When many people think of the great American lighthouses and the many fantastic and amazing stories that go with so many of them, it’s generally the same iconic lighthouses that come to mind, perhaps many times over.
But the fact remains: so many lighthouses, both standing and no longer standing, have all played a vital role in the history of how we got where we are as a nation and even where we might be headed into our future. However, the lighthouse itself is actually just a symbol of that history.
First and foremost, it is vital to remember that lighthouses were built for one purpose only: to save lives. But more importantly, it is vital to remember the people who reached the conclusions about where a lighthouse should be built, what type of materials should be used in its construction, how high it should be, what it should look like, and what type of beacon would shine from its lantern room and how powerful that light would be.
Then we need to remember the people who manned the lighthouses and the sacrifices that many of them and their families made. Although the basic duties of a lighthouse keeper might have been the same at each lighthouse, the life of a lighthouse keeper was uniquely different at each and every lighthouse.
The late Ken Black, founder of the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine is the person who first coined the phrase “Lighthouses are like people. They come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors.” This is especially true of the Minnesota’s Duluth Harbor Breakwater Lighthouses.
Three lighthouses still stand in Minnesota’s Duluth Harbor, and they and the keepers who served at them did so in a dignified manner, quietly and with pride. Additionally, the lighthouses that were built in Duluth Harbor all were of a unique design and totally different from each other, representing, each in their own way, a general representation of lighthouse designs that have been used in lighthouses across the country.
That’s why we chose in this issue to share with you this selection of vintage and current photographs, each with a small slice of informative history of the lighthouses of Duluth Harbor.
Although many of the memories of the keepers of the Duluth Harbor Lighthouses may be something that was taken to their graves with them, we do know a few things about them and their lives in Duluth.
The position of a lighthouse keeper was important and prestigious in early America and as we look back now, we can only wonder what the assistant keepers in Duluth must have thought when Congress refused to allocate money for an assistant keeper’s house, forcing them to rent homes, while other assistant keeper’s around the nation generally were provided living quarters. Finally, after many years, money was appropriated and eventually they were given housing. Those homes still stand to this day, but were vacated long ago by the lighthouse keepers and their families.
Today, the Duluth Harbor lighthouses are automated and before long, they will all, most likely, be privately owned, as the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Inner Lighthouse is now, something that the lighthouse keepers of yesteryear would probably have a hard time comprehending.
Perhaps keepers John Hanson and Fred Jeffrey, who were themselves serving at the end of an era, saw the handwriting on the wall. In May of 1947, the two keepers recounted some of their memories to H. Ross Miller of the Duluth News Tribune. Hanson said that now, referring to 1947, he had life pretty easy compared to what it used to be like at Duluth and other light stations he served at, saying, “Used to be a lot different around these harbor waters. Fred Jeffrey and I had a tug then and we looked after all the lighted aids in Duluth-Superior harbor from 1917 to 1934. The lights burned kerosene in those days. Now they use acetylene gas from tanks tended by the Coast Guard.”
However, very few people are aware of the tunnels that were constructed under the piers specifically to allow the keeper to reach the towers in inclement weather without fear of being washed off the pier by a wave or slipping off the ice-covered walkway and into the frigid waters of Lake Superior. Those tunnels, unique in lighthouse history, came complete with a cable-operated car, which provided the lighthouse keeper a means to reach the lighthouse more quickly than walking.
However, by the time Hanson became the keeper, he said they had stopped using the tunnels, believing they were no longer safe. By that time, according to Hanson, the tunnels, more often than not, had two feet of water in them from seepage. After all, he recounted, he was a lighthouse keeper, not a miner and he felt much safer topside.
Newspaper reporter Miller, who visited all the lighthouses in 1947, reported to the public in his story that all the floors, walls, and machinery at the Duluth South Breakwater Lighthouse were in spotless condition, thanks to Hanson’s overseeing. This included the two air compressors for the twin fog horns; two radio transmitters, one which continually put out the Duluth entry radio beacon homing signal at specific intervals; an emergency electric power generating plant for the light; and another radio set which received time signal so that the master clocks on the control board could be checked.
It would seem from Miller’s account that the lighthouse keepers’ duties in 1947 may have been easier than that of the earlier keepers, but it was much more complicated and required additional training and knowledge.
Although the lighthouse keepers are long gone, as are some of the lighthouses, the remaining Duluth Harbor lighthouses continue to shine on; however their biggest claim to fame today is quite possibly as tourist attractions. But they really stand as a testament to those who came before us. Let us not forget.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2011 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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