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Engineered to endure: the Great Lakes lighthouses of Orlando Poe.

The Civil War dealt a serious blow to the United States' lighthouse system. Though the government had created a lighthouse board in 1 852, for the purpose of improving the ways that aids to navigation were created and maintained, the 1861-65 conflict required that all work be suspended. And valuable financial resources that had been assigned to light stations were directed elsewhere.

When Johnny finally came marching home, there was much work to be done at these stations and many new ones to be built--particularly in the Great Lakes region. Orlando Poe was just the man to do it.

Born in Navarre, Ohio in 1832, Orlando Metcalfe Poe graduated sixth in his West Point class of 1856 with an engineering background. As one of the top seven graduates, he could select which military branch he would serve in. Poe chose the respected topographical engineers, who, in wartime, were responsible for surveying and mapping enemy positions and movements. In peacetime, however, they were more like modern civil engineers, engaged in such functions as bridge building or charting rivers, lakes, and harbors.

Poe was sent to Detroit shortly after graduation, where he was assigned to the ongoing Great Lakes Survey. That study was begun in 1841, with the intent of developing navigational charts for mariners and improving those areas that would enhance lake commerce. It was during his 1856-1860 service that Poe met his future wife, setting the stage for Detroit to become their adopted hometown for the remainder of their lives.

Poe served the Union cause from day one during the Civil War years. Initially a staff officer for General George McClellan in Ohio, Poe was soon offered the colonelcy of the Second Michigan Infantry in September 1861. He led that unit into the 1862 Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, until illness forced him home in June of that year. He returned to the Second Michigan in time for the Second Bull Run campaign, where he was also given field command of his regiments brigade. After his presidential appointment to brigadier general was rejected by Congress in March 1863, Poe was sent west to become chief engineer for General Ambrose Burnside.

Once in the region, Poe's engineering talents came to the fore. His design of Fort Sanders at Knoxville, Tennessee enabled the outgunned Union defenders of that bastion to decisively repel a Confederate force of superior numbers in November 1863. This accomplishment culminated in Poe earning considerable praise from both Burnside and the press.

Due to Poe's heroics in Tennessee and a shortage of qualified engineers, General William T. Sherman selected Poe to be his chief engineer for what became the 1864 Atlanta campaign. It was Poe who, acting under Sherman's orders, oversaw the burning of Atlanta and then the building of immense numbers of bridges and corduroy roads during the western theater's final 1864-65 campaigns in Georgia and the Carolinas.

Immediately following the war's conclusion, Poe was granted the position of engineer secretary for the Lighthouse Board. This position required him and his family to live in Washington, D.C., with the occasional field inspection trip. His responsibilities included preparation or oversight of the plans, specifications, and cost estimates for various lighting equipment. In addition, he oversaw the construction and repair of all towers and buildings connected with the lighthouse establishment.

By spring 1870, Poe's service as engineer secretary was coming to an end. Earlier that year, he had been offered a coveted position on the staff of his mentor, Sherman, now General of the Army. Poe declined, however, as he and his wife were more than ready to leave Washington politics and return to family and friends in Detroit. Instead, he accepted a promotion to chief army engineer of the Upper Lakes Lighthouse District. It was a territory that included parts of the Detroit River, along with lakes Saint Clair, Huron, Michigan, and Superior.

Poe's district was immense, and featured 82 active lighthouses and lighted beacons. In this new position, he was responsible for maintenance to existing lights and towers, new construction, and oversight of the various harbor and river projects in eastern Michigan, as well as on the St. Marys River in the Upper Peninsula. Additionally, he was required to issue an annual report with recommendations for locations of new lighthouses.

Spectacle Reef

Poe's most intimidating mission was building a new light in Lake Huron, at a deadly point known as Spectacle Reef. I he reef was more than 10 miles from the nearest island--Bois Blanc--and 17 miles from the mainland. Its distinguishing feature was two rocky projections that rose to just seven feet below the surface. Looked at from above, the deadly reef gave the appearance of a giant pair of eyeglasses, thus earning its identifying name.

The reef was a sailor's nightmare, as it was easily capable of slicing through the hull of any ship that sailed too near. One disaster after another convinced the Lighthouse Board that an offshore tower was required. Asserting that the reef was "probably more dreaded by navigators than any other danger now unmarked throughout the entire chain of lakes," Congress agreed in 1869 to the board's request for the then-princely sum of $300,000 for construction costs.

