Water, Light and Me…A Discussion of Lighthouses and the Life Saving Service




Department of Environmental Quality

Nature, the creator of beauty and destruction.  Her beauty exquisite, natural landscapes, flora and fauna  embellished beyond imagination. However, when it comes to her ability to destroy, no matter how hard we resist, and we try mightily, she remains undefeated. One of her most powerful weapons of destruction, water. Our seas, oceans, and lakes bring us delight yet can also cause massive life threatening disasters.  Living on the shores of Lake Michigan, I have witnessed both her beauty and destruction.

I am certainly not the first to realize water’s power…..from the very beginning humans have been challenged by and benefited from this forceful molecule.  Water combined with forces such as wind, gravity, and friction can bring it on. As human beings began to look to the water for food and transportation their need to control  its threats became an immediate concern.


At first people gathered food from the water by combing the shores or walking into the shallows. Yearning to explore deeper waters vessels were created to take them there. Once leaving shore it was very important to be able to return to the spot from which you launched. To do this the spot of departure was marked by a pile of rocks. These piles were referred to as day markers.

Enticed to ventured further return trips were likely to occur at night. Bonfires were lit on the hilltops marking the spot of return.  These fires required a great deal of wood resulting in a lot of smoke and scattered light. In order to save on wood, scarce in some areas, a metal basket or brazer was used. Poor light and a great deal of smoke were still a problem.

A smoke driven light was built in Alexandria, Egypt in 280 B.C. The Pharos lighthouse was the tallest light ever built at 450 ft comparable to a 45 story skyscraper.  A wood fire was built on a platform at the top providing light at night and a column of smoke as a marker during the day. Built with slave labor and lasting 1,500 years the Pharos light was brought down by an earthquake in the 14th century.

Over time light was needed for more than food gathering expeditions. People began to use the waters as paths to interact with others from trading goods to colonizing other lands. As humans explored farther away from home over longer periods of time nautical dangers were realized. Shallow waters, rocky reefs, shoals, and other navigational dangers were marked by light. Light also  guided ships into or out of safe harbors or identified ones location.

In the 1500’s oils replaced wood as an energy source. These oils, whale, vegetable and sea oil were placed in a lamp.  The oils created a sooty flame and rank odor.  Desiring to create the most brilliant light a variety of lamps were designed to burn oil.










The pan light could burn twelve or more hours. The bucket lamp had four wicks. There were many more designs trying to satisfy the needs of this new industry.


In the 1870’s oil was replaced by kerosene. This highly combustible liquid burned cleaner and lacked the rank odor of the oils. At first kerosene was burned in a lamp whose light could be seen from 8 to 12 miles away. Later the light was placed inside a Fresnel Lens which extended the light twenty or more miles. Looking like a beehive, this series of stacked prisms gathered the scattered light into one strong beam.

Lighthouses and their keepers served the world for many years. The Great Lakes area boasts of 129 lighthouses. Their keepers saved many lives and tons of cargo by alerting ships to danger and making daring rescues for those conquered by the waters.

Once electricity was available lighthouses were no longer of use. Buoys or small towers display lights where needed often run by car batteries. Lights on Lake Michigan are now managed by the Coast Guard.


It was observed that raising the light improved its visibility. The lights were moved into a tall structure that became known as a lighthouse.

Lighthouse design varied depending on the environment it supervised and the contractor who built it. In Michigan we can find round tower, pyramidal, skeletal, conical, square/integral, and schoolhouse designs.


A round tower of brick that may or may not be encased in steel is the earmark of the ROUND TOWER LIGHTHOUSE. South Manitou Island is an example of a large round tower light. A large steel encased round tower can be found on Big Sable Point while Manistee Pierhead light represents a small steel encased round tower. The round tower lights are usually painted each having a unique design telling the sailor exactly where he or she is.


The pyramid shaped lighthouse was one of the less popular designs. It was constructed of steel or wood and could be part of the keeper’s dwelling or stand-alone. The North Manitou, sadly washed away in a storm, and the Manistique Breakwater light are PYRANIDAL.



Designed to minimize wind resistance and provide firm support the SKELETAL LIGHTHOUSE provided only a frame on which the light sat. Of the few that were constructed the Whitefish Point and South Fox Island lights are examples of the skeletal lighthouses.


If a round tower is narrower at the top than the bottom it is considered a CONICAL LIGHT. Attached to these lights was a small building or entrance room. From there the tower was climbed. The tower may or may not be attached to the keeper’s dwelling. The Tawas Point or Point Iroquois lights are conical.


Examples of SQUARE INTEGAL LIGHTHOUSE are the Round Island in Lake Huron and Big Bay Point on Lake Superior. Here the tower is built into the keeper’s dwelling.


Peninsula Lighthouse, Old Mission Peninsula
Chris Rieser

Looking like an old fashioned schoolhouse the SCHOOLHOUSE LIGHTS were made of brick or wood. The light tower was built into the keeper’s living space. This simple design was often used on the shores of the Great Lakes and was considered cost effective.






I am a baby-boomer born and raised in suburban New Jersey. The extended family I was aware of were from New York, New Jersey and Washington State. In those days and in this family relatives were not talked about.

