Duluth’s North Pier Lighthouse

Duluth’s North Pier Lighthouse. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

The great storm of 1905, aka the Mataafa Storm, proved a point the Lake Carrier’s Association—owners of the Great Lakes commercial shipping fleets—had been making for years: Since the canal was only three hundred feet wide, the South Pier Light wasn’t sufficient for mariners to guide their craft at night or in foggy weather, even with the help of the Rear Range Light. Too far south and a ship would run into the pier; too far north and it would beach on the rocky shore. The LCA made repeated pleas to the Lighthouse Board to build a light but were turned down time after time. Frustration led the organization to place a temporary light at the end of the North Pier in 1908.
A year later, the Lighthouse Board called the Duluth Harbor “one of the worst and most dangerous on the whole chain of [Great] Lakes.” The report—along with the evidence from 1905’s Mataafa Storm—bolstered the LCA’s argument and Congress appropriated funds to build a lighthouse.

Building began in late 1909 and finished after the opening of the 1910 shipping season. An iron tower enclosed by steel plates, the North Pier Light stands thirty-seven feet tall, measures ten-and-a-half feet in diameter at its base, and tapers to a diameter of eight feet at the top. An octagonal cast-iron lantern holds a Fifth Order Fresnel lens made in Paris in 1881, originally illuminated by a 210-candlepower incandescent electric lamp. In clear conditions, the light can be seen eleven miles away. Keepers first displayed it the night of April 7, 1910.

Because the South Breakwater Light was red, the North Pier’s Light was initially white—and that part of town didn’t need any more red lights. In 1901 the steamer Harlem nearly beached itself against Minnesota Point because the captain mistook the red lights of Duluth’s notorious St. Croix District, home to brothels, as the ship canal’s navigational lights. The ferry Estelle warned the Harlem’s captain, who was able to veer his vessel out of danger at the last moment, just missing the canal’s newly built concrete north pier. The paper reported that three red lights could be seen from the water, one a switch light, another on a saloon at Buchanan Street and St. Croix Avenue, and the third “on a brick building occupied by some…sirens” (“siren” was then a popular euphemism for prostitute). Apparently the captain thought that the saloon on Buchanan Street was the south pier of the canal. A few months earlier the steamer Sir Henry Bessemer nearly grounded for the same reason, and a few days after that the Charles Maples did beach itself because of the lights. The newspaper suggested that if “saloons and houses of ill repute use colored lights, they should be required to use green ones.”

Later, as prostitution cleared out of the district, both lights changed to more navigationally appropriate colors, the South Breakwater Light to green and the North Pier Light to red, allowing skippers to more easily identify the canal’s entrance.
The 1905 storm, particularly the grounding of the Mediera at Gold Rock, also spurred the Lighthouse Board to appropriate funds for another navigational beam just north of the Split Rock River. Now owned by the Minnesota Historical Society, the Split Rock Lighthouse is one of the most visited historic sites in the state.

While all have been rendered obsolete, the three historic navigational lights located on the Duluth Ship Canal appear on the National Register of Historic Places and each has become eligible to be transferred at no cost to another public agency or nonprofit through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The Rear Range Light was sold in 2008. The South Breakwater Outer Light became available in 2016 and the North Pier Light in May 2021. If no qualified custodial organization claims them, the lighthouses will be auctioned off.