Digest>Archives> September 1995

Candles on the Water - Bluewater Belles

The Lightships Huron, St. Clair and their sisters on the lake

By Jerry Biggs


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The restored Lightship HURON as it now appears in ...

Between 1820 and 1983 there were 116 U.S. lightship stations - floating lighthouses. The first American light vessel was stationed on Chesapeake Bay.

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This is the USCG St. Clair Flats Station. After ...

There were no federal lightships on the Great Lakes until 1891: three wooden, steam-crew vessels, all 102 feet long, with illuminating apparatus consisting of two lanterns. Twenty different lightships saw service on the Great Lakes, maning 18 different stations from 1891 to 1970.

Crew accomodations would be considered uninhabitable by present day standards. The 1852 ration allowance for crewmembers was 20c a day. After breakfast and ship cleaning, time weighed heavily. Ship's crews turned to arts and crafts but the duty was mostly boring, routine, lonely, and dangerous.

The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board stated in 1891: "The three lightships now under construction at Toledo will probably be on their stations at Simmons Reef, White Shoal and Grays Reef in October of this year. These vessels are well constructed, of good material and get to and from their stations with their own steam, the only lightships in any service to which is possible.

The Board reported the following year (1892): "Three LVs (#55, #56, #57) were built in Toledo and arrived at Detroit, where they were to be turned over to the Lighthouse Establishment on September 14-15, 1891. They were inspected by the U.S. local inspectors and they passed a preliminary inspection. But many defects developed. The trial trips took place during which the vessels showed a speed of 8 MPH. The vessels left Detroit on October 19, 1891, and reached Port Huron that evening. The next morning they were taken in tow by the Lighthouse Tender Dahlia and a speed of 9 MPH was maintained, the vessels using their own steam to assist. Bad weather coming on, the tender let go the tow rope off Sand Beach Harbor Refuge at the time. The weather moderated on the 23rd, so the Dahlia again took the lightships in tow, and early in the following morning passed in Mackinac Point and before noght the three vessels were fast to their permanent moorings. These consisted of 5-ton iron sinkers (anchors) with 15 fathoms of 2-inch chain on each.

"On November 17 and 20 the three lightships left their stations without orders and ran into Cheboygan. But they were promptly replaced (restationed) by The Dahlia on November 22 and they remained on their stations until the close of navigation."

"These vessels are good sea boats," the Board stated, "and, having their own motive power, are quite efficient."

Vessel men speak of these lightships as being the greatest assistance to them in navigating the Straits of Mackinac.

In a follow-up report, the Lighthouse Board restated their case in stronger words: "The light vessels 55, 56, and 57 were placed on their stations in October. (A month later) Some trouble was experienced with new keepers and engineers. Each of the vessels left their stations for winter quarters without orders, but they were promptly sent back by the Lighthouse Inspector. The officers and crews of these vessels, with one exception, were discharged for dereliction of duty."

There were no more reported mutinies but by 1896 something was rotten, according to the Lighthouse Board: "Grosse Pointe Light Vessel #10 was stationed on Lake St. Clair, three miles northeast of Windmill Pointe: she was taken from the station at the close of navigation, December 19, 1896 and was replaced on April 5, 1897. She is somewhat rotten in her upper works and deck, but it is hoped that she can remain on station until the new lights are established. She was probably operated under contract by the J.W. Westcott Company."

1898: "This wooden LV (#10) was built in 1878. She is about 170 tons burden and has a fog bell. The vessel is so rotten that she will not last long. She was returned to her station March 29, 1898."

1900: "Of 362 tons gross burden, the Grosse Pointe was built for a stone barge and used by the engineer for carrying stone during the construction of Stannard Rock Light Station (Lake Huron)."

Farther north on the bluewater route, the Board awarded its 1898 Good (Light) Housekeeping Seal of Approval to the Lightvessel Huron #61, stationed north of Port Huron: "The condition of this vessel as to its cleanliness and thorough efficiency merits special attention." The LV 61 was the begininning of a dynasty of lightships named Huron.

