Historic lighthouses in Duluth added to National Register

DuluthTwo historic lighthouses in Duluth were added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) last June. They mark both sides of the entrance to the canal in Duluth, near the famous Aerial Lift Bridge. They are instantly recognizable by anybody who has visited Canal Park and have a proud history.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) applied for NRHP status for the lighthouses in February 2016. These applications describe the buildings and their history in detail.

The Duluth Harbor North Pier Light was built in 1910. It’s a steel conical tower with a black base, white sides, and the lantern area is painted black. It has a red LED lantern in the 37-foot tower that shines (three seconds on/three seconds off) on a focal plane 43 feet above the water. When it’s clear, you can see the “red, right, returning” helper from 16 miles away.

The Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Outer Light was built in 1901. The building is made of white painted bricks with a red roof. The rectangular fog signal building includes a two-story lantern superstructure. The fog signal building housed many different types of horns, but probably the most famous was the Type “F” diaphone signal. It had a very loud and unique voice, but it stopped operating in 2005 when the electrical power supply failed. The fixed green light has a focal plane 44 feet off the water and can be seen 17 miles away. It was designed to work in tandem with the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Inner Light, listed on the NRHP in 1983. That light is 68 feet above the water. It was designed so that sailors would put the taller, white Inner Light directly over the green Outer Light. Then they’d know they were lined up for a safe entry to the canal and under the Aerial Lift Bridge (proud member of the NRHP since 1973).

The North and South Lights are important parts of Duluth’s maritime history, but this listing on the NRHP may just be the beginning of a new chapter. The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) was passed in 2000. This provides for the transfer of lighthouses at “no cost to eligible entities defined as federal agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations, for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes.” According to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association website, if no entity steps up to take ownership, the lighthouse can be offered up for public sale at auction.

Summer sunset over the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Outer Light, North Pier Light, South Breakwater Inner Light, and the Aerial Lift Bridge (left to right), all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. | ERIC CHANDLER

For example, the Duluth Harbor South Breakwater Inner Light was listed on the NRHP in 1983. The USCG made a Notice of Availability (NOA) for that lighthouse in 2007, stating that it was “excess to the needs of the USCG.” No suitable entity took the free lighthouse so it was sold at auction in 2008. In another example, the Superior Harbor South Breakwater Light (also known as the Wisconsin Point Light) was listed on the NRHP in 2007. In 2013, the USCG issued a NOA, putting that lighthouse on the market. They reissued the notice in June 2016, still looking for an organization to take ownership. Presumably, if nobody steps up, it will be put up for sale. Depending on the lighthouse, the lights and signals may still need to operate as federal aids to navigation as a condition of the sale.

According to a 2014 report by the General Services Administration, since the NHLPA passed in 2000, 113 lights have been transferred, 64 percent were taken over by stewardship transfers and 36 percent (41 lights) were sold at an auction, generating $5.6 million. The USCG also benefits by not having to spend money to maintain facilities they no longer need.

It’s exciting to see the two lighthouses getting their historic due. And it will also be interesting to see whether the Coast Guard continues to see them as necessary or decides to give them up.

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