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The Rock of Ages Light is a U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse on a small rock outcropping ( X ) approximately miles west of Washington Island and west of Isle Royalemarker, in Keweenaw County, Michiganmarker (see map below). it is an active aid to navigation.



The period between 1852 and the beginning of the Twentieth Century saw great activity on the Great Lakesmarker by the United States Lighthouse Board. Between 1852 and 1860 26 new lights were built. Even as the United States Civil War and its aftermath slowed construction, a dozen new lights were still lit in that decade. In the 1870s, 43 new lights were built on the Lakes. The 1880s saw more than one hundred lights constructed.

As the new century began, on the Great Lakes the Lighthouse Board operated 334 major lights, 67 fog horns and 563 buoys.

During the nineteenth century design of Great Lakes lights slowly evolved. Until 1870 the most common design was to build a keeper's dwelling with the light on the dwelling's roof or on a relatively small square tower attached to the house. In the 1870's, so as to raise lights to a higher focal plane, conical brick towers, usually between eighty to one hundred feet tall were constructed. In the 1890s steel lined towers began to replace the older generation of brick building. See Big Sable Point Lightmarker for a striking transition and transformation.

The Rock of Ages Light was part of a forty year effort -- between 1870 and 1910 -- where engineers began to build lights on isolated islands, reefs, and shoals that were significant navigational hazards. To that time, Light ships were the only practical way to mark the hazards, but were dangerous for the sailors who manned them, and difficult to maintain. "Worse, regardless of the type of anchors used lightships could be blown off their expected location in severe storms, making them a potential liability in the worst weather when captains would depend on the charted location of these lights to measure their own ship's distance from dangerous rocks." See, United States lightship Huron .

Successively, using underwater crib designs, the Board built on a shoal the Waugoshance Lightmarker (1851), and demonstrated a "new level of expertise" in constructing of the Spectacle Reef Lightmarker (1874), Stannard Rock Lightmarker (1882) and Detroit River marker (also known as the Detroit River Entrance Light) (1885). "The long and expensive process of building lights" in remote and difficult sites "ended in nationally publicized engineering projects that constructed" Rock of Ages (1908) and the White Shoal (1910) lights.

In the first three decades of the twentieth century the Lighthouse Board and the new Lighthouse Service continued to build new lights on the Great Lakes. For 1925, the Board had under its auspices around the Great Lakes: 433 major lights; ten lightships; 129 fog signals; and about 1,000 buoys. Of these 1,771 navigational aids, 160 stations had resident keepers, as most navigational aids were automated. By 1925 nearly all of the Great Lakes lighthouses that today exist -- excepting e.g., Milwaukee Breakwater Lightmarker (1926), Poe Reef Lightmarker and Gravelly Shoal Lightmarker and some memorial lights, namely Manning Memorial Lightmarker, Another is the William Livingtone Memorial Light and the latest Great Lakes light, namely Tri-Centennial Light of Detroit -- had been constructed.

Wrecks of the Cumberland and the Chisholm

The Rock of Ages reef consists of outcroppings of rocks, west of Isle Royale, that are an imminent hazard to navigation. Several wrecks occurred on the reef prior to the construction of the lighthouse.

The Cumberland was a side-wheeled steamer that was built in Canada in 1872 for $100,000. She operated between Georgian Baymarker and Duluth, Minnesotamarker. In July 1877, she sailed from Port Arthur, Ontariomarker for Duluth. In clear weather, she ran into the reef under steam. Effort to pull the ship from the rocks failed. On August 6, 1877, the ship was abandoned. Later that month, she broke in two and sunk in nearby waters.

On October 18, 1898, the Henry Chisolm, which was built in Cleveland, Ohiomarker in 1880, ran on the rocks while steaming at . Salvage vessels could not save the ship. She broke up in a storm at the end of October. She sank on top of the wreck of Cumberland.

Rock of Ages Light

In 1908, construction began on the lighthouse. The construction crew established a base at Washington Harbor and used the lighthouse tender Amaranth to ferry men and materials to the site. A section of a rock was blasted to provide a flat area for the foundation. A steel cylindrical wall was erected and filled with concrete to give a pier that was in diameter and tall. The skeleton of the tower was built from steel. The inner and outer walls of the tower were constructed of brick. The concrete floors were supported on radial steel beams. The spiral stairs were cast iron. When the tower was enclosed, a bunkhouse, mess hall, and galley were built on a timber platform on the rock. The lighthouse was lit in 1908 with a temporary light.

In 1910, a second-order Fresnel made by Barbier, Benard & Turenne was purchased and installed. The lens floated in a mercury bath to provide very low turning friction. These massive lenses are high, with a focal length of . It weighed . Relative to a sixth-order Fresnel, it was 11.54 brighter, and would have a useful range of up to . Hourly oil consumption was 17 1/5 ounces. Similar lights were installed at Grosse Point Lightmarker and White Shoal Lightmarker.

