Alpena Light, Alpena Michigan

Date added: September 14, 2023 Categories: Michigan Lighthouse
View of lighthouse from across Thunder Bay River, looking east (2005)

This lighthouse marks the entrance to the harbor at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River in the city of Alpena. This has been the scene of substantial commercial maritime traffic since around the middle nineteenth century. Alpena Light served as an important local aid to navigation since 1914, and continues to guide both commercial shipping and recreational watercraft. This lighthouse is built of steel using a four-legged pyramidal skeletal tower supporting a circular watch room and octagonal lantern.

The city of Alpena originated as a pioneer settlement at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River. It was formally laid out as a town in 1840. At that time the community was given the name "Animickee," after the local Chippewa chieftain who granted the Federal government rights to lands in the vicinity in an 1826 treaty. Economic development and population growth in this frontier community was slow until interest grew in harvesting the area's abundant timber resources. In 1857, representatives of Michigan's lumber industry petitioned the Federal government to construct a pier and lighthouse at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River. These were needed for expanding the shipment of timber from the port. Michigan's U.S. Congressman Dewitt Clinton Leach sought to obtain an appropriation for these improvements the following year, but he was unsuccessful.

By the end of the Civil War, the depletion of forest resources further south led to a resurgence of lumber industry activity in the Alpena area. Since the principal means of transporting timber from the area was aboard commercial vessels, a need for better aids to navigation became readily apparent. In 1866, a U.S. Lighthouse Board survey crew visited the Thunder Bay area to determine where a new lighthouse should be erected. They selected a location on the northeast side of the bay at Trowbridge Point, about two miles from the mouth of the Thunder Bay River. The Lighthouse Board subsequently requested an appropriation of $10,000 from Congress to pay for this. It was approved in March 1867.

Alpena's business community did not agree that the Trowbridge Point site selected by the Lighthouse Board's survey team was adequate for meeting the port's needs. Both they and regional business interests believed it was more important to have a lighthouse erected right at the river's mouth, which was the entrance to Alpena's harbor. The town had grown to about 2,000 inhabitants by then, and was a regular port of call for both sailing vessels and steamships. The Lighthouse Board ultimately accepted the arguments in favor of locating the new lighthouse at the entrance to Alpena's harbor. This change was approved by the U.S. Congress in July 1868. However, the new lighthouse's construction had to be held in abeyance until work on other improvements to navigation at Alpena advanced sufficiently to provide a place for it to be built.

In the early 1870s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertook construction of navigation structures on either side of the Thunder Bay River mouth. This included piers on both the north and south sides of the river's confluence with Lake Huron. In 1875 the progress of work had reached the point where establishing a lighted aid to navigation was feasible. A pile cluster supporting a pole was built on the north side of the river mouth by September. A temporary light placed atop this was exhibited for the first time in October 1875. This light's elevation was 25 feet above lake level and it could be seen for 10 miles in clear weather. Its first keeper was E. G. Howard. At the time there was no officially-designated dwelling for him, so he found lodging in the town.

As construction work on the piers at Alpena neared completion in 1877, work on a formal lighthouse began. A rectangular timber crib for its foundation was built on the north side of the river's entrance channel. This was filled with stone ballast to hold it in place. A timber-framed lighthouse structure was then built atop it. This was a rectangular pyramidal tower painted brown, with the first story left open as a skeletal framework. The second and third stories were enclosed and used as a service room and watch room. The tower was surmounted by a rectangular gallery surrounded by an iron railing with a cast iron decagonal lantern at the center. A sixth-order Fresnel lens was installed as the optic. Its focal plane was 44 feet above the crib's deck, and its visible range was 10 miles in clear weather. The lighthouse's construction was completed in July 1877 and its light first exhibited on 18 August. Work to build a lighthouse keeper's dwelling nearby was undertaken as well. It was completed in the fall of 1877.

