1995 32¢ Great Lakes Lighthouses
Issue Date: June 16, 1995
City: Cheboygan, MI
Printed By: Stamp Venturers
Printing Method: Photogravure
Perforations: 11.2 vertically
These five stamps depict five historical lighthouses, each from one of the Great Lakes: Spectacle Reef from Lake Huron, Thirty Mile Point on Lake Ontario, Split Rock from Lake Superior, Marblehead on Lake Erie, and St. Joseph on Lake Michigan. Since the early 19th century, these historic lighthouses have aided mariners on the nation's "inland seas," which have many of the dangerous features of oceans, including violent storms, gale winds, fog, and ice.
Since ancient times light has been used as a navigational aid for ships. The Egyptian King Ptolemy I ordered the creation of what was probably the world’s first lighthouse, which was completed in 285 B.C. This structure was about four hundred feet tall, and had an open fire as its light source. It was located on the Island of Pharos, and survived for nearly 1,500 years.
More than 3,000 years later, the Split Rock lighthouse protected ships from what has been called “the most dangerous piece of water in the world.” Congress appropriated $75,000 for a lighthouse to be located at this site on the rugged north shore of western Lake Superior after 28 ships were endangered and six lost in a storm in November of 1905. The lighthouse was completed in 1910, and remained in use until 1969. In 1971 it was deeded to Minnesota, and has been restored to its pre-1924 appearance.
With the American Colonies’ dependence on trade from across the Atlantic, the need for lighthouses was immediate. North America’s first lighthouse was put into use in 1716, but it was not until 1818 that the first lighthouse was built on the Great Lakes.
Lake Michigan’s St. Joseph’s Harbor is so treacherous that countless vessels have been wrecked there – often just yards from safety. The U.S. government built the harbor’s first lighthouse, a circular stone tower, in 1831. In 1846 an additional wooden tower, which shined a white light over the water, was built at the end of a pier. A wooden tower built on top of the keeper’s house replaced the stone tower in 1859. Yet another tower, with a modern steel design, was built in 1898. It included a steam-powered fog horn. The wooden tower on the pier was replaced by a steel one in 1907.
During the early 1800s the Great Lakes Region experienced a rapid increase in population, industrialization, and commerce, especially after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. By 1852 there were 76 lighthouses operating on the Great Lakes.
The Spectacle Reef is actually a pair of shoals, seven to eleven feet deep at the Straits of Mackinac on Lake Huron. After two ships ran aground there in 1867, the U.S. Congress was easily convinced to appropriate the huge sums needed to build a lighthouse in this difficult environment. The lighthouse at Spectacle Reef cost $406,000 – which translates into over 4 million dollars in today’s money. Before work could begin, the wreckage of the last ship to fall victim to the reef had to be removed. It took four years to complete the lighthouse, which was built of limestone on top of a massive submerged foundation.
The steamer Chief Wawatam was used to carry as many as 22 railroad cars at a time through the hazardous Straits of Mackinac, as it sailed between St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, Michigan. This coal-fired ship depended upon the Spectacle Reef lighthouse for guidance on its voyages. The Spectacle Reef light remains an important aid to navigation in this area.
The number of lighthouses on each of the Great Lakes in 1852 gives us an idea how many ships were sailing them. Lake Michigan had 27, Lake Erie 21, Ontario nine, Huron eight, and Superior six. Five lighthouses were located on Lake St. Clair (which connects Lakes Huron and Erie) and the Detroit River.
The Marblehead lighthouse on Lake Erie in Ottawa County, Ohio is the oldest continuously running lighthouse in the United States. It aids ships passing through the craggy-shored entrance of Sandusky Bay (it was formerly called the Sandusky Light). This stone tower stands 65 feet high. Built in 1821, it was originally equipped with whale oil lamps and a specially built, imported lens.
Today’s ships are equipped with sophisticated guidance equipment, and there is less dependence on lighthouses. However, lighthouses are still very useful in some areas. As of 1990, all lighthouses still functioning as navigational beacons under Coast Guard control became completely automated.
The 30-Mile Point lighthouse was built in 1875, near the town of Somerset, N.Y. It warned vessels of a dangerous sandbar and shoals that extended far into Lake Ontario. Before its completion, five large commercial vessels were wrecked on this dangerous stretch of water. The tower, which is attached to the keeper’s house, stands 60 feet high and has a slate roof. It was equipped with a French-made Fresnel lens, which magnified the light from its brass kerosene lamp to 600,000 candlepower. The 30-Mile Point light could be seen 16 miles away. This lighthouse was deactivated December 17, 1958, when it was determined that erosion had removed the menacing sandbar.