The work began in 1870, with Poe overseeing the design and construction team. Offshore lights had been built before, but never in an area where weather would be such an issue. Lake Huron's ice floes often grew to two feet thick and covered thousands of acres. Strong winds generated waves that could easily move those floes and pound any man-made creation into rubble within a few seasons. To combat that enemy, Poe and his team designed a protective pier and inner base that consisted of interlocking blocks of stone measuring two feet thick. The base and the bottom 30 feet of the tower were built in such a manner as to become one solid mass of stone.

As work progressed, nature continued to be Poe's biggest enemy. Winter and its attendant ice naturally halted all work, while damage from gales during the shipping season was also a threat. When the Spectacle Reef light was finally illuminated on June 1, 1874, the finished tower stood 93 feet tall and its base measured 32 feet in diameter. At a final cost of $400,000, it was one of the most expensive lighthouses ever built in the United States.

New Presque Isle

While Poe was supervising the work at Spectacle Reef, he began plans for a new light at Presque Isle, a T-shaped strip of land on the Lake Huron coastline between Rogers City and Alpena.

Prior to 1870, most light stations consisted of a keeper's cottage with a short tower jutting up out of the roof or side of the cottage. But Poe's 109-foot-tall design for Presque Isle-- almost 20 feet in diameter at the base, gently sloping inward to about 12 feet at the top--broke that mold. The gallery was supported by corbels (structural brackets), and each of the four windows featured a rounded arch. These elegant, Italianate elements distinguished what would later be called the "Poe style" of lighthouses.

A relatively small residence, one-and-a-half stories high and just 31 feet square, was attached to the tower by a covered passageway.

South Manitou Island

Not for any grand artistic vision, but rather to save money, Poe reused the tower design from Presque Isle at South Manitou Island, part of the Beaver Archipelago off Lake Michigan's northeastern coast.

South Manitou already had a tower, built in 1858 atop a brick keepers cottage. But its light was considered too dim and insufficient to guide the lake traffic passing by its beam. The district's previous engineer called for a replacement from the Lighthouse Board, but Poe went further in his recommendation: "The importance of his station demands even a better light than proposed.. .with a lens of the Third Order." Poe's comments prompted an appeal for additional funds, which Congress granted in March 1871. Construction began at South Manitou a few months later.

A 65-foot tapered tower was erected on the site. In a cost-saving move, the keeper's cottage was reused.

Grosse Point

Poe's next design project was the Grosse Point Lighthouse, located about 13 miles north of Chicago on Lake Michigan's southwestern coast. The point was a key landmark for lumber ships heading south to rebuild Chicago, which had been mostly destroyed by its great fire of 1871. Work on the light commenced in September 1872, but various delays prompted a stoppage in November. Construction ramped up the following April and was finished on March 1, 1874. At 113 feet, this tower was the tallest to carry Poe's imprint, and only the second (after Spectacle Reef) to feature a second order Fresnel lens. The adjacent keeper's house was also his biggest, designed as a duplex with matching wings.

Outer Island and Au Sable

Two more Poe lighthouses were built in 1874; these were situated at opposite ends of Lake Superior. The first--at Outer Island--was constructed on a high bluff at the most remote point of Wisconsin's Apostle Islands chain, to guide ships past the archipelago to the rapidly growing ports of Duluth and Superior. A two-and-a-half-story brick house with clipped gables provided a substantial shelter to keepers and assistants who staffed the station.

The second light was erected at Big Sable Point, later known as Au Sable, near Grand Marais, Michigan. For years, no light existed along the 80-mile stretch of Lake Superior shoreline between Grand Island and Whitefish Point. Considered one of the most picturesque areas along the Great Lakes, it was also known as "the shipwreck coast" to 19th-century mariners. "In all navigation of Lake Superior, there is none more dreaded by the mariner," wrote a reporter for the Marquette Mining Journal.

At Poe's direction, the Au Sable light station followed the same general plan as that of Outer Island; the two towers were only a foot different in height and the keeper's residences were identical.

Little Sable Point

The last of Poe's 1874 lighthouses was erected at Petite Pointe Au Sable on Lake Michigan's eastern coast. Merchants serving the lumber trade had lobbied for one at that location for years, and when Poe visited the area in 1872, he fully concurred. However, building what would become known as the Little Sable Point lighthouse would prove to be a daunting task, since the location of the tower was a world away from the nearest supply base, with no roads leading to the site. Virtually all men and materiel had to be brought in via Lake Michigan.

