Spectacle Reef Light

Spectacle Reef Light is a lighthouse eleven miles (18 km) east of the Straits of Mackinac and is located at the northern end of Lake Huron, Michigan. It was designed and built by Colonel Orlando Metcalfe Poe and Major Godfrey Weitzel, and was the most expensive lighthouse ever built on the Great Lakes. It is said to be the most spectacular engineering achievement in lighthouse construction on Lake Huron, and ranks high among all of those on the Great lakes.


The period between 1852 and the beginning of the 20th century saw great activity on the Great Lakes by the United States Lighthouse Board. Between 1852 and 1860, 26 new lights were built. Even as the United States Civil War and its aftermath slowed construction, a dozen new lights were still lit in that decade. In the 1870s, 43 new lights were built on the Lakes. The 1880s saw more than one hundred lights constructed. As the new century began, on the Great Lakes the Lighthouse Board operated 334 major lights, 67 fog horns and 563 buoys. During the 19th century design of Great Lakes lights slowly evolved. Until 1870 the most common design was to build a keeper's dwelling with the light on the dwelling's roof or on a relatively small square tower attached to the house. In the 1870s, so as to raise lights to a higher focal plane, conical brick towers, usually between eighty and one hundred feet tall were constructed. In the 1890s steel-lined towers began to replace the older generation of brick buildings. See Big Sable Point Light for a striking transition and transformation. The Spectacle Reef Light was part of a forty-year effort"between 1870 and 1910"where engineers began to build lights on isolated islands, reefs, and shoals that were significant navigational hazards. To that time, light ships were the only practical way to mark the hazards, but were dangerous for the sailors who manned them, and difficult to maintain. "Worse, regardless of the type of anchors used lightships could be blown off their expected location in severe storms, making them a potential liability in the worst weather when captains would depend on the charted location of these lights to measure their own ship's distance from dangerous rocks." See, United States lightship Huron (LV-103). Successively, using underwater crib designs, the Board built on a shoal the Waugoshance Light (1851), and demonstrated a "new level of expertise" in constructing of the Spectacle Reef Light (1874), Stannard Rock Light (1882) and Detroit River (Bar Point Shoal) (also known as the Detroit River Entrance Light) (1885). "The long and expensive process of building lights" in remote and difficult sites "ended in nationally publicized engineering projects that constructed" Rock of Ages Light (1908) and the White Shoal (1910) lights. In the first three decades of the twentieth century the Lighthouse Board and the new Lighthouse Service continued to build new lights on the Great Lakes. For 1925, the Board had under its auspices around the Great Lakes: 433 major lights; ten lightships; 129 fog signals; and about 1,000 buoys. Of these 1,771 navigational aids, 160 stations had resident keepers, as most navigational aids were automated. By 1925 nearly all of the Great Lakes lighthouses that today exist (excepting e.g., Poe Reef Light and Gravelly Shoal Light) had been constructed. This is part of a larger pattern of building 14 reef lights around Michigan, which was intended to help ships navigate through and around the shoals and hazards around the Straits of Mackinac.