In 1907 the situation improved for the Grosse Pointe Station: "Grosse Pointe LV #75 is stationed at the upper end of a 20 foot dredged channel, Lake St. Clair. This vessel, of about 160 gross tons, was built in 1902 of tank steel." The rotten old LV 10 was replaced by wrought iron.

Michigan's first lightship was the "Louis McLane," built in Detroit in 1832 at a cost of $7,300 for duty (1832-1851) in the Straits of Mackinac. The wooden 47 footer weighed 61 tons. The first "official" lightship was the old barge LV 10: Gosse Pointe aka St. CLair.

The LV-61 served the U.S. Lighthouse Service from 1893 to 1920: wooden hull, steam engine with a single screw. Initially her hull was painted a straw color with a white band. She may have been repainted red sometime after 1894 but before 1920. "61 Lake Huron" was painted in black lettering on the hull. The first Huron had one light mast and a jugger (sail). The light was fueled by oil and shown for 13 1/2 miles in good weather. LV-61 was also eqipped with a steam whistle fog signal. In a cryptic footnote the U.S. Coast Guard noted: "1913, August; master and engineer launched a boat and rescued two people from a rowboat in danger of foundering." There were also the "Gales of 1913" on Lake Huron.

The Huron lightships were on station for 77 years from September, 1893 to August, 1970 at or near a point six miles north of Port Huron and three miles east of the Huron shoreline. The ships were anchored three miles north of the Fort Gratiot Light Station, Michigan's most senior lighthouse. The location marked an 11 foot spot north and west from Northwest Shoal, locally known as "Corsica Shoals," with the channel passing close aboard the lightships' western (lake) side. The Huron #96 was there in 1930 and in 1960 the LV-103/WAL-526/WLV-526 Huron was stationed within two miles of the earlier location. After 1970 the lightship station was replaced by a lighted horn RACON buoy near the pilot station.

From 1921 to 1935, the LV-61 was replaced by the LV-96/WAL-520. That "Huron" was a steel hulled ship, one of two "whaleback" hulls on the Great Lakes. The #96 was also the "Poe" (Reef) in the Straits of Mackinac. The names may change, but the numbers stay the same. The first Great Lakes radio beacon went into service June 12, 1925 from #96 on Lake Huron.

As World War I was coming to an end in 1918, the keel was laid for the LV-103/WLV-526/LV526, the last of the Hurons and one of the most unique lightships in the service. LV-103 was launched May 1, 1920 at the Consolidated Ship Building Company, Morris Heights (The Bronx), New York at a cost of $161, 000. Just before Christmas the LV-103 was commissioned and accepted by the United States Lighthouse Service on December 22, 1920. She was powered by a 185 HP coal-fired steam engine.

She arrived in Milwaukee on June 9, 1921 and was assigned to relief duty. During the following 15 years she served at Grays Reef, North Manitou Shoal and as the "Relief" in northwestern Lake Michigan. She was painted black in 1936, a dramatic change from her previous bright red. The LV-103 also beacame the HURON. The black hull indicated she was stationed on the port (left) side of the channel. If the Huron was still on station in 1982 she would have been repainted green. A lady has a right to change her mind. However, the Huron was the only U.S. lightship with a black hull; all others were red at that time.

After the 1948 navigation season the Cutter Acacia towed the 97-foot Huron to the DeFoe Shipyard at Bay City, Michigan, she was refitted with a new radio shack on the weather deck and the below-decks rooms were rearranged. The coal-fired steam engine was replaced by GM Diesels. The Huron was thought to be the oldest ship in the USCG fleet at the time. She was the only lightship to stay on station during World War II.

