Spectacle Reef Light Station --1953 

By Alfred E. Schreiber 

Here as an article that will appeal to all of the romantics who would love to live on a lighthouse.

"It was a dark and stormy night"..seems appropriate to begin my tale of a lonely tenure on Spectacle Reef Light Station, located in the straits of the waterway connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. It was the year of 1953 that the U.S. Coast Guard sent me to Cheboygan, Michigan in the cold days of March to man Spectacle Reef LS. The lighthouse was situated on a Spectacle shaped reef in about 12 feet of water. The adjacent waters were so clear that the entire area of the reef could be distinguished viewing from the lantern room deck. A concrete "crib" formed the base of the lighthouse. The gray tower had a painted dull red steel building attached, that housed the machinery. A separate dull red steel building housed the station boat. On diagonal corners a steel girder crane was located. The crane was operated from the lighthouse building ,via the use of fairleads. The station boat rested on a steel cradle with wheels. This allowed the boat to be manhandled into the boathouse.

Home On The Range

The location of the light in the straits was such that no vessels were observed passing,, being out of the usual shipping lane.

Another lighthouse in the area was St. Martins Reef LS to the north near the upper peninsula of Michigan. It was too far distant from Spectacle Reef to see visually. Cheboygan lay ten miles to the west by boat from Spectacle Reef LS.

When I arrived at Cheboygan, I boarded the station boat awaiting me. The boat was manned by the civilian keeper who informed me he was retiring April 1st, and this was his last trip out to the lighthouse. Motoring out to the station, the lighthouse came into view, and as we neared after a two hour trip (lighthouse boats were notoriously slow) the grim gray tower, 150' feet above the water looked foreboding and forlorn. The tower anchored on a 90 foot square concrete platform or crib. The red outbuilding loomed overhead as we came alongside. The man on deck lowered the hook and we coupled on. One man had to stay in the boat to fend it off while raising it. The second man stood at the crib edge to direct the man in the machinery room operating the winch, who could not see the hoisting operation. I was to learn later how dangerous this operation was with seas running high and only two men on the lighthouse and one in the boat. 

The boat was nested on the boat cradle and lashed down. The cradle was not moved to the boathouse, but left at the hoisting station. The cradle could be fairlead into the boathouse on the far side of the light tower but involved considerable work. Suffice to say that the boat spent very few days in the boathouse. Many an anxious day was spent when a summer storm arose, the crib deck washed with wave and foam, and the boat cradle lashed in the open! To late to house. Fortunately summer storms were kind to the boat, in this position.

The machinery room contained an oil fired boiler for heat. Three Kohler generators for electricity. A Harnisfeger Diesel driven air compressor for the fog horn, and to operate the winch. Air receivers, two typhon fog horns, a toilet and shower room. An electric pump took water suction from one side of the crib and the toilet discharged on the other! The concrete crib was hollow, and contained two diesel tanks, gasoline tanks, and an estimated 50 ton of coal. A steel grate covered the access to the interior.

The tower was accessed with a steel stairway to the first floor. This largest round room contained the refrigerator, a desk, chair, and the radio receiver. The next deck up contained the galley, which had a stove, a table, a small food locker, and two chairs. Next up contained the head keepers bunk, locker, and chair. Remember as we go up the rooms get smaller. Next up contained a double decker bunk, lockers, and chair. Next up, the same. Climbing through a hatch, access to the lantern room is attained. The enormous rotating 1st order lens loomed above. The lens sat on a rotating table. A gleaming brass clockwork rotated the lens. The clockwork was powered by a free falling weight that traveled down a chute or flue. The clock had to be wound by hand, every four hours. As it was wound the weight would rattle in the flue. It was positioned near the keepers head as slept in his bunk. The huge lens required a ladder to polish the brass and clean the prisms. The 1000 watt bulb looked puny, on its table in the center of the lens. Large red glass panes were hung alternately around the lens to give it its distinctive identification characteristic. In times past, the lens was equiped with an oil lamp. Thank God for progress! Shades were drawn whenever the light was extinguished to protect prisms from the suns rays. The brass required constant polishing, who knows when an inspector would drop in! I doubt if the gleaming brass aided the optics of the light.

The personnel assigned to the lighthouse consisted of four men. Three men on duty and one man ashore on leave. This allowed a schedule of 24 days on duty and six days off. All worked well as long as the weather cooperated and relief could be made on the appointed day. Like as not the weather turned nasty and great endurance and seamanship effected a transfer of men, groceries, and mail. Sometimes the weather would delay relief a few days to the consternation of the man going ashore and the delight of the man coming aboard. The lost days were just that, to keep the schedule true.. Some hardy souls elected to stay aboard for 48 days, thereby assuring 12 days ashore. The trip ashore was no picnic, with summer fog, rough seas, and returning was worse, trying to find the lighthouse, in a fog, or trying to pick up the boat in high seas. 

