Gray’s Reef Lighthouse during Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac
© Nancy Snyder
By Patrick McBriarty, children’s author, bridge historian, & author of Chicago River Bridges
Passing Gray’s Reef Lighthouse is an important milestone during a Chicago-Mac Race. Rounding this light sailors begin to believe they actually are getting close and will make it to Mackinac Island. The lighthouse at Gray’s Reef was commissioned on April 1, 1937, just in time for the 29th running of the Mac Race known as the "Big Blow." That year of the record forty-two starters only eight finished, as late Saturday afternoon a northwester blew through building to 60-65 mph winds and 20 to 30 foot waves by dusk and forcing many boats to withdraw. The gale scattered the fleet as only a few could make the safe harbor in Ludington. Of the thirteen racing entries only the 10-meter sloop Revenge completed the race with a total elapsed time of 75:24:51. Rubaiyat a 43-foot cutter owned by Commodore Nathaniel Rubinkam in the cruising class was the first to finish at 5:15 am on Tuesday.
The lighthouse at Gray’s Reef replaced a lightship that had been approved and funded by Congress in 1889. The federal funding allowed construction of three 100-foot-long, wooden-hulled lightships by the Blythe Craig Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio. After sea trials the lightships equipped with steam propulsion and fog signals were installed on October 24, 1891 at Simmons Reef, White Shoal, and Gray’s Reef replacing iron buoys anchored at each.
Situated at the northeastern end of Lake Michigan, the Gray’s Reef Passage is a narrow channel between Gray’s Reef on the west and Vienna Shoal on the east. It is the only navigable opening for deep-draft vessels east of Beaver Island and the Manitou Islands. This navigational challenge is one of the last major hurtles on the way to completing the Chicago-Mac Race as once through the fleet turns the corner to sail east toward the Straights and Mackinac Island.
Gray’s Reef has been the site of many shipwrecks over the centuries and known by that name for so long the naming origin is unknown. The earliest known reference to the reef comes from a Detroit Tribune article of May 14, 1864 reporting: "Vessel on a Reef. The schooner Starlight grain-loaded from Milwaukee, arrived at the port late on Sunday night in a leaky condition. While on Lake Michigan, in thick weather, she struck on what is known as Gray’s Reef… and before getting extricated threw overboard about 1,000 bushels of wheat. During the remainder of the passage to this port she was found to be in a leaky condition, and fearing damage to her cargo, her Captain protested as above represented. The cargo is consigned to Cleveland, to which point she has proceeded."
This is just scratching the surface in the rich history of the Chicago Mac Race, a race that continues to contribute to Chicago’s and Great Lakes maritime history.
About the Author
Patrick McBriarty is author of the children's picture books Drawbridges Open and Close, Airplanes Take off and Land, and City Railways Go Above and Below about how things work. His first book was the three-time, award-winning history Chicago River Bridges and he narrated and co-produced the companion documentary Chicago Drawbridges. For more details checkout: www.PTMWerks.com and www.ChicagoDrawbridges.com.