Duluth Canal LighthousesLighting The Way for Over a Century
By: Rob Hedburg
Along with the Aerial Lift Bridge, the three lighthouses in Canal Park provide ample photo opportunities for locals and visitors alike. They are known as the North Pier Lighthouse, the South Breakwater Light, and the Duluth Rear Range Light. Navigational lighting has been a part of Duluth’s maritime history for over a century. Let’s learn a little bit more about these lights, along with a lesser known remnant of lighthouse keeping’s past!
There has been light present along the Duluth canal’s southern breakwater since June 2, 1874. On that date, the original beacon of the south lighthouse shone for the first time across the waters of Lake Superior. The light was originally red and had a visible range of 12.5 miles. At the tail end of the 19th century, the first Rear Range Light was
completed. The original Rear Range light was a wooden structure, as were the original Duluth piers. The arrival of the 20th century saw the old, weathered, wooden piers being replaced with concrete. The modern lighthouse structures would also see their completion in the 20th century. The brick-construction South Breakwater officially began operation on September 1, 1901. The steel structure of the Rear Range Light still seen today was built in 1902.
Despite the placement of the southern breakwater light and the inner harbor light, navigational issues still plagued ships entering the Duluth harbor at night and during foggy weather. The northern pier had no light or indicator to help guide ships, which led to some collisions with the rocky beach or the pier itself. The 300-foot width of the Duluth canal left very little margin of error for vessels entering the harbor. A temporary light on the northern pier was erected in 1908 after years of the Lake Carrier’s Association appealing to the Lighthouse Board for a permanent fixture. The permanent North Pier Light was built starting in 1909 and completed in 1910; it originally shined a white light visible from eleven miles away. The light of the southern lighthouse was eventually changed to be green while the light of the northern lighthouse was changed to red. This was done to more easily distinguish the entrance to the canal and to maintain navigational accuracy.
Six miles away from the shipping canal on Minnesota Point stand the ruins of a U.S. Lighthouse Service storage depot. Originally, acetylene served as the fuel source for the three light stations. This fuel source is volatile, which necessitated being housed a considerable distance away from the light stations and canal. It is believed that calcium carbide was stored at the lighthouse station, as acetylene can be produced from calcium carbide via hydrolysis. Calcium carbide itself is more stable in comparison to acetylene. In 1939, the United States Lighthouse Service merged with the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard has since been responsible for the upkeep and usage of all active light stations. During the World War II period, all three of Duluth Ship Canal’s light stations were electrified. This lead to the abandonment of the storage depot, as the storage of potentially volatile compounds was no longer necessary. The ruins of the U.S. Lighthouse Station can be found by walking along the Park Point Nature Trail, located towards the end of Minnesota Point.
The North Pier Lighthouse and South Breakwater Light are still used for navigation today. In 2008, the Rear Range Light was sold to Steve Sola and Matt Kampf of Duluth. Recently, the South Breakwater Lighthouse building was listed for sale by the federal government. While the building itself will be sold, the Coast Guard will still maintain and operate the light and fog signal within the south pier’s station. The North Pier Lighthouse remains fully under the operation and control of the Coast Guard. If you are interested in further information on the North Pier, South Breakwater, and Rear Rear Range lighthouses, check out their respective articles from Zenith City Online! Otherwise make sure to visit the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Canal Park on your next trip to Duluth. Information on the abandoned storage depot can be found here as well.
Until next time, happy travels!