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Stannard Rock Light – One of America’s Greatest Engineering Feats

Written by Kevin Jennings

At 31,700 square miles, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world. For anyone who hasn’t been there, it’s hard to grasp how truly massive a lake is. Lake Superior is larger than a dozen different states, and is larger than Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire combined. 

              The giant lake is still used for shipping today, but this was even more important in the 1800s before airplanes, highways, and much of the railway system. It was during one of these shipping voyages that Captain Charles C. Stannard would discover Stannard Rock.

              Stannard was captaining a ship across Lake Superior for the American Fur Company in 1835 when he was blown off course. This accident led to his discovery of what would be named Stannard Rock, an underground mountain barely covered by the water. This reef is a quarter of a mile long, and at the shallowest points is only four feet from the surface of the water.

              Stannard Rock is considered the most dangerous hazard for the navigation of Lake Superior. Not only did the reef’s location make it dangerous, but reports from Manitou Island Lighthouse indicated that in an entire month, the area of Stannard Rock may only be free of fog for as little as five total days.

              The area posed a clear danger to shipping vessels, but there was another problem: the location. The nearest shore was 24 miles away. Whatever they were going to do, they were going to need to build it directly on top of the underwater reef. Not only was this going to be an incredible feat of engineering, but the end result would be a lighthouse that the keepers would grow to refer to as The Loneliest Place in the World.

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Early Attempts

            In 1849, the first effort to protect ships from the reef was approved. A total of $1,000 was appropriated for the construction of a floating bell. However, this sum of money was entirely insufficient to anchor a vessel with a bell attached to it at the location, and the project was abandoned.

              It wouldn’t be until 1866, over 30 years after the reef’s initial discovery, that more serious efforts were put into place. Stannard Rock was becoming a menace, and something needed to be done. Congress agreed to provide $10,000 for the construction of a beacon, and work began in 1867.

              A steam barge was sent to the location with all the necessary equipment, supplies, and even a blacksmith shop. Using the barge as the base of operations, a beacon was erected over the course of a month. Workers had to level off Stannard Rock before constructing the 18 foot tall iron beacon on top of a stone frustum used for support.

              In 1871, Orlando M. Poe was appointed engineer of the eleventh lighthouse district, the district in charge of this area. He recognized that while the beacon was better than nothing, increased commerce throughout Lake Superior was going to necessitate the construction of a full lighthouse. This was also going to need to be done sooner rather than later.

              Although he requested $20,000 for a preliminary survey of the area and feasibility evaluation for the upcoming project, Congress only agreed to provide $10,000. This proved to be enough, and Poe was able to come up with a plan. Luckily, there was another lighthouse that needed construction at Spectacle Reef.

              Spectacle Reef was a shoal rather than a reef, but it faced similar design hurdles. What Poe realized was that Spectacle Reef could be used as a test run for a lighthouse at Stannard Reef. Thanks to a couple particularly costly shipwrecks, Poe was able to convince Congress to fund the construction of the $400,000 lighthouse at Spectacle Reef, making it the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the Great Lakes.

              It was a smaller and less complicated project than Stannard Rock, but Poe was able to reuse much of the equipment purchased for the first lighthouse to keep down the cost of the Stannard Rock Light. Because the lighthouse on Spectacle Rock was meant as a practice run for the Stannard Rock Light, he also used the same building crew for both projects to ensure that everything would go smoothly. Although Poe was replaced as lighthouse engineer by Godfrey Weitzel, the fundamental plan remained the same.

              A site was chosen for the construction of the lighthouse where the reef was already the most level, ranging from 10-12 feet deep. This also meant that their construction was going to begin in open waters, 12 feet beneath the surface. Weitzel estimated that the project would cost $300,000. In 1877, Congress agreed to provide $50,000 to begin the construction, and on June 1, 1877, construction of the Stannard Rock Light would finally commence.

Construction

              One of the main hurdles in the construction of the lighthouse was its location. Not only was it remote, but the terrible weather on Lake Superior made construction difficult. The lake also freezes over every year, either entirely or in part, so construction was only possible from May through October each year. Despite already knocking off half of each year from the start, about half of the time crews actually went to the site it was called off on account of weather.

              When construction was possible, much of the time was still lost as crews had to remove all of the ice that had accumulated at the site. Despite the limited time they were able to work, the Stannard Rock Light was constructed in only five years. When you’re able to work for about three months worth of days each year, and much of that is spent repairing damage caused by the weather rather than making actual progress, five years is an incredible pace for such an ambitious project.

              These difficulties in building on the water meant that the lighthouse itself was actually assembled twice. It was first assembled on land, 40 miles away, to ensure that everything fit perfectly. If there was going to be a problem, it was better to figure it out before they were dozens of miles from the shore.

