Written by Walter T. Ham IV
Welcome to the loneliest place on Earth.
Located in the middle of Lake Superior, more than 24 miles from anywhere, the Stannard Rock Light is further from shore than any other lighthouse in the United States.
The remote lighthouse was home to many U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse keepers who spent weeks biding their time on the rock and keeping the light shinning until it was automated in 1962.
Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, Stannard Rock was transferred to the Superior Watershed Partnership for Great Lakes in September 2015. The Marquette, Michigan-based partnership works on climate research with American and Canadian agencies, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The 110-foot-tall sandstone lighthouse is one of nine lights with an elevator named after it in U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The lighthouse’s Second Order Fresnel lens is featured in the Marquette, Michigan, Maritime Museum.
“Stannard Rock’s lens display is the primary focus of our main exhibit hall and takes up a large portion of that space,” said Kurt Fosburg, vice president of the museum, which hosts more than 10,000 visitors every year between May and October.
A lighthouse lampist who has worked on more than 60 lamps, Fosburg said the lighthouse was built to mark an uncharted hazard discovered by Capt. Charles C. Stannard from the American Fur Company in 1835. The rock rises hundreds of feet from lake bed near the shipping lane between Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Duluth, Minnesota.
Construction workers took five years to build the lighthouse in the middle of Lake Superior and the National Park Service named it one of the top ten engineering feats in American history.
The lighthouse is in waters covered by the 9th Coast Guard District in Cleveland. The command ensures the safety, security and stewardship of the Great Lakes.
Safeguarding mariners and enabling commerce, the 9th District maintains and regulates more than 5,500 federal and private aids to navigation. More than of a third of its aids are seasonal aids that have to be removed every fall and replaced every spring to minimize damage from ice and severe weather.
The district employs six Coast Guard cutters, six Aids to Navigation Teams and one station ANT. These cutters and teams are based in Detroit; Port Huron, Michigan; Cheboygan, Michigan; Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Saginaw River, Michigan; Muskegon, Michigan; Duluth, Minnesota; Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin; Two Rivers, Wisconsin; and Buffalo, New York.
The 9th District’s navigational aids are among the U.S. Coast Guard’s more than 48,000 ATON, including buoys, beacons, ranges, sound signals and electronic aids that mark the 25,000 miles of waterways in the U.S. Marine Transportation System, or MTS.
Connecting eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, nearly 40 tribal nations and several major metropolitan areas, the Great Lakes are some of the busiest waterways in the U.S. MTS.
Living up to their name, the Great Lakes are bordered by more than 6,700 miles of shoreline, the distance of a round trip from Miami to Seattle. The lakes also contain 84 percent of North America’s fresh water and 21 percent of the world’s supply.
Approximately 4,000 ships on international voyages, colloquially known as “Salties,” pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway every year and call on Great Lakes ports. The seaway connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and markets around the world
The Great Lakes are also heavily traveled by U.S. and Canadian commercial and recreational vessels.
“Commercial shipping traffic on the Great Lakes mainly consists of large freighters, called ‘Lakers,’ which carry grain, coal, iron ore and other cargo,” said Chief Petty Officer Scott Lenz, officer in charge of Duluth ANT. Steel for the U.S. auto industry is shipped across the Great Lakes to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois – five of the top U.S. auto manufacturing states.
U.S. and Canadian vessels carry more than 125 million tons of cargo through the Great Lakes every year. This trade is enabled by nine U.S. Coast Guard ice breakers that keep the waterways open for business during the winter months.
In addition to operating the only U.S.-flagged icebreakers capable of polar operations, the Coast Guard breaks ice to clear the way for emergency response and search and rescue missions. As a part of the domestic ice breaking mission, the Coast Guard aids communities and mariners in crisis and clears a path for essential marine commerce.
The 9th District also maintains more lights than any other Coast Guard district, and Michigan is home to more lighthouses than any other state. But even in Michigan, which is surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, no other lighthouse is quite like Stannard Rock.
“Stannard Rock Light was built in response to a large increase in shipping traffic across Lake Superior, with most ships making stops in Duluth, Minnesota, or Marquette, Michigan,” said Lenz. “This increase in shipping traffic coincided with the opening of the Soo Locks (the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, that connect Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes).”
A native of Kaleva, Michigan, Lenz is a seasoned Great Lakes sailor. The chief has served with three different ATON units and a search and rescue unit during more than a decade on the lakes. He said his experience on an emergency call at Coast Guard Station Michigan City, Indiana, drove home the importance of navigational aids.
“I was the coxswain on a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat responding to a distress case during a very strong storm,” said Lenz. “It was so intense that the GPS was intermittent and not reliable.
“We were able to safely return to the harbor because we could see the outer light and hear its fog signal,” continued Lenz. “It was a memory that has always stuck with me and drove home the point as to why the ATON mission is so critical.”