Located within Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, this picturesque lighthouse stands on Au Sable Point on the south shore of Lake Superior, approximately 12 miles west of Grand Marais, Michigan.
Built in 1873-1874, the light tower's base diameter is 16 feet with a height of 86 feet. The tower extends 23 feet underground and is anchored in bedrock. A brick oil building and fog signal building were built in the 1890s. All of the buildings on site, along with the tower and keepers' quarters, make up the light station.
The original keepers' dwelling was attached to the light tower in the back. In 1909, a new residence was built for the head keeper and the existing building expanded so it could accommodate two assistant keepers and their families. One family lived upstairs and one downstairs, with separate entrances. In 1945 the U.S. Coast Guard took over, replacing the civilian keepers. In total, the light station was continually staffed for 84 years, until the Coast Guard left in 1958.
A third-order Fresnel lens reflected the first light, which was fueled initially by lard oil and then by kerosene. The fixed white beam could be seen 17 miles out on the lake. The lighthouse became fully automated in 1958 and transferred from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service in 1968. The lighthouse still operates - a smaller, solar-powered light now sits on the catwalk railing and shines over Lake Superior every evening.
To visit the Au Sable Light Station, travel to the Hurricane River Campground located 12 miles west of Grand Marais on Alger County Road H-58. Park in the day use parking area near the bridge.
It is a 1.5 mile walk (one way) to the lighthouse. From the parking lot, walk east through the campground from the picnic area near the Hurricane River mouth. The trail continues past the campground on the historic U.S. Coast Guard access road to the light station. Be alert for occasional staff vehicle traffic. On the beach below the trail, exposed shipwreck remains dot the shoreline. Watch for the signs and steps to the beach along the access road. Pets are permitted on the access road to the light station and on the station grounds. Bicycles are not permitted on this road.
NOTE: On hot, humid days in summer with a south wind, biting flies in this area can be fierce and can ruin your visit to the light station. Consider wearing loose-fitting long pants and socks before starting down the trail.
[Music] [The photograph displays a red brick house with attached white light tower on a small cliff above the water. The title: A View From the Top – Au Sable Light Station is displayed in front of the photo. Above the photo the words Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are displayed, along with the National Park Service arrowhead symbol.]
[Photograph of tall white light tower over green trees] Welcome to the Au Sable Light Station located in the eastern portion of the park at Au Sable Point. This tower and house were first built in 1874 as a result of a combination of dangerous elements to the mariners and ships that sailed Lake Superior.
[large dark storm clouds looming over shoreline and water] These elements included strong storms, [white capped waves break along shoreline] that could produce large waves, [white fog tendrils appear over clear calm water] thick dense fog [underwater rock ledges seen through clear water], and an underwater sandstone reef.
[photograph and video of white light tower beginning at the base and then panning to the glass enclosure at the top.] We are going to climb the tower so that you can enjoy the view of Lake Superior, the surrounding shorelines and the Grand Sable Dunes. To to enter the light tower you first pass through this heavy metal fire door. The door was always kept closed except if someone was passing through it. About 90 steps will take us up this ornate circular wrought iron staircase to the watch room. The watch room has three windows looking north over lake superior, east over the shoreline and the Grand Sable Dunes and south over the forest.
[Music] [photograph a brilliant blue lake with sand dunes in the distance through an ornate white window frame.] The keepers could use this room when not servicing the lamp which is located one more level up through this hatch.
[photograph of white oval hatch and metal ceiling with black wrought iron circular staircase leading to it.] [Music] As we climb 10 more steps up the circular staircase from the watch room into the lower lantern Room. we see the green pedestal that the third order Fresnel lens rests upon. Also at this level are five ventilators located in the wall which are used to adjust the airflow in the lower lantern room.
[Photograph of brown circular small vent inset and wood paneled wall. Photograph of brass plate mounted on a green pedestal with the name of the French company who built the lens: L.Sautter & Company constructeurs A Paris.] Fresnel lenses were one-of-a-kind items and were only manufactured in Paris, France.
[Music] [various photographs and video of tall circular lens constructed of rings of prisms stacked on top of each other.] A third order lens could magnify the light through a series of prisms so they could be seen up to 17 miles away. Each prism was set at a slightly different angle so that through the process of reflection and refraction it could capture the light and redirect it. Fresnel lenses came in many different sizes known as orders. This third order lens weighs approximately two thousand pounds, while the largest, a first order lens could weigh as much as thirteen thousand pounds.