This first lighthouse at Alpena remained in operation until July 1888. On 12 July of that year, fire broke out at a sawmill along the Thunder Bay River in Alpena. It soon spread through the town. More than 200 buildings and structures were consumed in this conflagration, including the wooden north pier at the river mouth along with the lighthouse and pier that supported it. The light's fourth-order Fresnel lens was destroyed. The keeper's dwelling survived the fire. Keeper Howard soon erected a pole at the burned lighthouse's location and mounted a temporary light on it, 25 feet above the water. Work to replace the burned light tower was soon undertaken. Staff at the Detroit lighthouse depot organized a shipment of building materials and a temporary replacement Fresnel lens, and these were dispatched to Alpena aboard the lighthouse tender Amaranth. The new light tower's construction began immediately after the vessel's arrival and was completed in September 1888. The new structure first exhibited its light signal on 1 October and the Amaranth departed for Detroit soon after.

The new lighthouse's replacement Fresnel lens was changed out in April 1889 when a new fourth-order lens was installed. Keeper Howard resigned from the Lighthouse Service in July of that year and was replaced by John C. Wallace who had been First Assistant Keeper at Port Austin Reef Light. Wallace served as the keeper of Alpena Light for 31 years, until 1920. He was replaced by George H. Burzlaff who served as keeper from 1920 to 1946.

A fog bell and automated striking mechanism were installed in the Alpena Lighthouse in 1891. This bell was mounted outside and rung with a hammer operated by a clockwork mechanism inside the service room. Other work related to the lighthouse included building a wooden picket fence around the keeper's dwelling in 1892, and construction of a brick storage building for lamp oil in 1898.

By the early 1910s, the wooden light tower erected in 1888 had deteriorated to the degree that a replacement was needed. A new concrete pier was built for this, and a steel lighthouse was erected atop it in 1914. With its structure painted black, the new Alpena Light was officially lighted on 26 June 1914. The predecessor light's fourth-order Fresnel lens was reused as the new lighthouse's optic, but it was illuminated differently. Instead of an oil lamp, it used a 320-candlepower incandescent bulb. This was possible because the light's proximity to the city of Alpena allowed for commercial electricity to be brought to it by cable. The new lighthouse's signal had an alternating characteristic of one second of white light followed by one second of darkness.

The predecessor lighthouse's fog bell and automated striking apparatus were also relocated to the new one. They remained in operation until 1920 when an electric siren was installed. This sounded a 10-second signal followed by 10 seconds of silence. In 1932, the siren signal was replaced by a fog horn powered by compressed air. This was subsequently replaced with newer equipment. The existing fog signal is a modem automated unit mounted on the lantern gallery's southeastern side. As with the lighthouse's optic, it is powered by commercial electricity.

Alpena Light was originally painted entirely black. This daymark was changed in 1950 to improve its visibility. Its color was changed to red at that time, and has remained so to the present. The lighthouse optic's characteristic was changed from white to a red light at the same time a green signal light was installed at the end of the Thunder Bay River's south breakwater, directly opposite.

This lighthouse was automated in 1974. Its original fourth order Fresnel lens was removed at that time and replaced with a 250-millimeter Tidelands Signal acrylic optic. The 250-millimeter plastic optic was replaced with the existing VRB-25 optic circa 1996.

Today, Alpena Light continues to stand atop the south breakwater at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River. Its structure remains intact and is in good condition. This lighthouse is a local landmark in the Alpena community and continues to serve in its original role as an aid to mariners navigating the vicinity.

