On the evening of November 5, 1927, residents on shore spotted a fire at Michigan’s Peche Island Front Range Lighthouse that stood in the Detroit River on the Canadian border near Lake St. Clair. The lighthouse operated in conjunction with the nearby Peche Island Rear Range Lighthouse. Both had been constructed in 1908 by the United States Lighthouse Service, and were often referred under the spelling of Peach instead of Peche. To make matters more confusing, the lights were originally named Isle Aux Peches Range Lighthouses.
The fire tugboat James R. Elliott was immediately dispatched to the 35-foot tall unmanned lighthouse and was first to arrive on the scene. As the fire tugboat approached the wooden crib that the lighthouse stood upon, the crew saw that the crib was ablaze in several places. This was the first time that the fire crew would be fighting a fire at an off- shore lighthouse, and although there was always danger in fighting a fire from a fire boat, little could they realize what was about to happen.
As the fireboat drew up to the dock, fireman Harold E. Kohen jumped from the boat to the crib’s dock to secure the fireboat so that the other firemen could join him to fight the inferno. His feet had barely touched the deck when a giant explosion occurred.
The blast literally blew the iron tower 20 to 30 feet in the air, ripping one entire section open as the rest of the tower fell back from the air above crashing onto the crib. Other parts of the tower, including most of the eight-sided lantern, were blown into the water. The fire tugboat shook from the explosion, and all of its windows were blown out. Having just landed on the dock, fireman Kohen was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was hurled through the air and into the water, but miraculously survived.
The explosion was witnessed by hundreds of people who had gathered on the shoreline to watch the fire. It was also witnessed by the crew of the lighthouse tender Thistle, which had been approaching the site to help fight the fire when the explosion occurred.
The actual cause of the fire was arson. A local tugboat captain, who was believed to be the first person to report the fire, said he saw two men rowing away from the lighthouse when he spotted the blaze. It was later reported that the explosion was assumed to have been caused by the heat from the fire that caused the acetylene gas in tanks that were used at the station to blow up. The lighthouse was a total loss.
The day after the explosion, a temporary beacon was placed at the site. It was later replaced by a beacon atop a wooden structure.
Earlier Aids to Navigation
Aids to navigation of one type or another were first established here as early as April of 1898, but none of them lasted very long. Many were carried away by ice or were destroyed by boats hitting them. The small beacons that were built at the sites over the years were replaced as fast as they were destroyed, but it happened so much that by 1908 actual lighthouse towers were constructed by the government in hopes that they would provide permanency. They did, and for quite a long time.
But many locals felt the area was doomed, perhaps because of supernatural reasons, and nothing would last at these locations. The explosion that destroyed the Peche Island Front Range Light perpetuated those far-flung ideas of some. If any of those people were still alive when its counterpart, the 60-foot tall Peche Island Rear Range Light, started to lean in the 1980s, they probably would have said “I told you so.”
When the 1908 new Peche Island Rear Range Lighthouse and the Peche Island Front Range Lighthouse towers were completed, they were built under specifications to withstand the action of the ice, which, as a government reported, “has carried away the temporary pile clusters from which the range lights have been exhibited.”
A New Beginning for the Rear Light
By the 1940s, both the Peche Island Front and Rear Light were electrified and no longer used acetylene gas, but they continued to silently do their assigned tasks. However, by the 1980s, the constant ice jams took their toll on the Peche Island Rear Range Lighthouse and it began to seriously list and appeared to be ready to topple over. The Coast Guard made a decision to remove the structure and hired Luedtke Engineering Company to remove the lighthouse, and the company was going to sell the tower for scrap metal.
However, Michigan Bank – Port Huron, which merged in 1982 with Marine Bank and Trust in Marine City, decided to purchase the lighthouse, move it, and restore it on the waterfront in Marine City in what they hoped would help attract shoppers to the downtown area and build a closer relationship between the bank and the community. It was planned that the lighthouse would be the first exhibit in an outdoor display of Great Lakes artifacts that bank officials had hoped to create on the waterfront.
On August 21, 1983, the newly restored Peche Island Rear Range Lighthouse was dedicated in what is now known as Lighthouse Park. The biggest attraction at the dedication ceremony was the 1st Marine Band, a re-creation of the 1863 U.S. Marine Band and Ceremonial Guard, which marched in a parade to Waterworks Park in Marine City where they began a concert that was open to the public.
Today the Peche Island Range is marked by beacons mounted atop nondescript skeletal Erector-set style structures.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2017 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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