From the lower lantern room we can also access the outside catwalk through another metal door. From the catwalk we can work our way around the outside of the top of the lighthouse enjoying views of Lake Superior, the surrounding forested countryside and towards the east, the Grand Sable dunes which rise about 300 feet above Lake Superior.
[Music] [photograph of sunset over large lake taken from the top of a lighthouse, with a red roof and green trees in the foreground.] Although the Fresnel lens is no longer used, this has been a continuously functioning lighthouse. And today [photograph of red brick house and attached white light tower with colorful sunset, clouds in the background] [Music] [photograph of led style light on black railing with sunset over large lake in the distance.] this small led light continues to serve as a warning to the mariners of Lake Superior. [Music] [photograph of tall white light tower in red brick house against blue sky with the words for more information, visit nps.gov/piro displayed in front of the photo] [image of National Park Service arrowhead symbol in front of black screen]
Today, as visitors look at this ornate, red brick building with Lake Superior in the background, it’s sometimes hard to imagine it blasting sounds that could be heard many miles away with steam shooting from the whistles over 40 feet into the air. Although lighthouses create images of majestic towers protecting mariners from the dangers of cruel and threatening seas, just as important was a different type of protection, that of a loud audio sound. Lighthouses, as impressive as they look, only work on clear nights. In the case of thick fog or low clouds, a different type of warning system was needed. For the Au Sable Light Station, prior to 1897, a hand cranked devise was used to alert mariners of the dangerous sandstone reef extending underwater from Au Sable Point. It was both labor intensive and not very loud. Fog is an ever-present risk at this location and can build within minutes, greatly limiting visibility for ships. This all changed when the U.S. Lighthouse Service appropriated five thousand, five hundred dollars for the construction of a steam-powered fog signal building in 1897. Large locomotive steam whistles anchored on the roof, as seen in this historic picture, were loud enough to be heard up to 25 miles away on a calm day. The U.S. Lighthouse Service assigned a unique sound pattern or signature to the fog signal requiring a three second blast every 17 seconds, as you’ve been hearing in the background of this video. During an average shipping season, generally from mid-April to mid-December, the boilers would consume 15 to 20 tons of coal to operate this system. One problem with steam whistles however, was the amount of time it took to produce enough steam pressure from a cold start. Often the process of starting a boiler fire and waiting patiently for the steam pressure to rise to a sufficient level could take as long as 45 minutes. This problem was evident on the morning of April 9th, 1902, as fog quickly began to build. The keeper had gone out to light the boiler and wait for the steam pressure to build at 6 am. At 6:15 am the steamer Crescent City, towing a whale-back style barge, was lost in the fog and ran aground on the reef. Unfortunately for the Crescent City, the boiler had not yet produced enough steam pressure to sound the whistles. As fog backs can form quickly, 45 minutes was a very long time indeed. Eventually the steam whistles were replaced with newer systems that used compressed air, greatly decreasing the response time. The compressed air was provided by a diesel engine driving a special air compressor and the air was stored in a large tank for instant use. Today while visiting the building, you can still see this large white tank suspended from the ceiling. The green tank located on the floor was for diesel fuel. The U.S. Coast Guard finally decide to decommission the Au Sable Light Station in 1957. As large ships no longer sailed close to the coast, the need to warn mariners of the dangerous reef and surrounds declined bringing an end to the Au Sable Light Station’s fog signal era.
Explore the fog signal building at Au Sable Light Station.
(To view other videos and learn more about the park, check out our YouTube channel!)
Summer Lighthouse Tours
Au Sable Lighthouse tours are scheduled Wednesday through Sunday from mid-June through the end of September. No tours on Monday and Tuesday. Tours begin at 11 am and run through 3:30 pm (11:00, 12:00, 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30). Meet at the lighthouse.
The 30-40 minute park ranger guided tours begin at the lighthouse east porch.
Tour fee is $5 for those 6 and older. Exact amount is required (no change provided). Fees are payable at the start of the tour.
Light station visitors are reminded that the area includes very sandy soils, narrow sidewalks, and steps to access the buildings.
A Bit of History
What's in a Name?
