Stannard Rock

The 110-foot sandstone Stannard Rock Lighthouse tower was built on a desolate reef first discovered in 1847 by Captain Benjamin Stannard of the Brig JOHN JACOB ASTOR. The rock reef shot up from hundreds of feet of water. All around it was clear sailing but the reef was a deadly hazard, especially considering the shipping lane between Whitefish Pont and Duluth was just a few miles to the north. Located 44 miles due north of Marquette, its lightkeepers called it the “loneliest place in North America” since it is the most distant lighthouse from land on the entire continent. Construction on the light started in 1877 and when its beacon was first illuminated on July 4 1882, it was the most expensive light ever built on the Great Lakes, costing $305,000. It was also the most difficult build. Every year the construction crews spent weeks repairing damage done by winter storms and ice.

Stannard Rock remained a manned light until 1961 when a gas explosion killed one Coast Guard keeper and wounded two others. The Coast Guard rapidly automated the light, removing the huge second order Fresnel lens and replacing it with a plastic optic. The old 2nd order Stannard Rock lens is now on display in the Marquette Maritime Museum.

Some keepers enjoyed their assignment to “the Rock,” relishing the opportunity to leave the hustle and bustle of life ashore. Keeper Louis Wilk of Marquette was a veteran of 20 years at Stannard, once spending 99 consecutive days on station. Others hated the duty. One assistant keeper tried to quit as soon as he arrived. Only the fact that the boat had already left caused him to stay. By and large the men of the old Lighthouse Service treated life on the “Rock” as part of their normal duty. Some stayed longer, others shorter. When the Coast Guard absorbed the Lighthouse Service in 1939 things changed. Where the old Lighthouse Service sought volunteers for Stannard, the Coast Guard simply assigned men to the duty. Many were unsuited to the isolation and could not endure the duty. One was reputedly taken back to Marquette in a straightjacket. Another threatened to swim ashore if he was not immediately taken off. Stannard Rock also gained the reputation of being a punishment tour. If a Coast Guardsmen “screwed up” he would be assigned to “Stranded Rock.” True or false (and there is considerable testimony it was true), the old Rock gained a reputation it did not deserve.

For civilian keepers or Coast Guardsman coming on or off leave, Marquette Lighthouse Station was critical. It was where the Stannard Rock motor boat was moored when not at the lighthouse. A small dock and boathouse were located just to the west of the station dock for the use of the keepers to assure all was well and if needed, carried men and supplies to the light. As a “stag station, families were never assigned to the Rock. The spring opening and fall closing operations were always conducted by large lighthouse tenders, or after 1939, by Coast Guard buoy tenders. Sometimes the entire light was shrouded in ice, making it necessary for the keepers to chop their way inside!

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