              The stones used for the lighthouse were blocks of limestone cut at a quarry in Marblehead, Ohio. The stones were cut into two sizes. The larger stones weighed 20 tons each, while the comparatively smaller stones were still a massive 12 tons each. But before they could even think of building the lighthouse itself, a foundation needed to be made.

              A crib was built and towed to the location on Stannard Rock where they intended to build the lighthouse. This crib was placed underwater on the now leveled out portion of the reef. Inside the crib they constructed a cofferdam, an enclosure that would allow the water to be pumped out so that a foundation could be poured.

              The foundation was made of concrete, enclosed in a wrought-iron cylinder. It took two years to build the foundation, but when it was completed it had a diameter of 62 feet and rose 23 feet above Lake Superior, making the entire foundation about 35 feet tall. Because of the difficulty in building such a structure on top of an underwater mountain, the exposed crib and foundation are regarded as one of the top ten engineering feats in the United States.

              While the quarry’s stonecutters also took the winters off, they were able to work a longer season than those on the water; they also weren’t losing half of their time to bad weather. Despite this, the quantity of massive stones that were needed to be cut and perfectly fitted together was still going to take a lot of time. As a result, work in Lake Superior ended early in 1880, with the crew stopping construction in August rather than October while they waited for the stone to be ready.

              Over the next year, they would transport all 23 courses of stone to Stannard Rock, using machinery to hoist the heavy stone slabs into position. The bulk of the construction was now completed, but they still had to wait for the tower’s ironwork to arrive and had to perform other interior work, such as bricklaying. Still, the main structure was completed and now stood at 78 feet tall with a cylindrical base, 29 feet in diameter that tapered to 18 feet at the top of the seventh story.

              After the winter break, the crew returned in late May of 1883 and again began clearing all of the ice from the foundation and the lower portion of the lighthouse. So much ice had accumulated that it took an entire week of clearing ice before the actual construction could resume. In June, the spiral staircase and the lantern room were finally both installed. There were a few minor finishing touches to be had, but by sheer coincidence the lighthouses Fresnel lens, manufactured by Henry-LePaute in France, was ready to be installed and shine its light for the first time on the Fourth of July, 1883.

              There is some speculation that the lantern room was completed earlier and they decided to wait to install the lens until July 4th so they could make a big thing of it. While it’s possible the crew may have waited a couple days so that it would line up with Independence Day, it’s important to remember that the lighthouse existed as a necessary safety precaution for shipping vessels so it’s unlikely that they were going to delay its first light for weeks. Besides, with the lighthouse being 24 miles from the nearest shore, it’s not like any spectators were going to see it light up for the first time and start cheering.

              After five years of work, 76 tons of brick, 126 tons of iron, 1,270 tons of stone, and 7,276 tons of concrete, the Stannard Rock Light was finally completed. Its light was 100 feet above the surface of the water, with construction of the massive structure extended another 12 feet below the surface. Lake Superior’s waters could finally be safe from Stannard Rock.

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Life in Stannard Rock Light

            As we mentioned, Stannard Rock Light was 24 miles from the nearest shore, making it the most remote lighthouse in the United States. This desolate location, combined with the harsh living conditions, is why it earned the name of the Loneliest Place in the World among those who operated the lighthouse.

              It generally took a special type of person to be a lighthouse keeper, but Stannard Rock required a different breed entirely. It was a task that most people weren’t up for. The crew consisted of a head keeper and three assistants. For the first three shipping seasons, it took 11 people to fill those four jobs. Three of the keepers requested transfers, including the first two head keepers, and four assistants quit the lighthouse industry entirely after their stay at Stannard Rock.

              Though the first head keeper lasted an entire season on the rock, the next only made it a month before demanding a transfer. It’s important to remember that there was no electricity or heating. The lighthouse was frigid, and it could be struck by waves taller than the lighthouse itself. This, combined with the cold air and high winds, winds that would often exceed hurricane speeds, left mattresses permanently damp. Often the only sound was the howl of the wind echoing through the building. There were four men stationed there at a time, but they reported that they could often go days at a time without speaking, because there was nothing to say.

              There was no television or radio to keep the men entertained, the only radio being for communication with the mainland in case of emergency. All the men could do was keep the gasoline fueled light going, and entertain themselves with a deck of cards. Of course, in the event of an emergency or illness, it could take days or even weeks for help to arrive even after radioing for assistance.

              Not a lot of records remain involving the lives of the early keepers, so it is unclear which stories are fact and which are fiction. One story believed to be true is that of the assistant keeper who spent the shortest period of time on Stannard Rock, leaving after only one week. According to the tale, he walked into the lighthouse for the first time and immediately realized the reality of his situation. He ran back outside to the boat that had dropped him off and yelled for them to pick him back up, but they had already undocked so they told him they’d be back in a week. When the boat returned with supplies a week later, the keeper left and never came back.

