Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas #10: Poe Towers

Grosse Point Lighthouse, early 1900s
(USLHS Herb Entwistle Postcard Collection)

Orlando Poe’s lasting lighthouse legacy is the Poe Tower. Fifteen lighthouses of this design were built on the Great Lakes between 1867 and 1895: Big Sable Point (Grande Pointe au Sable), Cana Island, Sturgeon Point, New Presque Island, South Manitou Island, St. Helena Island, Grosse Point, Little Sable Point (Petite Point au Sable), Au Sable Point (Lake Superior Big Sable), Poverty Island, Outer Island, Twin River Point (Rawley Point), Tawas Point, Wind Point, and Seul Choix Point. Nearly all survive to present day, although some were later encased in iron.

These Great Lakes towers are similar to Poe’s St. Simons Island design, including the tall lantern and attached oil house and dwelling (usually a duplex). The staircase is similar, with a fancier style of grating. However, the two most distinctive features are absent from that Georgia lighthouse. Iron corbels support the gallery deck and the service room has four arched windows.

Sturgeon Point Lighthouse, 1904.
Example of the variant Poe Tower.
(USLHS Archives)

Three smaller lighthouses (St. Helena Island, Sturgeon Point, and Poverty Island) also use a variation of the standard Poe Tower design. They have the corbels, but lack the service room and arched windows. They also a smaller lantern because each had a three-and-a-half, fourth, or fifth order Fresnel lens. (All other Poe Towers had second or third order lenses.)

Over a decade ago, Great Lakes lighthouse historian Terry Pepper raised an important question about the Poe Towers: did they really originate with Orlando Poe? (“Who Designed The Poe Towers?”, The Beacon, Fall 2008)

Poe certainly popularized the design, with at least 9 of the 15 towers finalized during his tenure as District Engineer (1870-1873). His successors, Godfrey Weitzel and William Ludlow, reused the designs for a few later towers. However, the first three Poe Towers (excluding St. Simons) were designed when William F. Raynolds was still District Engineer in the Great Lakes. Did the “Poe Tower” actually originate with Raynolds rather than Poe?

It was not unprecedented for the Engineer Secretary to modify or create designs rather than leaving this task entirely in the hands of the District Engineer. Look no further than Poe designing the St. Simons Island Lighthouse.

From an architectural standpoint, the towers seem a bit different than Raynolds’ antebellum lighthouses on the Atlantic Coast. The most notable difference is the arched windows. These could simply be due to the difference in climate between the Atlantic and Great Lakes, directives from the Lighthouse Board, or inspiration from preexisting architecture Raynolds encountered after becoming District Engineer. The corbels are reminiscent of Raynolds’ antebellum preference for granite brackets supporting gallery decks.

A typical Poe Tower design:
Big Sable on Lake Superior – now Au Sable Point.
(National Archives via USLHS Digital Archives)

Original architectural drawings for most of the Poe Towers are not available through the National Archives catalog nor the U.S. Lighthouse Society catalog. Inquires with some Great Lakes lighthouse organizations were also unsuccessful. The drawings might survive on microfilm at the National Archives which has not been digitized. Grande Point Au Sable in particular is the key to unlocking the mystery since it was not only the first designed but also the only one predating Poe’s design of St. Simons Island. A date or note on the drawing may resolve the question.

The answer may be found in a review of correspondence from 1865 between the 11th District Engineer and the Lighthouse Board. Even if the letters don’t survive the index slips should provide enough information. The Journal of the Lighthouse Board is another potential source.

For now, it seems we do not yet have enough information available to settle the Raynolds vs. Poe question.

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