Shipping, Commerce, and the Establishment of Navigational Aids on the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes system includes Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior, their connecting waters, and the St. Lawrence River. It is one of the largest concentrations of fresh water on the earth. The system has a total shore of about 11,000 statute miles and a total water surface area of about 95,000 square statute miles. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 linked the port of Buffalo on Lake Erie with New York City via the Hudson River. This marked the start of enormous growth in population, maritime traffic, and trade in the Great Lakes region. In 1829, the Welland Canal opened and linked Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal (the Soo Locks) at Sault Sainte Marie opened in 1855, thus completing one of the last major links in the Great Lakes navigation system. With the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the system provided access by oceangoing deep-draft vessels to the industrial and agricultural heartland of North America. Today, barge traffic and small craft reach the Great Lakes from the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway, and also from New York Harbor via the Hudson River and New York State Barge Canal System.

Commerce grew rapidly in the Great Lakes region throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. This was spurred by the early development of maritime traffic, and in return contributed to its accelerating expansion. Economic factors in this process included the lumber industry which relied heavily on waterborne transportation. In addition, the production of iron ore in the western Upper Peninsula and in Wisconsin and Minnesota, copper production in the Keweenaw region of the western Upper Peninsula, and grain from the northwest, furnished southbound cargoes. Cargoes carried in reciprocal upbound trade included massive shipments of coal from ports in the lower Great Lakes. By 1910 the amount of shipped goods increased to 80 million tons, mostly iron ore and coal. By 1915, limestone had emerged as an important bulk commodity in the region. The tonnage of shipped freight reached a record of 217 million tons in 1948. The combined movement of lumber, grain, iron ore, and coal, together with limestone cargoes from the Lake Michigan area to centers of steel production, resulted in the greatest bulk freight marine commerce the world has ever seen.

The need for aids to navigation on the Great Lakes increased along with the expansion of shipping and settlement. Seven lighthouses were built on the region between 1818 and 1822. A building boom in the 1830s resulted in the completion of 32 more lighthouses. From 1841 to 1852, the Lighthouse Establishment added 33 new lights.? Between 1852 and 1860, the total number of aids to navigation increased from 76 to 102. Another construction boom occurred in the 1890s. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Great Lakes had 334 major lighted aids, 67 fog signals, and 563 buoys.

Several distinct designs or types of lighthouses emerged during the nineteenth century. Until 1870 or so, the most common design consisted of a wood, stone or brick keeper's dwelling, with the light exhibited in a lantern on the roof or in an attached square tower. By the 1870s, taller towers connected to a keeper's house by an enclosed passageway became popular. Lighthouse engineers practiced and perfected the construction of light stations on isolated islands, reefs, and shoals from 1870 to 1910. Such lighthouses most commonly rested on submarine crib structures. Usually constructed of metal plates, pierhead lights are often present at Great Lakes ports to guide vessels into safe harbors. Such lights differ from East Coast lights that serve the same purpose in that they are constructed on piers that project from shore into the lakes rather than on land. Breakwater lights are closely related to pierhead lights and are generally tower-like structures, positioned at the head of a breakwater.

In several offshore locations, light vessels served as a substitute for building expensive lighthouses during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. However, harsh weather on the Great Lakes often forced these lightships to leave their stations before the end of the shipping season in mid-December. With the end of winter, a light vessel often had to wait until larger, stronger vessels broke the ice before returning to its assigned location by the start of shipping season in mid-April. This meant some dangerous areas were left unmarked for a period of time. Lighthouse engineers worked throughout the late 1920s and 1930s to replace all lightships on the Great Lakes with permanent aids to navigation in order to promote safer travel and increase maritime commerce.

Lighthouse Description

Alpena Light is a three-story, steel tower built in 1914. It stands approximately 150 feet from shore atop the north breakwater at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River in the city of Alpena, Michigan. This lighthouse helps guide mariners on Lake Huron into Alpena's sheltered harbor. Painted red, it is equipped with an automated signal light having a focal plane of 44 feet and a modem fog signal. The tower's first story is a rectangular four-legged steel skeletal framework supporting a rectangular platform. Each leg rests atop a small concrete pier. The platform supports the tower's circular second story. This is accessed by a metal ladder extending from ground level to a trapdoor in the floor of the second-story's single room. The second-story room contains electrical panels for operating the lighthouse's navigational aids. The tower's third story is the lighthouse's lantern. Octagonal in plan, it is surrounded by a circular gallery. The lantern room contains a modern optic that flashes red every five seconds. The fog signal is mounted outside on the lantern gallery. This lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. It is identified as navigation aid number 11370 on the regional Light List. The breakwater beneath the lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This lighthouse is accessible by land with permission of the owner of the shoreline property adjoining the breakwater.