During the next two decades there was little change. The LV-103 became the WLV-526. Nobody knows what the "W" stands for in USCG terminology. The Huron became prohibitive and she was decommissioned on August 25, 1970, and donated to the City of Port Huron. She sat idle, ignored, deteriorated and vandalized to the point of condemnation. A group of volunteers, led by Captain Ted Richardson (Ret.) and Don Thurow, restored the lightship to National Landmark status.

Don Thurow, the Huron's historian, was a crewmember after WWII. "I will tell what my life was like on her when she was a steam-coal burner. During my tour of duty (1946-48) the crew was both colorful and unique," Don recalled. "There were two former Chief Petty Officers, two former Petty Officers First Class and three former Navy Seamen. What made them colorful were some of the antics that occurred, and are best left unpublished.

The ship's compliment consisted of 12 men, one OIC (Officer in Charge) - Chief Boatswain's Mate. The black gang or snipes as they were called shoveled the coal. A tour of duty was two years: three weeks on and one week off.

The OIC and the cook looked after the radio. The food was good and the galley was always open in the evening and late hours. There were always eggs and lunch meat (we didn't call it that). There were no locks on the refrigerator or the freezer." No Captain Queegs on the Huron.

Don recollected how their time was spent: "When not on watch we kept things ship shape and listened to the radio; Arthur Godfrey or the Tiger Ballgame. We often sat around talking and telling war or sea stories. The skipper was an old time cutter man and often talked of the old rum running days. Even though we often referred to the 103 as the 'Nut House', we took pride in her and she looked as good as any Cutter in the Coast Guard fleet." A cutter is any USCG ship over 65 feet in length. The Huron was a little shorter than ocen-going lightships because the chop of the water in the Great Lakes is different than the ocean. The 103 was built specifically for the Great Lakes: fresh water is less buoyant than salt water. The radio beacon could be heard for 60 miles. The main purpose of the Huron was its light; it could be seen for 14 miles in good weather.

Another important development (1937) was the automation of the Lightship St. Clair, making it like no other lightship in the entire world. This ship listened to itself, talked to itself, and could take orders from a remote control site. Practically all the St. Clair's equipment was installed in duplicate so that when a malfunction occurred, a second mechanism could be switched on to replace it. Radio-telephone signals from the vessel kept its operator, eight miles away, aware of any problems. The light was completely automatic, being turned on and off by an astronomical clock. During foul weather, the shore operator could override the automatic system and activate the vessel's light, radio beacon, and fog horn. In order to let the operator know for certain that he had indeed activated the fog horn, a remarkable system was devised. A microphone was arranged so that when the signal was functioning properly, the radio beacon would sound its signal the full 60 seconds of each minute. If, however, the fog horn did not work correctly, the microphone would automatically shut off the radio beacon for five seconds each minute. Once aware of the horn's malfunction, the operator need only to press a button to activate the duplicate horn. Chief C.E. Richardson operated the "robot" lightship St. Clair from the St. Clair Flats USCG Station on Harsens Island. Ted's father was the chief of the Thunder Bay Island USCG Life Boat Station.

The St. Clair Lightship station was preceded by the Grosse Pointe Lightship Station (1887-1911). The old #10 Grosse Pointe served at both locations. The site was moved seven miles north into the lake in1911. The #75, The St. Clair, replaced the #10 in 1902. She served the station, unmanned and no propulsion, until 1939 when she was replaced by the present art deco-style St. Clair Light.

The #75 was sold in 1939 and refitted with engines. The St. Clair is a lighter and is said to still be operating in the Harbor of New York. On her way up the St. Lawrence Seaway to New York, she carried a load of birch logs for ballast. The crew later sold the ballast for cordwood.

The Lightship Huron is open to visitors in the spring and fall on weekends; and weekday and weekend afternoons during summer months. The ship-museum is land-berthed at the foot of Pine Grove Park, Port Huron, on the St. Clair River. From the Huron's bow there is a magnificent view of the BluewaterBridge, Lake Huron, and the closely passing freighters on the St. Clair River.

This story appeared in the September 1995 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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