Initial construction began in April 1873, with Poe's plans calling for 109 one-foot diameter pilings to be driven to a depth of nine feet below ground in order to form a solid base within the sandy soil. When the slender red brick tower was finished in time for the 1874 shipping season, it stood 107 feet tall and boasted a third order lens installed on a rotatable raceway. The corresponding keeper's quarters mirrored those at Outer Island and Au Sable.

Poe had shown himself to be a very busy man in the post-Civil War period. In addition to personally designing and overseeing the construction of seven lighthouses, his duties had extended far beyond those particular lights. During his few years in Michigan, Poe had been responsible for the oversight of more than 100 working lighthouses, another 13 that were in the appropriations or construction process, seven lightships, three tenders (including one named for him), and close to 100 buoys. Now it was time for another change.

In late 1872, Poe's old superior again came calling with an offer to join him in Washington. Sherman was still the Army's highest-ranking officer, and a position on his staff brought with it enhanced pay and the public recognition that Poe desired. Poe accepted the offer, but asked Sherman if he might stay in the field a bit longer to finish up the ongoing work at Spectacle Reef and planning for a new lock along the St. Marys River Canal. "It would be very hard for me to turn my back upon some of my works here which are now almost like children to me," he admitted. Sherman readily agreed, with the understanding that Poe would report for his new duty by May 1, 1873.

Despite his elevation to Sherman's staff, Poe retained his relationship with the Lighthouse Board. He oversaw the completion of the towers he had designed while chief engineer and served as a member of the governing body for the next 10 years. Among his accomplishments during this period was the 1880 construction of the 108-foot-tall Wind Point light at Racine, Wisconsin on Lake Michigan's western shore.

Following Sherman's retirement in 1884, Poe returned to Michigan as superintendent of iron and harbor works for the Great Lakes region. His overarching mission was to ensure that waterways were wide and deep enough to handle the ever-increasing freight. It was a duty that included design and construction oversight of the then-largest shipping lock in the world, at Sault Ste. Marie. This engineering achievement would be named "Poe Lock" in honor of its creator.

Though Poe had not been actively engaged in lighthouse design for more than two decades, he was called upon in 1892 to revive a foundering lighthouse project at Seul Choix Pointe, near Gulliver on Lake Michigan's northern coast. His review of the project revealed poor planning and questionable accounting practices. Additionally, what construction had begun was compromised by shoddy materials. Poe was forced to scrap the entire project and start over, all the while requesting an additional $ 11,000 to see the project through. When the appropriation request stalled in Congress, the engineer identified funds that had been set aside but not yet used by the lighthouse district. These monies were enough to get Seul Choix restarted and completed in the fall of 1895.

Weeks later, Orlando M. Poe passed away at his Detroit home at the age of 63, succumbing to an infection contracted during his work at the Sault. For his service to the country, in wartime and peace, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Though 140-plus years have passed since Poe began his lighthouse design career, all of the beacons he created are still standing tall as symbols of safety for mariners and working monuments to a man of rare vision.


Southwest of Spectacle Reef, the site of Orlando Poe's crowning achievement in lighthouse design, sits another hazard that can impede lake traffic. Once marked by lightships to warn sailors of its presence, Poe Reef-- which lies just eight feet below the surface--was finally surmounted by a lighthouse in 1929.

Builders of the four-story concrete structure used many of the off-shore construction techniques developed by Poe in the 1 870s. In 2013, this lighthouse was deemed excess inventory by the U.S. General Services Administration and offered to eligible governments, nonprofit corporations, historic preservation groups, and community development organizations.


In 1871, Orlando Poe undertook the design of his district's lighthouse depot, located at the foot of Mt. Elliott Street on the Detroit River. The depot--housed in a red-brick building three stories high, reminiscent of his keeper's quarters for the Grosse Point (IL) light--served as a storage facility for the many needs of lighthouses and lightships, including illuminating oil, fuel, buoys, lenses, and other equipment.

After it was no longer needed for its original purpose, the depot was used as a U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, but has since been transferred to the city of Detroit for potential use.

Paul Taylor is the author of six books pertaining to the Civil War era, including "Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer" and "'Old Slow Town': Detroit during the Civil War. "
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Author:Taylor, Paul
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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