Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2005

Two Gold Medals

By Richard Clayton


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Architectural drawing for the construction of ...

When looking at a map of Michigan, one will see that most of the state is shaped like the back of a mitten, worn on the left hand. At the very tip of where the middle finger would be is Mackinaw City, and beyond that are the Straits of Mackinac which connect Lake Michigan on the west and Lake Huron on the east.

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Spectacle Reef Lighthouse as it appears today. ...

Of the five Great Lakes, Lake Huron is the second largest body of water; 247 miles long and 183 miles across with the deepest part drops down to 750 feet. However, up in the northwestern section of the lake, at a point eleven miles east of the Mackinac Straits and roughly twenty miles south of the Northern Michigan coastline, there is a submerged limestone reef. It resembles a pair of

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Commander W.A. Marshall II. Photo courtesy of the ...

eyeglasses in shape and lies just seven feet below the surface of the water.

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Architect's renditions of what Spectacle Reef ...

Prior to 1850, most sailing vessels on Lake Huron were relatively small craft with a shallow draft. However, in the 1860's, as larger sailing vessels and steamships began carrying cargo out of the Straits, bound for eastern ports, this underwater rock, called Spectacle Reef, became a maritime menace. When two schooners ran aground and broke up on the reef in 1867, the Lighthouse Board realized that a light tower was needed.

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Lighthouse Tender Aspen at Spectacle Reef ...

In 1870, workmen began building a lighthouse on this limestone reef. The structure was designed and built by a Civil War hero, former Captain Orlando M. Poe, who had been General Sherman's chief engineer. It took four years to complete the light tower, because no work could be done during the winter. It showed its first light in 1874 with a final cost of construction of $406,000.

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The lens from the Spectacle Reef Lighthouse is ...

The first keeper at Spectacle Reef was Patrick J. McCann, who served six years before he was removed from duty. Alan W. Hulbert replaced him in 1880, served one year and resigned. The next full keeper was William A. Marshall II, who took command on August 20, 1881 and stayed for sixteen years.

When he was only 18 years old, in 1861, William A. Marshall II joined the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Army and served in an Infantry Battalion until the Civil War ended in 1865. His father had been

commissioned as Commander of Old Fort Mackinac during the War Between the States. William was appointed to Spectacle Reef because of his war record.

In late November, every year, the temperature would drop

dramatically and Lake Huron would be covered with a thick layer of ice. In the days of the tall ships, the Captains of cargo vessels made sure they were in port before the freeze, because the insurance companies would not honor the claim of loss of cargo if the ship became trapped in the ice. Also, being marooned in the ice guaranteed a certain slow death to the ship and its crew. The spring thaw began in April of the next year.

On April 15, 1883, the lighthouse crew departed their homes on Mackinac Island, bound out in the keeper's sailboat to start the new season. The sky was clear, a light wind was blowing out of the northeast, visibility was unlimited, and the air temperature was about 35 degrees above zero. They kept the sail reefed as they carefully rowed between the large chunks of ice, slowly making their way toward the open water where they could hoist the sail.

Sitting at the helm was Head Keeper William A. Marshall; standing watch in the bow was the keeper's brother, Walter, age 34, the newly hired third assistant. Four crewmen manned the oars mid-ship: 29 year old Edward Chambers, the first assistant and the keeper's youngest son, James, age 17, the acting second assistant. Along for the ride and, also, manning the oars were James' two young school mates: Joseph Cardran, age 16 and his 13 year old brother Alfred. After an hour of maneuvering between the ice cakes, they stored their oars and happily hoisted the sail. In open water, they noted that the waves were about five feet high and the wind had become more brisk. The four young men huddled together for warmth and exchanged stories to pass the time. The wind was coming directly out of the north as the keeper began tacking a course toward the light station.

In mid-April, dense fog frequently blew across the surface of the lake, dropping visibility to less than half a mile. The winds could suddenly increase, which caused larger waves to form, and thunderstorms were

frequent. There is no written account of exactly what happened on that voyage, but it is known that as the sailing craft approached the light

station, the boat capsized, throwing everyone into the icy water.

Joseph and Alfred Cardran were excellent swimmers and they managed to assist William and Walter to safety, then Joseph dove back into the lake and pulled Edward Chambers out of the water. The teenage boys helped the keepers get inside the building and out of the wind. William Marshall was soon revived and quickly set about getting a fire started in the stove. In the confusion and excitement of the moment, Alfred called to Joseph, "Where's James?"

In an instant, they raced outside to gaze at the capsized craft, still afloat a few yards out in the lake. Without hesitation, Joseph dove into the cold water and swam to the craft, lying on her side. He pulled himself aboard and looked around the craft. Then he stood up, shook his head and threw a line toward the keepers. James C. Marshall, acting second assistant keeper, had drowned.

There are three letters of interest in the files of the Lighthouse Board, that are now located in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The first letter reads as follows:

April 24, 1883

Commander J.C. Watson, USN

Inspector 11th LH District

Detroit, Michigan


Your letter of April 21st transmitting the report of the Keeper of Spectacle Reef Light as to the capsizing of his boat and the drowning of the 2nd assistant, his son, and of the rescue of himself and others by Joseph and Alfred Cardran has been received.