The Au Sable Light Station was originally called the Big Sable Light Station. The name was changed in May 1910 to conform to its geographic location on Lake Superior. The term Au Sable is French for “with sand”, presumably named by early European explorers. At least as early as 1622, when Pierre Esprit Radisson called it “most dangerous when there is any storms,” Au Sable Point was recognized as a hazard to Lake Superior mariners. When lake traffic began to boom in the middle of the nineteenth century with the opening of the Soo Canal (1855), the reef at Au Sable Point was particularly dangerous. Unless warned off, vessels could become victim to this reef of Jacobsville Sandstone which, in some places, lies only a few feet below the surface.
Besides the offshore sandstone reef, the region was infamous for thick fog caused by the interaction of cool lake air with warmer currents rising from the Grand Sable Dunes. Mariners and their allies of the press began to urge that a station be built between Grand Island and Whitefish Point. The Marquette Mining Journal, for example, said on July 29, 1871, that “in all navigation of Lake Superior, there is none more dreaded by the mariner than that from Whitefish Point to Grand Island.” The Eleventh Lighthouse District agreed with such local sentiment, noting in its 1871 annual report that a light was more of a necessity at Au Sable Point than at any other unprotected location in the district.
The habits of Lake Superior navigators made the problem more pressing. After leaving the St. Mary’s River and rounding Whitefish Point, it was common for vessels to travel along the south shore of the lake within sight of land. This was especially common for ships heading for Marquette or Munising, but other captains also followed the route because it was the shortest available. Au Sable Point and the Pictured Rocks area proved to be a natural “ship trap” when vessels were blown onto the lee shore by a strong north wind or lost their way in snow or fog.
Congress took action in 1872, appropriating $40,000 to build a lighthouse at Au Sable Point. The State of Michigan sold 326 acres of land to the federal government for the light station at a cost of $407. Work began the following year and on August 19, 1874, the light went into operation. As was common in the U.S. Light House Service, the station at Au Sable was not of a unique design; in fact, it is of the same plan as the Outer Island Light built in 1874 in the Apostle Islands of Wisconsin.
The light tower is 86 feet high measured from its base to the ventilator ball of the lantern. At the tower base, the walls are over 4 feet thick with the outer walls of 20 inches, inner walls of 12 inches, and an air space of 19 inches. The wall at the lower lantern room is over 3 feet thick. The tower foundation consists of rubble masonry 23 feet below the surface on bedrock. The light originally burned lard oil, but later changed to kerosene, a more efficient fuel. The flickering kerosene fame of the Au Sable Station was augmented to 6,750 candlepower after being reflected by a 90 degree mirror through a 270 degree third order Fresnel lens, manufactured by L. Sautter & Co. of Paris, France. The fixed white light was visible 17 miles out on the lake.
The first major improvement at the station was added in 1897 when the hand-cranked foghorn was replaced by a steam-powered fog signal. This required construction of a new crib and seawall and the installation of piping to carry lake water to operate the signal. However, the first one installed did not work, and it was another year before a replacement was obtained and put into operation, ending the duty of the lighthouse keeper to start cranking when the fog rolled in.
Extensive alterations and additions were made to the light station in 1909. Among these changes were additions to dwelling attached to the tower. It was originally designed as a single dwelling but was converted to a double dwelling when an assistant keeper was assigned The new head keepers dwelling, located just to the west of the light tower, was constructed in 1909 at the same time the old dwelling was remodeled.
The Life of a Keeper
It was a lonely life for the men and their families assigned to tend the light. The nearest village, Grand Marais, was 12 miles to the east, connected by a narrow path at the base of the dunes that was impassable during rough weather. Supplies and station personnel normally came by boat, landing at a small pier at the base of the foghorn building. In winter, snowshoes, sleds, and dog teams were frequently used.
The light keepers kept journals recording daily events. Such diaries provide a fascinating glimpse into the history of this isolated station, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On December 8, 1876, Napoleon Beedon, who had taken over the job that year from the first lighthouse keeper, Casper Kuhn, described the inclement weather. A “light breeze” from the south, he wrote, had been replaced at 5 p.m. by a “frightful storm” that “blew down 50 trees or more close by the lighthouse” and caused him to fear that “the lighthouse and tower would blow down as they shook like a leaf the wind was N.H. West snowing and feesint it was the worst storm I ever saw on Lake Superior.” Frederick Boesler, Sr., who took over from Beedon in 1879, noted on September 25, 1883, that the weather was “clear, blowing hard from the northwest,” as the stranded steamer Mary Jarecki, which had been on the beach since July 4, was pounded to pieces before his eyes.