I moved to Michigan to attend Western Michigan University, earned my Masters Degree and never left. Oh what a voyager I thought I was….the first of my family to live in Michigan. My interest in my extended family grew and bit by bit I learned I wasn’t the voyager I thought I was. Through Ancestry.com I met a cousin and now dear friend from my mother’s line. It was from her I learned of Captain Joe and Jerome Kiah. To the best of my knowledge Captain Joseph Sawyer is my Great-Great-Great-Great Uncle and the Superintendent of the Tenth Life – Saving District in Michigan covering Lake Huron to Lake Superior. Jerome Kiah is a distant cousin… four generations back also served in the Life-Saving Service.

Captain Joe was born in Ogdensburgh, New York in 1830.  In his youth he became a lake sailor. As a  Navy ensign during the Civil War he fought in an engagement near Johnsonville, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River. He barely escaped with his life when the vessel he was traveling in caught fire.

At the wars end Captain Joe moved to Detroit where he began a  lumbering business and married Catherine. His business failed and his family fell on hard times.  Witnessing numerous disasters on Lake Huron he was concerned with lifesaving. He invented a detachable float apparatus to be used on ships as a rescue tool. This invention was said to have merit but never came to be due to lack of funds. In 1876 Captain Joe entered the Life-Saving Service as the Superintendent of the Tenth Life-saving District.  He found this to be noble work. He worked hard earning the respect of his men and keepers. Captain Joe would say,”It will be the banner Service in this country yet.” He was right as the Life-Saving Service was the precursor of the United States Coast Guard. Sadly, Captain Joe met his death at the age of 44 on Lake Huron.

As superintendent each quarter Captain Joe would travel from station to station to check the condition of the station, pay the crew, deliver mail and other goods. At 7:30 a.m. on October 20th, 1880 Captain Joe, Keeper Feaben and Surfman Joseph Valentine boarded the two masted supply boat and headed for Rogers City about sixteen miles away. Within a mile and a half of their destination the vessel was struck by a squall. This causes the vessel to list, take on water and sink.  Once the boat settled on the bottom her mast reappeared as the water was shallow. The men swam for the mast.  From the water they could see a sawmill filled with workers. The men yelled and waved their shirts for help, the wind taking their voices out to the lake. No one heard. They decided to swim. Keeper Feaben and Surfman Valentine each tried only to return after a few feet due to the frigid water. Captain Joe then made his attempt only to turn around. He was within fifty feet of the ship when he went under never to be seen again. A little while later Keeper Feaben was washed away by the waters. His body was found twenty-three days later washed up on a beach near Rogers City. Surfamn Valentine was eventually seen and rescued. It is said that five dollar bills washed up on the beach for years.

Captain Jerome G. Kiah – distant cousin Jett

Captain Joe’s nephew and my distant cousin, Captain Jerome Kiah was the keeper of the Point Aux Barques Life-Saving Station and the sole survivor of an 1880 disaster.  On April 23, 1880 the J.H. Magruder  was in distress having washed up onto a reef. Captain Kiah and six experienced surfmen oared their way toward the vessel.  The waves were heavier than expected. A wave hit the boat filling her with water. They tried to bail but it was useless. A second wave capsized the boat. The boat was righted several times only to be hit again and capsize. One by one all six surfmen drowned due to  hypothermia. Captain Kiah climbed on top of the boat and lost consciousness from time to time. When conscious he banged his feet and hands and screamed to keep his blood moving. A local farmer heard the screams and went for help. Finding the Life-Saving Station without men or boat he ran a eighth of a mile to get Andrew Shaw the lighthouse keeper. By the time they reached the beach Captain Kiah had made it to shore and was holding onto a root of a dead tree swaying and moving his feet as if walking. His face was black and swollen with froth frozen around his mouth and nose. They walked a mile back to the station with Captain Kiah sandwiched between them. Captain Kiah fell several times and experienced seizures. Left in his wife’s Annette’s care he slowly recovered.

Later that day the lifeless bodies of the surfmen washed ashore. The stranded ship Magruder released her load of lumber and was able to extract herself from the reef and sail to Sand Beach without loss of life.

On June 30, 1880 Captain Kiah resigned feeling mentally and physically traumatized by the event. In October having recovered he accepted the position of Superintendent of the 10th District, after Captain Joe’s death. He was awarded the Gold Life-Saving Medal of the First Class by the Secretary of the Treasury. He retired in 1915.

My family’s history in Michigan seems to have been tragic. I am, however, very proud of their life choices, work ethic, and strength. I rejoice in the fact that they loved the lakes I love so dearly and the state I have chosen to make my home.



  1.  https://www.nps.gov/apis/learn/kidsyouth/upload/LightCurrA.pdf
  2. http://www.michiganlights.com/design.htm
  3. Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1881.,  Washington:Government Printing Office, 1881, pages 59-64.
  4. The Lakeshore Guardian, Point Aux Barques Life-Saving Station Keeper Sole Survivor in 1880 Disaster, Janis Stein, March 2009, pages 1-5.
  5. U.S. Coast Guard, Tales From the Keeper’s Log: Life and Life-Saving at a Life-Saving Station, Debbie Allyn Jett, 2008.