The Board coincides with you in the opinion that the Cardrans deserve medals and that the proper steps should be taken to have them awarded to them.

By the act approved June 20, 1874, the Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to bestow a life-saving medal of honor upon any person who by extreme daring and imminent peril to his own life saved another from drowning.

The Board requests you to take the proper steps to collect all the evidence that can be gotten of this act of heroism of these two young men, and that you will forward this evidence to this Office that it may be made the basis of an application for a life saving medal, to the Secretary of the Treasury.

Under the rules established by the Department, application for a life-saving medal must be accompanied by affidavits of individuals of respectable standing in the community who are personally cognizant of the acts by which human beings are saved from drowning and these affidavits should be sworn before officers duly authorized to administer oaths. They should state somewhat in detail the circumstances of each case; relating specifically what was done, and they should be accompanied by a certificate of the U.S. District Attorney for the District in which the applicants reside or the Collector of Customs of such collection district that the applicants are credible persons.

While the affidavits of those who were saved by the Cardrans will perhaps be sufficient, it will be well to have added to them the affidavits of any others, if there are such, who were cognizant of the circumstances.

Enclosed is a letter to the Messrs Cardrans from the Board expressing its appreciation of their daring in saving the lives of the Keeper and rendering them so much assistance afterward, which it is requested you will have delivered and informing them that steps will be taken to procure for them medals of honor of the first class from the Government.

The Board has no funds at its disposal from which it can reimburse the Keepers for their losses, but it will consider any recommendations you may make relative to furnishing rations to the station.

An application from these Keepers for reimbursement by Congress for loss of clothing, etc, if forwarded by your favorable endorsement, will receive due consideration at the hands of the Board.

Very Respectfully,

George Dewey, Commander USN, Naval Secretary

The second letter seems to suggest that the Lighthouse Board saw a good public relations possibility in presenting the two gold medals to the teenage Cardran brothers.

Perhaps they were the youngest pair ever to receive the honor. Nonetheless, the following letter was dated a year and three weeks after Commander Dewey's:

May 16, 1884

F. A. Cook, USN

Inspector 11 district

Detroit, Michigan


There are you two enclosed letters, one to Joseph Cardran and the other to Alfred Cardran of Mackinac Island, Mich. From the Honorable, Secretary of the Treasury, awarding to them at the instance of the Lighthouse Board, two gold life-saving medals for signal heroism in saving life on 15 April 1883, and the medals referred to are sent to you by express delivery to them.

The Board requests that you will have the Messrs. Cardran sent for and that you will present the medals to them at the Custom House or some suitable public place in the presence of government officials and such representatives of the commerce and navigation of the lakes as you can readily bring together. It is especially desirable that all proper efforts should be made to give the incident such prominence as will show the appreciation that the Lighthouse Board and the Treasury Department feel for the heroism shown and also that the public may be made aware of this appreciation.

Please forward to the Board a copy of each newspaper which gives account of the presentation, for the files of this office.

Very respectfully,

Henry Picking, Naval Secretary

Apparently Inspector Cook took issue with the Board's seeming demand that the awards presentation be made at the Detroit Custom House, because another letter from Mr. Pickering was sent a week later:

May 23rd, 1984


Referring to the Board's letter of 16 May '84, I have to say that the Board does not insist upon having the Life Saving Medals presented to the Messrs. Cardran at the Detroit Custom House, but leaves it rather to your discretion as to the time, place and manner of making the presentation.

The Board desires, however, that the presentation shall be made under such circumstances as shall show its appreciation of the heroism of the Cardrans and of the high honor which is conferred upon them.

Very respectfully,

Henry Pickering

Five months later, when Joseph Cardran turned eighteen, he entered the lighthouse service as acting 3rd assistant at Spectacle Reef. After seven months on the job, on May 21, 1885, he resigned and his name never appeared on the keeper's listings again. Five years later, Alfred Cardran became the 3rd assistant on the Reef, after two months service, he was promoted to 2nd assistant keeper, but resigned from the service on August 1st, 1890. Life at Spectacle Reef must have seemed like solitary confinement for these two brave young gold medal winners.

William Marshall II was the head keeper at the Spectacle Reef Light until May 15, 1896 when he was transferred to the Round Island Light, which was completed in 1895. Thus he was the first keeper at that station until he resigned from service on February 11, 1907. Many people remembered him as the Lighthouse Keeper with the long white beard. He retired after thirty years at the age of 68.


A big "thank you" is in order to the following people who's research information made this story possible. The folks at the Library of Congress in Washington DC were a great help; many thanks to Terry Pepper for his numerous Great Lakes Lighthouse websites and for his personal letters to the author; J.D. Scheerens, speaking on behalf of this generation of Marshalls, provided insightful information about their great-grandfather, William Marshall II. Their father, Jim Marshall, William's grandson, is the founder of Mackinac Island Fudge, a very famous Northern Michigan candy company. And a special thank you to Tom and Phyllis Tag for their many hours of painstaking research through the payroll records to compile the many listings of keepers at the Great Lakes Lighthouses.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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