Alpena Light sits atop the end of the north breakwater at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River in the city of Alpena. This breakwater is straight and built with wire gabions filled with rocks. Surrounded by riprap, it extends approximately 150 feet southwest from the adjoining shoreline. Another rock breakwater extends along the south side of the Thunder Bay River mouth. It ends directly opposite the north breakwater and Alpena Light. A green-and-white-painted tower with a green light stands at the tip of the south breakwater.

The Alpena Lighthouse is accessible by both water and land. Land access requires crossing private industrial property that adjoins the north breakwater. Permission of the property owner is required. Access by water is possible, though the north breakwater does not have a dock or boat landing. A public area on the south breakwater allows viewing Alpena Light from a concrete platform surrounded by guardrails. This platform is located at the northeast end of the walkway extending from shore along the south breakwater.

Alpena Light is a four-legged steel structure painted red. Its foundation consists of four rectangular concrete piers. Each of the light tower's legs rests on a pier that is about three feet square by 3.5 feet tall. The piers are positioned in a square pattern approximately 12 feet apart from one another. The cable bringing commercial electrical power to the light extends up the tower from the northern concrete pier.

The lighthouse's first story is a rectangular four-legged pyramidal skeletal tower that supports a rectangular platform. This skeletal tower is 16 feet tall from the top of its concrete piers to the rectangular platform. The legs are made with a 6-inch diameter steel pipe. The distance between the bases of these legs is 12.5 feet. The legs incline inward and are 10 feet apart at the top. The base of each leg is secured to its concrete pier foundation by an 18-inch tall by 28-inch diameter flanged fitting. Each of the tower's four basal fittings is connected horizontally to neighboring basal fittings by 12.5-foot long sections of three-inch diameter steel pipe. In addition, each leg's basal fitting is tied to neighboring tower legs with 1.5-inch diameter metal tie rods tensioned with 15-inch long turnbuckles. These tie rods extend upward diagonally. In the space surrounded by the skeletal tower, a steel double-rung ladder extends upward from the breakwater's surface to a rectangular metal trapdoor in the platform overhead. This ladder is about 20 feet in length and painted red. The trapdoor is a metal plate and holds a louvered vent. It opens upward, providing access to the interior of the tower's second story.

The lighthouse's second story is its service room. This is circular and about ten feet in diameter. The second story is built of steel plates fastened with bolts and nuts. A metal skirt surrounds its base, sloping downward to the outer edges of the rectangular supporting platform. The service room stands seven feet tall. Its exterior is pierced with two window openings. One faces southwest in alignment with the north breakwater. It is 20 inches wide by 40 inches tall and is glazed with Lexan. Its sill is three feet above the second-story floor. The other window opening is 21 inches wide by 33 inches tall with a sill two feet above the floor. It is on the second story's southeast side, facing towards the open waters of Lake Huron. This window opening is presently covered with a sheet of plywood. There is also a rectangular louvered opening on the second story's northern side.

The structure's third story is the lighthouse's octagonal lantern. The lantern sits centered atop the structure and is surrounded by a circular gallery made of steel plates. The lantern gallery is about 2.5 feet wide. Its floor is painted gray. The gallery is bounded by a railing painted red. This railing is supported by vertical steel pipe stanchions that support three horizontal metal rails made with flat bars. A rounded top is attached to the upper handrail for better gripping. One railing section between two stanchions on the southeast side is missing and the gap is slung with slack chain. A modern fog signal is mounted on the lantern gallery's southeast side and a fog detector unit stands on the eastern side.

