About the Lighthouse
Marquette Harbor Lighthouse is one of the icons of the city and among the most photographed lighthouses in the Great Lakes. Everyone knows the red lighthouse!
The original lighthouse was built in Marquette in 1853, four years after the city’s 1849 incorporation. No plans or drawing of this lighthouse exist, but it likely resembled very closely the old lighthouse at Copper Harbor, a story and a half building made of local rock with an unattached 35-foot tall rubble tower. The building was specified to be 34 by 20 feet, but since there are no drawings, we do not know if the specifications were actually met. The lantern room was to contain seven 14-inch Lewis lamps which were used until the introduction of the Fresnel lens in the 1850s. The quarters and tower were poorly constructed and were replaced in 1866 with the present lighthouse.
The 1866 lighthouse is not the structure we see today. It has been extensively modified. The 1860s were an intense period of lighthouse construction on the Great Lakes. On Lake Superior alone new lights were built at Whitefish Point, Marquette, Granite Island, Huron Island, Stannard’s Rock (day beacon) and Ontonagon. It is important to realize that lighthouses are not built as unique structures, rather from common plans reflecting the period and purpose, modified only to best fit the local conditions and terrain. The Marquette, Granite Island and Huron Island lights were virtually identical.
The 1866 Marquette Lighthouse was a story and a half brick structure with attached 40-foot square brick tower housing a fourth order Fresnel lens. An identical lens is on display in the Marquette Maritime Museum. The original lens showed an arc of 180 degrees. In 1870 it was increased to 270 degrees.
The keeper and his family lived in the lighthouse. As long as the keeper’s job was only to maintain the light, one keeper was able to do the work. However, when the light at the end of the breakwater was later added and a two whistle signal system installed at the end of the point, the work was more than one person could do and an assistant keeper was hired. The new assistant needed housing, a problem solved in 1898 when a barn behind the lighthouse was converted into living quarters.
In 1909 a more permanent solution was reached by adding a second story to the lighthouse. Later additions such as a covered staircase were completed in the 1950s, and the lighthouse was painted red in 1965. These additions made the lighthouse unique on the Great Lakes. No other similar lighthouse was so altered. The lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1939, President Roosevelt merged the US Lighthouse Service into the US Coast Guard. Coast Guard members and their families lived on the two floors of the lighthouse until 1998. When the Coast Guard moved out, the building was empty for four years. In 2002, the Marquette Maritime Museum signed an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard for the lease of the lighthouse. The historic lease was for 30-years and included not only the lighthouse but also approximately
2 ½ acres of picturesque Lighthouse Point.
The Museum was able to preserve and protect the most historically important building in Marquette. The first lighthouse was built in the city in 1853. The present lighthouse was constructed in 1866 and a second story added in 1909. The lighthouse is the oldest significant structure in the city and more importantly, the lighthouse is one of the most historic navigation beacons on Lake Superior and critical to the development of the Great Lakes iron ore trade. Until the opening of the major Minnesota mines in the 1890s, Marquette was the premier shipping port for iron ore on the Great Lakes and this Marquette beacon was vital for the safe navigation of ships entering Marquette.
The Museum offers escorted interpretive tours through the lighthouse and grounds. We developed the lighthouse’s interpretive tour as an extension of the museum mission and eventually plan to restore the second floor of the lighthouse to reflect a period of the life of the light and light keepers.
The Marquette Coast Guard did not maintain the lighthouse other than the aid to navigation portion, so that responsibility passed to the Museum. Over the years the Museum replaced the roof ,which had deteriorated to the point you could literally look thought it, repaired the exterior brick, repaired and replaced sidewalks, and arranged for a Historic Structures Report to guide future preservation efforts.
As directed by an Act of Congress, on July 30, 2016, the 150th birthday of the lighthouse, the old Coast Guard station property (about 7.5 acres), including 1891 Life-Saving Service Station house, captain’s house, and the lighthouse, was transferred to the City of Marquette for use as a public park. Appropriate historic covenants require the buildings to only be used as part of the park and can’t be transferred to private hands. Maintenance and preservation is now the responsibility of the City. The Museum, through a new long-term agreement with the City of Marquette, continues to conduct interpretive tours of the lighthouse building and grounds. During the summer of 2019, the city updated accessibility to the Museum and Lighthouse Park with a new entrance road, the construction of two paved parking lots, and the rerouting of the pedestrian/bike path. Lighthouse Park was dedicated on September 26, 2019.