              Another famous story that is likely more myth is that of another assistant keeper who radioed the mainland demanding to be taken home, but they refused to send a vessel. This happened again the next day, and the next, until he finally told them over the radio, “If you don’t send someone to pick me up I’m going to start swimming to shore.” The man was retrieved from the lighthouse that day and, according to the story, was immediately committed to a mental institution once he arrived back on land.

              While we can’t say for certain the extent to which those stories are based in truth, there is one thing we know to be true. When speaking of his life at the lighthouse, one head keeper was quoted as saying, “Were in not for the shame of it, I’d rather be in the state prison.”

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The End of an Era

              For over 60 years, Stannard Rock Light’s beacon and inner workings were powered by gasoline and propane. Following World War II electricity was finally introduced to the lighthouse, but the combustible materials remained at the lighthouse in the event they lost power and needed to use the old generators.

              The location had eventually become considered too remote and dangerous, and 1961 was the final year that it was going to be manned. There were plans to instead automate the light, now that such technology had become available. On June 16, 1961, tragedy would strike the lighthouse just six months before its retirement as a manned location.

              The head keeper was on leave at the time, leaving the three assistant keepers, Walter Scobie, William Maxwell, and Richard Horne behind. There was also an electrician, Oscar Daniels, who had arrived the day before to help with installing the new automated light.

              At 9:30 pm, for reasons unknown, 1,000 gallons of gasoline that were in storage ignited. The explosion was so powerful that it knocked Scobie out of his bunk where he was sleeping, and it flung Horne and Daniels against the galley walls. The massive fire raged through the building, leaving the three men unable to escape through the main entrance. They managed to break open a window and climb down fifteen feet to the foundation.

              It was there, exposed to the elements and sitting next to a building that burned with such intensity it even melted some of the limestone used in its construction, that the men would spend the next three days. As for Maxwell, he was never seen again. It is believed that either the explosion knocked him from the structure entirely or that his body was completely consumed by the flames, but no remains were ever found.

              Since there was no way to return into the lighthouse, it was fortunate that two of the men had been in the galley at the time of the explosion, because they thought to bring two cans of beans with them. These beans would be the only sustenance for the three men over the next three days as they huddled together in their makeshift shelter.

              Finally, on the third day the Coast Guard sent a ship to investigate why the keepers had not been answering the lighthouse radio for days. Horne was quoted as saying, “It was like seeing God when the [Coast Guard] showed up. Scobie and I probably could have made it longer, but I don’t know about Daniels.”

              After their rescue, the Stannard Rock Light would no longer be manned, and the lighthouse was fully automated in 1962. It is unlikely that Daniels returned to Stannard Rock to help complete the electrical work.

Wrap Up

              Though some lighthouses still remain in operation, they have largely become outdated thanks to ships using GPS for navigation. Even so, the automated light in Stannard Rock Light is still in use, and was even recently repaired in 2021.

              This is no longer the lighthouse’s main purpose, however. In 2008, scientists placed equipment on top of the lighthouse to measure levels of evaporation in an attempt to determine why the Great Lakes had been receding for decades. In recent years, the water levels have risen to near record highs, but Stannard Light Rock remains an important location for the collection of data involving climate change.

              Once GPS supplanted lighthouses as the primary means for ship safety, the Coast Guard began selling off many of the buildings. Many of these decommissioned lighthouses have been purchased and turned into B&Bs, but unfortunately you cannot book a weekend stay at the Loneliest Place on Earth.

              Stannard Light Rock was purchased in 2012 by the Superior Watershed Partnership who seek to preserve the lighthouse and its use as a base for climate change research. They have considered the idea of doing a once annual tour of the location, but it is not yet, nor has it ever been, available to the public. The lighthouse can only be viewed by boat or plane, and it’s not really the sort of place you’d want to spend a lot of time anyway, as many of the lighthouse keepers made clear with their resignations.

              However, the structure is in need of serious repairs and renovations, to the tune of around $2 million. There is a currently a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise this many, and a pair of YouTubers were even given the opportunity to film themselves spending a night there in attempts to raise awareness of the campaign.

              Unfortunately, the campaign has thus far only raised about 1% of that goal. It turns out that it’s difficult to raise money for the preservation of a historical lighthouse that even most lighthouses enthusiasts have never seen with their own eyes.

              Though the incredible feat of engineering brilliance that is Stannard Rock Light has endured both the test of time and a massive explosion, without proper funding, the future of the loneliest place in the world remains unclear.

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