A crew of lighthouse keepers was landed on the station each spring at the beginning of the shipping season, stayed the entire shipping season, and left in the fall. The remoteness and inaccessaabiity of the light made provisioning it especially burdensome and risky. At the end of one season, the crew's food was down to a single can of tomatoes when they were evacuated. Consequently, the lighthouse service took special precautions to make sure those dire straits would not recur.

The structure of this light is unusual. The caisson which forms the first level is 25 feet high and contains a two-story cellar. From the bedrock up, a central steel core runs through the center of the structure and is its main support. Although "unique, . . . it bears some resemblance to the 1893 Chicago Harbor Lightmarker."

Part of the reason for the closing of the Rock Harbor Light station was the 1875 establishment of the Isle Royale Lightmarker on Menagerie Island. Shortly therafter, a third light station was erected in the Isle Royale area -- Passage Island Lightmarker lit on July 1, 1882.

The light was automated in 1978, which ended 68 years of service by light keepers. In 1985, the Fresnel lens was replaced when the light was powered by solar energy.

The original Fresnel Lens is on exhibit at the Windigo Information Stationmarker harbor and Isle Royale National Parkmarker ranger station located close to the western end of Isle Royale., and seeing the lens is said to be 'worth the trip.'

The design is "similar to that of the offshore sparkplug towers," but taller." It is in form a close cousin to the Chicago Harbor Lightmarker, which is its contemporary.

George M.
Cox in happier days as the Puritan.

Wreck of the George M. Cox

The George M. Cox was a steamer that was built in 1901 and christened the SS Puritan. This ship served briefly in the U.S. Navy to transport troops back home at the conclusion of World War I. In 1933, she was purchased by George Cox and renamed the George M. Cox. On a cruise of Lake Superior with a contingent of special guests, she struck the reef in the fog near the Rock Ages of Light on May 27 1933. The 127 passengers and crew were rescued and spent the night in the crowded lighthouse and the surrounding rocks. Being unsalvageable, the ship remained on the rocks until the ship was broken up in an October storm. It sunk near the wrecks of the Cumberland and the Chisholm.

National Register of Historic Places

The Rock of Ages Light Station was named to the National Register of Historic Places on August 04 1983, No. 83000881. It was one of the Michigan lighthouses discussed in U.S. Coast Guard Lighthouses and Light Stations on the Great Lakes TR. It is also listed as a national Historic American Building Site, MI-388 (WASO), because it was a "major engineering feat in an isolated location. HABS/HAER Documentation is available: MI-388 (WASO).

The wrecks of the Cumberland, the Chisholm, and the George M. Cox were independently named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Viewing the Light

The tower has an array of weather instruments, which is a NOAA C-MAN station. Real time weather station readouts are available here.

The tower is closed. It may only be accessed by boat. However, it may be viewed from ferries to Isle Royale from Grand Portage, Minnesotamarker, or from Keweenaw Excursions boat tours.Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Line has two boats that offer service to Isle Royale National Park. The Wenonah travels daily between Grand Portage, Minnesotamarker to Windigo, on the western end of Isle Royale. The Voyageur II makes overnight trips. The Lighthouse is visible from either boat, which operate during the summer season.


  1. Lighthouse Central, Rock of Ages light, The Ultimate Guide to Upper Michigan Lighthouses by Jerry Roach.. (Publisher: Bugs Publishing LLC - 2007). ISBN 978-0-9747977-2-4.
  2. Beacons in the Night, Clarke Historical Library. Central Michigan University.
  3. Hyde, Charles K., and Ann and John Mahan. The Northern Lights: Lighthouses of the Upper Great Lakes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. ISBN 0814325548 ISBN 9780814325544.
  4. Wobser, David, Manning Memorial Light, at
  5. Lighthouse Central, Photographs, History, Directions and Way points for Robert H. Manning Memorial Light, The Ultimate Guide to West Michigan Lighthouses by Jerry Roach (Publisher: Bugs Publishing LLC - 2005). ISBN 0-9747977-0-7.
  6. Second Order Fresnel lens, Terry Pepper, Seeing the Light.
  7. Putnam, George R., Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933), pp. 157-158.
  8. Interactive map on Michigan lighthouses. Detroit News
  9. Rowlett, Russ, Lighthouse Directory, Michigan Upper Peninsula lights, including Rock of Ages Light. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
  10. Wobser, David, "Rock of Ages Light" Great Laker magazine (December, 2004),
  11. Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy, Rock of Ages Lighthouse, Isle Royal (sic), Michigan. Lake Superior.
  12. See, Rowlett, Russ Lighthouse Directory, Illinois lighthouses, including Chicago Harbor Light. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  13. National Register of Historic Places
  14. U.S. Coast Guard Lighthouses and Light Stations on the Great Lakes TR
  15. National Park Service , Maritime Heritage Program, Inventory of Historic Lighthouses, Rock of Ages Light.
  16. Rock of Ages Lighthouse, Survey number HABS MI-388, Historic American Buildings Survey
  17. Isle Royale Boats, including schedules and fees.
  18. Grand Portage to Isle Royale -- The North Shore Connection to Isle Royale.
  19. Anderson, Kraig, Lighthouse Friends, Rock of Ages Lighthouse.

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Further reading

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