The octagonal lantern is seven feet in diameter and is about ten feet tall. Its eight sides are each 2 feet, 8 inches wide. The lantern's lower part is its parapet. This is made with eight flat metal panels that are 3.5 feet tall. One panel holds a rectangular metal door providing access to the gallery from the lantern room. The glazed upper part is made with metal mullions forming frames that are three feet tall by 2 feet, 8 inches wide. Its six sections that face toward water hold rectangular Lexan window panes. The two northeast sections face toward land. These are covered with solid metal plates. Above the lantern's upper section, a soffit supports the eight triangular metal plates that form the roof. The roof plates meet at a peak which is surmounted by a ventilation ball.

The lighthouse's enclosed second story consists of a single circular room 9.5 feet in diameter and seven feet tall. The steel floor is painted gray and the walls and ceiling are white. A metal column six inches in diameter and painted gray stands in the center of the floor and supports the ceiling. The trapdoor opening in the floor is 40 inches long by 20 inches wide. Two steel pipe handle grips are attached to the wall directly above the trapdoor. These are oriented vertically, parallel to one another, and painted yellow with black stripes. This room has two window openings, one glazed with Lexan and the other sealed shut with a plywood sheet painted white. The glazed window is on the room's southwest side. It provides a view of the green signal light tower at the end of the south breakwater on the opposite side of the Thunder Bay River mouth. The window covered with plywood is on the light tower's southeast side. The rectangular louvered opening on the wall's northern side is fitted with an electric ventilation fan.

Electrical panels for the lighthouse's aid to navigation equipment are attached to the wall on the room's northwestern side. A bank of six batteries sits on the floor below them. The lighthouse's principal electrical source is commercial power provided by cable. The batteries are for emergency power.

To the left of the electrical panels, a steel, single+rung ladder leads up to the lantern room. This ladder is two feet wide and has eight rungs. It is painted yellow. A single-leaf trapdoor at the top opens upward into the lantern. This trapdoor is louvered. Its opening is two feet wide by 30 inches long.

The octagonal lantern room's interior diameter is 6 feet, 8 inches. It is nine feet tall from the floor to the center of the ceiling. The interior walls and ceiling are painted white and the floor is gray. A 5-inch tall wooden baseboard painted gray extends around the room's interior walls. One parapet panel is pierced with a two-leaf metal door two feet wide by 2 feet, 4 inches tall. This provides access to the exterior lantern gallery. Five of the parapet panels are pierced with round vents positioned 2.5 feet above the floor. These vents include a hole six inches in diameter and covers with a diameter of seven inches. One vent cover is missing.

The southeastern parapet panel is pierced with a rectangular opening 2 feet, 2 inches wide by 15 inches tall, positioned 13 inches above the floor. It is covered with a metal plate except for a small opening through which an electrical cable runs to supply power to the fog signal equipment mounted on the lantern gallery. This plate is also pierced with two side-by-side round openings 3.5 inches in diameter that are sealed with metal covers. These round openings were for a pair of fog signal resonator horns that were removed when the lighthouse's fog signal was upgraded.

The lantern is glazed on six sides with sheets of Lexan held by metal mullions. The two northeastern lantern sides face towards land. These are covered with metal plates. A nine-inch tall soffit above the glazing supports the outer edges of eight triangular metal plates that meet at a circular ventilation opening in the ceiling's center. There is no vent cover. A hollow metal vent tube extends upward from this opening to the rooftop vent ball.

A 41-inch tall steel pedestal painted white is attached to the center of the lantern room floor. It supports a metal platform on which is mounted a modem VRB-25 rotating marine beacon. This beacon signals a red flash every five seconds and is visible for 14 miles in clear weather. The lighthouse's signal light has a focal plane 44 feet above the level of Lake Huron.

