Historic Duluth lighthouse has a new owner and will soon offer tours

December storm kicks up big waves in Duluth
Lake Superior waves roll near the North Pier Lighthouse in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News | 2019

A historic 43-foot-tall lighthouse at the entrance to the Duluth Ship Canal has a new owner.

Rethos, a St. Paul-based historic preservation nonprofit, was awarded the Duluth Harbor North Pierhead Light by the National Park Service last month.

In 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it no longer needed the lighthouse that was built in 1910 at the end of the north breakwater of Duluth’s shipping canal.

It first offered the structure to government agencies, nonprofits or educational groups at no cost. So Rethos submitted an application.

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“It seemed kind of crazy to me that we would take over a lighthouse, but it also seemed pretty spectacular to be able to take over a lighthouse, especially one in Duluth on Lake Superior where we could tell that really great story of Duluth,” Rethos executive director Heidi Swank said.

Swank received an email last month informing her that Rethos was the new owner of the lighthouse, she said. She received a hard copy of the letter signed by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland this week.

The group plans to install interpretative signs around the lighthouse and open it to tours starting next summer. Guides will provide education on the history of the structure and the greater Duluth harbor area and its maritime history.

From the lighthouse, “When you look back at the city, you see Duluth go right up the hill, and it’s just this amazing vantage point to be able to tell the story of land and water, and talk about that entire past of Duluth,” said Swank.

But first, she said, the structure will need some work, including a fresh coat of interior point.

She also warns that the lighthouse is small. “It really will fit like four people,” she said.

The Coast Guard still owns the light at the top. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the concrete pier it’s built on. Rethos owns the middle part — the actual lighthouse.

Through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, the government periodically offers up lighthouses it no longer needs. If it doesn’t receive suitable applications from government or nonprofit agencies, it offers them for sale to the general public.

That’s what happened in 2019, when a California man purchased the nearby Superior Entry Lighthouse in Superior, Wis. for $159,000, at the end of Wisconsin Point.

Rethos’ new lighthouse is an iconic landmark in Duluth’s Canal Park business district. In its application, the nonprofit wrote it hopes to “turn the light structure into a focal point for the broader historic commercial district. The light tower is well positioned to be a tourist attraction.”

Rethos also plans to open an office in Duluth, which it wants to use to expand its Minnesota Main Streets downtown revitalization program in towns across northern Minnesota.