It's not like the Coast Guard wasn't aware of the hardships that came with tending the light. Sailors were always happy to hear the throaty toots of the Coast Guard Cutter Buckhorn. The boat would bring them 3,000 gallons of drinking water every two weeks and 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel every two months.

It would also bring them mail and sometimes recreational equipment which would sometimes leave the sailors scratching their heads . . . like the time the Coast Guard, with perfect military logic, sent the marooned sailors a complete tennis set, including the net.

Tennis anyone?

This story appeared in the January 1998 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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