The site was first marked by a buoy in 1868. The construction was undertaken under the auspices of the Lighthouse Board, and was quite a feat of civil engineering and endurance. Construction began in 1870, in answer to the disastrous loss of a large number of ships during the 1860s at the site; in particular, two schooners ran aground and broke up in 1867. The massive cost of the loss helped convince Congress that it would be more cost effective to build a light and reduce the probability of future tragedies. The reef that the lighthouse is built upon is shaped like a pair of eyeglasses (hence its name) and is located in the path of littoral commerce on Lake Huron. As the freighter traffic increased through the straits, so did the impending likelihood of more ship losses. The Spectacle Reef Lighthouse cost $406,000. Significantly, one costly item was the purchase of a steamer to convey the materials to the site. Submerged 11 feet (3.4 m) below the surface, the foundation was laid in a cofferdam protected by a crib made from 12-inch-thick (300 mm) timber. The crib was constructed upon slipways at the depot, like building a ship, then launched and towed by tugboats to the reef, where it was sunk and grounded on the site. This crib is massive: 8,464 square feet (786.3 m 2) by 24 feet (7.3 m) high (203,136 cubic feet total). This afforded a protected pond, making a base for the cofferdam, a wharf, and worker's quarters. In due course, the cofferdam was pumped out to expose the bedrock, upon which the masonry courses were laid. The light's 20-month construction process had to be spread out over a calendar period of four years (1870”“1874), because no work was possible during the winter, most of the spring, and most of the fall. Bois Blanc Island is the nearest point of land, 10 miles (16 km) to 12 miles (19 km) to the northwest; but neither it nor Ninemile Point, 10.3 miles (16.6 km) to the south, formed a suitable staging area for construction, which had to take place entirely on site. After the construction of workers' quarters on the pier, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was temporarily installed on the roof of one of the buildings. Construction was almost complete in the fall of 1873, when the onset of winter's storms forced the work site to be abandoned until the following spring. In the spring of 1874, work on the lighthouse began again. With the installation of the cast-iron lantern room and a new second-order Fresnel lens, the work was complete, and the light was put into service for the first time in June 1874. The location of the lighthouse makes it susceptible to wave fetch, which for this reef is 170 miles (270 km) to the southeast. Lake Huron ice fields, known as drift ice which in this lake can be as much as two or more feet thick and measure thousands of acres in size, are moved by wintertime currents. Masses of these dimensions create "an almost irresistible force", which for Spectacle Reef Light was "overcome by interposing a structure against which the ice is crushed and by which its motion is so impeded that it grounds on the 7”“foot shoal" and in turn this creates an effective wall "against other ice fields." The tower is formed as a " frustum of a cone". The 32-foot (9.8 m) diameter base rises 93 feet (28 m) above water level, and is 11 feet (3.4 m) below water level. As the Coast Guard notes: "The focal plane is 4 feet 3 inches (1.30 m) above the top of the parapet, making it 97 feet 3 inches (29.64 m) above the top of the submerged rock and 86 feet 3 inches (26.29 m) above the surface of the water. For 34 feet (10 m) up the tower is solid and from them on up it is hollow. In it are five rooms, one above the other each 14 feet (4.3 m) in diameter, with varying heights. The walls of the hollow portion are 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) at the bottom, tapering to 16 inches (410 mm) at the spring of the cornice." Just below the cornice, the blocks of stone are 2 feet (0.61 m) thick. They are interlocked in each course, and fastened together with wrought iron bolts 2 1/2 inches thick and 2 feet (0.61 m) long. Likewise, the tower is bolted to the foundation rock with bolts 3 feet (0.91 m) long. After "the stones were in place they were plugged with pure portland cement, which is now as hard as the stone itself. Hence the tower is, in effect, a monolith." The stones were cut at the depot at Scammon’s Harbor, 16 miles (26 km) away. They were fitted, course by course, on a platform of masonry. The stones fit so well that each course took but three days to set, drill, and bolt. The light has been described as "the best specimen of monolithic stone masonry in the United States." and "one of the greatest engineering feats on the Great Lakes." In September 1872, a severe gale did considerable damage, which had to be repaired at very great expense. In passing, it should be noted that the term "gale" is being used loosely, as there was no wind speed device being monitored in the winter at that location; and in a similar location on Lake Superior at Granite Island, Michigan, wind speeds of 143 miles per hour (230 km/h) were recorded on January 18, 2003. "After the winter of 1873”“74, when the keepers returned to the newly completed tower, they found the ice piled against it at a height of 30 feet (9.1 m), or 7 feet (2.1 m) higher than the doorway, and they could not gain entrance until they had cut away the iceberg of which the lighthouse formed the core." The light has an attached fog signal building, oil house and storage building. There are davits to raise and lower boats. The Lighthouse Board built a model of this light, and it was featured in the Aids to Navigation display at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, also known as "The Chicago World's Fair" in Chicago, Illinois. The combination of a crib foundation with monolithic stone masonry worked so well that the Lighthouse Board used the design and a similar process in producing the Stannard Rock Light in Lake Superior in 1878. Further economies were achieved by getting 'double duty' from the "costly apparatus and machinery purchased" for the Spectacle Reef project.

Current status
The original second-order Fresnel lens (by Henry Lepaute of Paris, France ) was removed in 1982. It is now on display at the Inland Seas Maritime Museum (also known as the Great Lakes Historical Society Museum) at the Vermilion Light in Vermilion, Ohio. After the Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern acrylic lens, the Spectacle Reef Light continues to serve as an active aid to navigation as of 2007. In July 2005, "Spectacle Reef Light Station" was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as site #05000744, and said to be "Located in northern Lake Huron, 10.3 mi (16.6 km). NNE of Ninemile Point, Benton Township, Michigan". Spectacle Reef Lighthouse was one of five lighthouses chosen for the "Lighthouses of the Great Lakes" series postage stamp designed by Howard Koslow in 1995. There was one lighthouse chosen on each of the Great Lakes. The five lighthouses are Split Rock Light on Lake Superior, St Joseph Light on Lake Michigan, Spectacle Reef Light on Lake Huron, Marblehead Light (Ohio) on Lake Erie and Thirty Mile Point Light on Lake Ontario.

Getting there
Although the light and crib are closed to the public, a private boat is optimal to see this light close up. It is a long way from shore in dangerous and open water, fraught with shoals. Short of that, Shepler's Ferry Service out of Mackinaw City offers periodic lighthouse tours in the summer season. Its "Eastbound Tour" includes passes by St. Helena Island Light, and even offers a luncheon. Schedules and rates are available from Shepler's. Another alternative is to charter a seaplane to make a tour of the Mackinac Straits and environs. As of 2008, the Great Lakes Light Keepers' Association operates a single annual "Grand Light Tour" that is conducted by Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry, and it includes a pass-by of the Spectacle Reef Light.