Superior Entry Light Station, 1913-1970
Night at the entry, dangling between Allouez Bay’s gigantic ore docks and the inland sea. Out of nothing, a five second blast of light from the 1890 Fresnel lens pushes back what the moon and stars cannot—a brave signal of humanity on the rough and deadly shores of Lake Superior. Then five seconds of darkness rushes in to fill the vacuum.
Every four hours the keeper finds the steel cable anchored by the breakwater and lets it slip through his hands, before his regular hike from boulder to boulder, eventually reaching the station. There, he is surrounded on three sides, rather than just two, but the lighthouse was built with the strength of the water in mind. Before this tower of steel and concrete, everything had been washed away by a violent November gale in 1905, the same storm that wrecked the ship ‘Crescent City’ near Lester River in neighboring Duluth.
Behind the heavy steel door is the fog signal engine, a 22 horsepower model built in Chicago that had to be started by hand. Downstairs was where the oil and water tanks sit, and upstairs are a few rooms where he could make do for a few days if weather made the breakwater walk or a boat ride too dangerous.
For a lighthouse built in 1913, it was hard to tend and hard to build—just ask Hans Hanson’s family (you won’t be able to ask him yourself). Still, it was all in the name of safeguarding the thousands of vessels and sailors of the Great Lakes. After all, Superior Entry is the only natural opening through the world’s longest freshwater sand bar. Duluth’s famous ship canal was dredged into existence, was narrow, and was decidedly a long detour for Allouez-bound ore boats and the many terminal grain elevators of Duluth and Superior, such as Globe.
With this sense of duty, the keeper climbs the station tower’s tightly spiraling stairs that wrap around a 16-foot-long drop tube containing a heavy weight. As the weight falls through the tube, it rotates a screen around the lighthouse oil lamp, causing it to appear to blink. To ‘wind the clock’, the keeper has to crank the 70-pound weight to the top of the tube so it could fall once more, so the keeper would climb the stairs once more, and so on. As he cranks, maybe he thinks of the upcoming tug boat race, a regular sight in the bay, or maybe he wishes that he took one of the boats to the station instead of stretching his legs. These duties would often stretch from April to December, when the port would freeze.
Living amongst the ice when the harbor was closed and the docks were under annual repair brought its own risks. In February 1914, Roger Campbell, one of the keepers, nearly rode a piece of floating ice hopelessly into Lake Superior. As the story goes, he was hunting rabbits along the shoreline when he realized he was no longer on land, but on a piece of lake ice drifting away from shore in the strong breeze. With more than 100 feet of open water between himself and solid ground, he began firing his rifle into the air. He attracted the attention of some men on shore, who rushed to the rescue. One man rowed as the other used an old shovel to bail out the water and ice splashing over its edges. Campbell was exhausted and suffering from exposure, but he was alive when they got him ashore. Records show that Roger left the next year, hopefully for Florida.
The last keeper to crank the weight up the drop tube was David Simonson, who locked up the station for the last time in 1965. Five years later, an automatic beacon replaced the original light and the Keeper’s Houses, built in 1913 and 1916, were granted to the University of Wisconsin-Superior for use as a limnology research station through 1979.
The buildings were used by the Coast Guard and Navy Research intermittently through the 1990s. Today, the houses are abandoned and heavily vandalized and the lighthouse still blinks a green light through the shipping season. The federal government has been trying to sell the station for years, but so far there are no takers.
Exploring the Station
“Daddy, I want to go inside. Can we go inside?”
A few metallic knocks gonged through the otherwise silent building around me. The little boy was pounding on the metal door. What would I do if they opened it, I thought, pretend to be a tour guide?
“Get down from there!” A woman’s voice. “It’s probably lead paint!”
The sound of a child being snatched up by his mother… I would not have to give a history lesson today.
Every step in the old lighthouse happens with an echoing crunch. Something about the thick concrete walls and olive drab paint made it feel colder than it was, from the bricked-up windows of the Radiobeacon Room to the industrial stairs leading up to the Keeper’s Quarters with a white star painted on the landing.
The Keeper’s Quarters were never meant to be occupied full-time, but there is more than enough room to stretch, with an office area, bathroom, two bedrooms, and a kitchen. It is as bright as the first floor is dark, and is surrounded by thick windows with small panes reinforced with steel wire. The unusual curvature in the building along with the significant top-to-bottom reinforcements have stood up very well through the last century. Only the plaster and floor coverings are in bad condition.
In the light tower, there are still small hinged doors to check the drop tube, not used since 1970 when a blinking light was installed and the 19th century Fresnel was removed. The windows are not paned like the Keeper’s Quarters; they are portholes like boats have. Over the years, I have photographed the lighthouse through many storms and it’s not unusual for waves to climb the height of the tower as they crash. I opened one of the portholes and saw the shadow of the lighthouse stretch across Lake Superior.
A black spiral staircase ascends the tower to the platform where the beacon sits. The view from the top of the lighthouse is unique, breathtaking, and unforgettable. For 180 degrees, there is nothing but water, clouds, and a beautiful sandy beach backgrounded by pine trees and dune grass. Downtown Duluth is clearly visible to the west and the world’s largest ore docks just to the south, on the other side of the Keeper’s Houses.
On the beach, I saw a little boy running along the beach with a stick in his hand and his parents close behind.
Someday, kid, you’ll get to explore all on your own.