The Coast Guard allowed a dollar amount per day for rations, paid monthly on ones paycheck. How they arrived at the figure shall always be a mystery to me. It varied month to month. Four men ran a tab at the local grocery store, and at payday would divide it by four. 

Cigarettes and candy were the mans responsibility. These were the most trying times for the keeper, and where he showed his leadership ability in keeping the peace. Arguments about the tab, extras, and sometimes unable or unwilling to pay, caused stern decisions to be made. If any of four personalities lived in a confined space for 24 days and endured real and imagined personality clashes and endured, the day the grocery bill was reckoned was the day for trouble to break out. The second worst confrontations concerned meals. It not only required each man to be a cook, but to be able to cook something on hand and what each man liked. The man on first watch was required to cook that day. The other man or men, did the dishes. In practicality it evolved that the best cook did the honors most of the time. But the times of temper and frustrations usually manifested themselves at mealtime. Fortunately this wasn't to often.

Eight hour watches were assigned, and these watches were dogged every Sunday. The man on watch was responsible for the boiler, fog signal, ,generators, and would wind the clockwork every four hours when the light was flashing. At night the weight clanking up the flue as the clockwork was wound would waken all who slept. The radiotelephone was the only communication ashore. At 0800 and 1600 hours contact would be made with the group command at Cheboygan, and all pertinent orders were passed. The keeper would request permission to send the boat ashore for relief and groceries. Atmospheric conditions were bad most of the time and a tedious and sometimes humorous message exchange would occur. The grocery list was given item by item over the air, to be given to the grocer. The grocer would then deliver the order to the dock for further transportation to the lighthouse. It had to be well coordinated because of perishables and the two hour ride out .Sometimes due to poor communication, the strangest articles would appear in the grocery basket. Communications were so poor in the area that a common radio broadcast, would fade out, and another program arise It was very frustrating to listen to a ball game only to have it fade out in the middle innings! No amount of tuning would bring the station back. All local radio stations went off the air at sundown. At night the only stations one could get were shrimp boats talking in the Gulf of Mexico. Of course there were no television or telephones aboard. 

The tower and crib made the strangest noises at night, the wind blowing, causing a strange phenomena in the machinery room. In the deck was a steel grating over the black hole of the coal bin. Even though the generators would hum loudly, soft moans could be heard through the grate. Each Keeper would pass on to a new man that a keeper long ago had disappeared in the bin while digging coal. Now he would moan and groan and call for help when the fog was thick and the night dark. In order to visit the toilet, a man had to walk across this grate. A cold damp breeze would well up as he crossed and catch him scurrying as goose bumps would prickle him. Shipping passed at a distance, no one visited, and boredom overcame all who tended the light. Rain and fog especially, could last for a week until the fog horn was like a annoying resonance in ones head, fraying nerves, and making tempers short. On fair days, the water looked tempting to swim in, but the 50 degree temperature wasn't inviting. Time was passed looking over the edge of the crib for fish, none were seen due to the plague of lamprey eels that year. Time was passed by doing lighthouse chores. Chipping and painting the steel house, and boathouse.

One of the major events of life on the reef was a severe storm, especially in early spring or late fall. Ice forms quickly from the fresh water waves pounding over the concrete crib and spraying the gray stone tower. One had to be extremely careful not to slip and fall on the ice and fall overboard into the icy water. There was no one to come to the rescue. Also the operation of the boat was risky. Usually two men rode the boat down to the water and unhooked from the crane. Then motored the two hours to shore with no lee. Sometimes due to the absence of personnel, one man did this disagreeable task. At any rate sometimes there was only one man on the light or running the boat ashore.. Because there was always one man on leave, the run to shore and back was very dangerous. 

That brings to mind a religious keeper on St. Martins Reef near the upper Michigan shore, and another half hour out. On Sunday he would lower the boat and go to church in Cheboygan, then after service, would motor back out, alone. Evidently he prayed for his men who stayed aboard while he was gone.

The keeper had retired as planned, and I became Officer in Charge on April 1st. As late fall approached the weather turned for the worse, and crew changes were more difficult to make. The fog seemed to come daily, and the constant blowing of the fog horn was irritating. Ice began to form on the crib and footing became treacherous. Each man counted the remaining days, and agreed to stay beyond their relief days, until closing December 15th. As that day approached each man prayed for good weather. The equipment was winterized, the steel shutters closed. Two acetylene cylinders were hoisted to the catwalk around the light. A small lantern was affixed and lit. We readied our personal gear and awaited our relief.

The Coast Guard bouy tender approached the reef and sent their small boat over. All the keepers boarded the boat and went to the tender without a look back. As the tender raised her boat and departed for Cheboygan, the grim gray tower was completely silent again, except maybe, for the moaning ,groaning of the coal bin.

Alfred E. Schreiber EN1 was the Keeper in 1953 His email address is aeschre@cs.com


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