The existing Alpena Light was built in 1914 atop a new concrete pier constructed by the U.S. Amy Corps of Engineers. It replaced a nearby wooden lighthouse that had been built in 1888. The fourth order Fresnel lens optic from the earlier light tower was dismantled and installed in the new one. The automated fog bell apparatus from the older lighthouse was also relocated to the new Alpena Light. Reliable electrical power had been established in the city of Alpena by this time. Consequently, a cable was installed to bring power from the local commercial grid to illuminate the signal light using a 320-candlepower incandescent bulb. The basic structure of Alpena Light has remained essentially unchanged from when it was built. The principal change has been to its day mark coloration. This lighthouse was painted black from 1914 to 1950. From 1950 to the present, it has been painted red. Less prominent changes include replacing the lighthouse's original 1914 optic and fog signal with more modem equipment. The original optic was a fourth-order Fresnel lens. It was removed circa 1987 and replaced with a 250-millimeter Tidelands Signal acrylic optic. This fourth-order Fresnel lens was subsequently loaned by the U.S. Coast Guard to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum in Leelanau County, Michigan, where it may be seen today. The existing optic at Alpena Light is a modem VRB-25 rotating marine beacon installed circa 1996. It exhibits a red light that flashes once every five seconds. This light has a focal plane 44 feet above the level of Lake Huron. Its visible range in clear weather is 14 miles.

A fog bell apparatus was installed at Alpena Light in 1914. It was replaced with an electric siren in 1920. The siren was removed when compressed-air fog horn equipment was installed in 1932. The existing modern fog signal and fog detector were installed circa the 1990's. These are mounted today on the lantern gallery's southeastern side. The fog signal operates from May to October. It sounds a two-second blast every 15 seconds. The southeastern side of the lantern has a rectangular opening formerly used for fog signal equipment. It is now covered with a metal plate. This covering is pierced with two holes for a pair of fog signal resonator horns installed circa 1932. These holes were subsequently covered when the horns were removed and replaced with a modem fog signal.

The second story service room's fenestration has also been changed. The two windows there were originally glazed with glass. This has been replaced. The window facing southwest towards the south breakwater is presently glazed with Lexan. The other window, which faces southeast, has been sealed with a plywood cover. The lantern's glazing was originally glass, but this has been replaced with sheets of Lexan.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first successful artificial satellite. It was known as Sputnik. People in Alpena thought it looked something like Alpena Light, and so the lighthouse came to be widely known by the nickname "Sputnik." With the passage of time and subsequent launching of many other satellites and spacecraft, public recognition of this name has faded. So has the practice of referring to the lighthouse by that nickname. Another nickname used for Alpena Light is "Little Red." It is said to be "Long on duty, short on beauty."

Alpena Light, Alpena Michigan Lighthouse atop north breakwater with south breakwater light on the right, looking south (2005)
Lighthouse atop north breakwater with south breakwater light on the right, looking south (2005)

Alpena Light, Alpena Michigan View of lighthouse from across Thunder Bay River, looking east (2005)
View of lighthouse from across Thunder Bay River, looking east (2005)

Alpena Light, Alpena Michigan First story skeletal tower, looking north (2005)
First story skeletal tower, looking north (2005)

Alpena Light, Alpena Michigan Second story service room and third story lantern, looking north (2005)
Second story service room and third story lantern, looking north (2005)

Alpena Light, Alpena Michigan Second story interior floor and trapdoor, looking northeast (2005)
Second story interior floor and trapdoor, looking northeast (2005)

Alpena Light, Alpena Michigan Second story interior ceiling and trapdoor to lantern room, looking southeast (2005)
Second story interior ceiling and trapdoor to lantern room, looking southeast (2005)

Alpena Light, Alpena Michigan Lantern room interior from trapdoor opening, looking northwest (2005)
Lantern room interior from trapdoor opening, looking northwest (2005)