June 2, 1874: Duluth’s original South Breakwater Light burns for the first time

On this day in Duluth in 1874, the light atop the southern pier of the Duluth Ship Canal was lit for the first time. The “lighthouse” was a rather simple affair—a wooden pyramid tower capped with an octagonal cast-iron lantern housing a fifth order Fresnel Lens (a lens developed specifically for navigational lights by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel). The light cast a red beacon visible 12.5 miles away. The Corps of Engineers advertised for proposals to build a beacon on the outer end of the south pier two years earlier. While a small dwelling for the light’s keeper was built on shore, a storm ripped apart the pier’s wooden breakwater, delaying work on the light itself until 1873. Navigators previously had help locating the canal at night from a light that sat atop the north pier, which was removed when the new light was installed. Because the waters of Lake Superior would wash over the wooden piers during stormy weather, an elevated wooden walkway was built to allow lighthouse keepers to reach the light when the waves were high. The lighthouse’s first keeper was one-armed Civil War veteran Ernie Jefferson, for whom Duluth’s Jefferson Street is named. His successor in 1888 was James Prior, who became the first keeper of the new South Breakwater Light built in 1901. One of Prior’s assistants was Thomas White, who later served as an operator on Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge; White tragically died while working on the bridge.

Duluth’s original South breakwater Light. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)