Gus Gigandet arrived on May 21, 1884, with his wife and an assistant and noted in the journal, “I feel contented and satisfied with the station.” So he must have been, for he stuck it out at the lonely post for a dozen years, surmounting the worst weather Lake Superior had to offer. On November 5, 1886, for instance, he recorded “one of the heaviest gales from the northwest with a blinding snowstorm I have ever experienced” and the following July 7 the wind blew so violently that it caused “the tower to shake hard.”
But life at the station was not all lonely monotony. Hunting and fishing were popular pastimes. The journal notes that on November 4, 1901, the lighthouse keeper’s assistant killed a bear so large that it required two men to drag the animal back to the station. The previous summer, the keeper bragged in the journal, he had caught 144 brook trout. And at least one assistant, William Laviate, whiled away the dull days of winter by taking a job in a local lumber camp. In 1881, Keeper Boesler noted that he had “grafted 24 fruit trees, 12 of cherry and 12 of apples.”
The journals provided a comprehensive record of life at the station, recording news of the keepers’ families, the arrival of lighthouse tenders, the passage of lake vessels, daily chores, visitors, now and then the excitement that came when, despite the light and the foghorn, a vessel wound up on the reef.
A 1909 account of the station reads:
“The main point on which the light house stands has been cleared of timber for a quarter mile each way from the station to facilitate the visibility of the light to the E’d and W’d. This clearing has grown up to second growth -- small stuff... Access is by boat or by wagon road to within 3 miles of station, thence by foot trail; this trail is cleared out so that a team without load can get to the light station.”
Over the years, numerous additions and improvements were made to the station. A brick oil house was added in 1895, the steam-powered fog whistle two years later, improved boat ways in 1901, a new seawall in 1906, a new residence for the keeper in 1909 and a new diaphone fog signal in 1928. In 1905, a rough road connecting the station to the Log slide was built, allowing eventual access to the public highway. Life at the station gradually changed as the 20th Century progressed. In 1943, a good road was built to the station from the west, making it accessible by cars or trucks. The quarters were modernized and in 1945, the U.S. Coast Guard took over, replacing the civilian keepers. In 1958 the Coast Guard converted the light station to an automatic, unattended light, and discontinued the fog signal. The third order lens was removed from the lantern in 1972 and replaced by a much smaller 300mm acrylic lens. The original lens was transferred to the National Park Service, and it is once again at the Au Sable Light Station. In January 1968, the Au Sable Light Station was transferred to the National Park Service. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the beacon and solar panel which charges the storage battery.
Restoring Au Sable Light Station
Restoration efforts at the station began in earnest in 1988 with initial historic investigations of the double keeper’s quarters and light tower. These activities included paint and plaster analysis, researching historic room sizes and uses, and shingle detail. Projects included fabrication and installation of missing interior wood trim, restoring the walnut balustrade and repairing the plaster walls and ceilings.Since 1988, several of the structures have been painted, both inside and out, doors, windows and screens have been restored, and the front porch on the double keepers dwelling was reconstructed to the 1909-1910 period. In 1988 an Historic American Buildings Survey crew measured the buildings which led to detailed structural drawings.During the summer of 1992, the upper light tower exterior was painted the historic black color and the lens room was restored. In 1993 the interior of the tower was painted and work in the lens room was completed. In 1996, the magnificent Fresnel lens was returned to the light station lens room after an absence of many years. In 1999 a large photovoltaic system was installed at the station to power the museum, information station and volunteer quarters.
In recent years the park has implemented recommendations prescribed in the Au Sable Cultural Landscape Plan. Brush and trees were removed from the area that would have been historically kept clear of vegetation to keep the light visible and to reduce the hazard of fire. Crews have rehabilitated dune blowouts and stairs to the beach as well as the extensive sidewalk system. Landscape work will continue to maintain the historic setting.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore completed restoration of the 1910 single keepers quarters as a seasonal volunteer residence and information station and museum. The station is open mid-June to the end of September for guided tours. The first floor of the assistant keepers quarters was refurnished through donations and purchase, reflecting the time when Keeper John and his wife Martha Brooks lived at Au Sable.