About thirty miles out into the waters of Lake Michigan and about eighteen miles west of the famous Mackinac Bridge sits the massive Gray’s Reef Lighthouse, which is often spelled without the apostrophe as Grays Reef. It’s fairly new by lighthouse standards. It was built in 1936 to replace a number of lightships or light vessels that had previously marked the site as far back as 1891.
The lighthouse, which has been sitting empty for approximately fifty years, was once home to some unique men who kept the light. Apparently most did not stay for any real length of time, although the few of them who did must have liked it. However, the keepers who served here under the United States Lighthouse Service were short lived. Three years after the lighthouse was completed the Lighthouse Service was absorbed in July of 1939 by the United States Coast Guard. Ron Benjamin was the first keeper under the United States Lighthouse Service and it is believed he was stationed there for three years.
Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation the Gray’s Reef Lighthouse has now been declared as excess property by the Coast Guard and is now being offered by the General Services Administration for free to any qualified nonprofit or other government entity. However, if none step forward to ask for the lighthouse it will then be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Interestingly, but not unusual, most of the memories about life at the Gray’s Reef Lighthouse seemed to have disappeared or have been forgotten, as are the stories, memories, and photographs of the men who served onboard the lightships that once served at Gray’s Reef. But a few memories have been preserved about the men who lived at the Gray’s Reef Lighthouse. Those men were labeled in a big headline as the “Gray’s Reef Hermits” by Ben Nottingham, a reporter from the Grand Rapids Press who visited with the Coast Guard keepers in the spring of 1966. Actually, the word “hermit” could easily have been used to describe many of the lighthouse keepers who were stationed at similar lighthouses that were all built on slabs of concrete out in the great expanses of water. But, thanks to Nottingham’s clever headline, which has now been brought back to life by Lighthouse Digest, the hermit description is permanently and forever embodied into the history of the Gray’s Reef Lighthouse
Bosun’s Mate First Class Elwood Wade, who hailed from Traverse City, Michigan, was the OIC (Officer In Charge) of the lighthouse. Nottingham described him as a tall, thin, soft spoken man who had been stationed at Gray’s Reef Lighthouse for two years. In talking about the station assignment, Wade said, “Lighthouse duty is generally on a voluntary basis. Although, if there aren’t enough volunteers to make up a light complement, volunteers are ‘chosen.’ Men serve three weeks on duty and one week off in most cases, but may choose to serve six weeks straight with two weeks off.” Interestingly, Nottingham’s visit was with all of the four Coast Guard keepers who were assigned to the station at that time. They were Dan Discianno, Elwood Wade, Frank Harrangozo, and Donald Seifried.
In describing life at the lighthouse, Nottingham wrote, “They live in the 80 foot high lighthouse on a 60 by 60-foot concrete “crib” sunk solidly into the reef 26-feet below water. And instead of fighting loneliness, they guard against getting on each other’s nerves.”
“We’ve been pretty lucky,” Discianno said. “We’ve had no squabbles. In fact you can’t hardly pick an argument around here just to pass the time,” he adds with a wink. “I ask Wade what he wants to watch on TV and he says, ‘It doesn’t matter to me!’” But, of course, in those days there were only a few television stations to choose from.
Wade said that his crew keeps busy to pass the time. “A 24-hour watch is kept in the radio shack with men on duty for six hour periods. Each man does his own laundry and they take turns cooking.” “The cook always washes his own dishes,” Discianno says. “That way he doesn’t dirty so many.” Seifried and Harangozo said they played table tennis and cards sometimes, but mostly they just watched TV. There was a 16-foot dinghy on the concrete deck for both emergency and recreational use, but the men did little fishing.
In further describing the interior, Nottingham wrote, “Just off the small living-dining-recreation room which also serves as the galley, three identical grandfather-type pendulum clocks stand side by side. Two of the clocks keep time and operate automatic equipment while the third just keeps time and stands by as a spare.
“In the engine room two diesel powered generators provide electrical power with one always operating and the other in reserve. Two air compressors, one in operation and one in reserve, provide ‘breath’ for the fog horn. On the lower level is a well which provides the light’s water supply. Only a few feet from the well are sea doors which can be opened in calm weather on hundreds of square miles of fresh water. In areas not crowded with equipment are such items as a meat freezer, chow locker, washing machine, dart board, table tennis table, and a set of barbells for weightlifting. Books and magazines are in abundance. Supply trips in bad weather were made on the station’s 44-footer, an eminently seaworthy craft.”
Although the men at Gray’s Reef Lighthouse were sometimes isolated by storms for weeks on end, they had an advantage not enjoyed by many of the other lights in the Ninth Coast Guard District of upper Lake Michigan and Lake Huron: a telephone cable connected them to the mainland. “That phone is kind of a nice thing for them,” said Warrant Officer James C. Seidl, who was the Commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District at that time. “It allows them to talk to their wives and families once in a while and that helps a lot of times.”
Life at the lighthouse was pretty much routine for the men, but it did have its moments, such as the time in 1965 when a lake freighter rammed the lighthouse. “It was really foggy,” Discianno recalled. “Visibility was zero. We were watching Ben Casey on TV when there was this big BANG! It didn’t shake the light or anything. It sounded like someone slamming his fist down on a table. We knew there were ships in the area, of course, but we were surprised when one hit us.
“They backed off and we radioed to ask if they needed Coast Guards assistance. They said they didn’t and took off. It battered up their bow pretty good and knocked some concrete off our crib but it was nothing really serious. I never did see the end of the Ben Casey show.”
The men said they never saw any mice on Gray’s Reef Lighthouse, something that would have been common at most land-based lighthouses. Perhaps it was because of the occasional snakes that somehow made their way to the lighthouse. Wade recalled one four-footer that startled him and he couldn’t figure out how it got up into the lighthouse from the water.
The life of the hermits at Gray’s Reef came to an end in 1976. A report in the October 8, 1976 edition of the Sheboygan Journal in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, read, “the doors to the lighthouse were locked and the automation crew departed the unmanned station at 12:16 PM on September 27, 1976.”
Gray’s Reef Lighthouse, along with other nearby lights that were built on similar style cribs, has recently been declared excess property by the United States Coast Guard. The GSA is offering, for free, Poe Reef Lighthouse, Martine Reef Lighthouse, and the Gray’s Reef Lighthouse to acceptable nonprofits or other government entities. If none come forward to apply, the lighthouses will be auctioned off to the highest bidder and then become privately owned.
The Coast Guard hermits who were stationed at Gray’s Reef Lighthouse were able to see “Big Mac” at the Straits on a clear day. And they always had plenty of freighters to watch, and even some pleasure craft, as they passed by, while always wondering where those vessels were journeying to or from. They also got to view many spectacular sunsets as well as sunrises.
Now, after being void of human life for nearly fifty years, perhaps some new modern day hermits will be able to enjoy life at the Gray’s Reef Lighthouse just as the hermits did in the bygone days of yesteryear.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2013 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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