Sprinkled along Michigan’s 3,200 miles of shoreline are dozens of lighthouses, short and red, tall and striped, elegant and utilitarian. Michigan lays claim to more lighthouses than any other state in the country, each year drawing lighthouse lovers to the 120 beacons that once served as vital warning lights and waypoints within the Great Lakes.
Few of Michigan’s lighthouses operate as navigational aids any longer. Some house historical museums. Some have simply been restored and opened to tours. Others can be reserved as overnight accommodations. And still others simply add to the scenic beauty of Michigan’s shoreline. Whatever the attraction, it’s impossible to deny the lure of this state’s lighthouses. And chances are good that wherever you go along Michigan’s shore you are just a few miles from one of her iconic lights.
SENTINELS ON THE SHORE
Strategically placed along rocky shoals, near sandy shallows and between narrow passages, Michigan’s lighthouses warned sailors of pending danger and led the way to safe harbors. Each light was outfitted with a unique foghorn call, light pattern and architectural design, all intended to improve daytime visibility and to help passing sailors differentiate one Great Lakes port from another.
Some, like the Grand Haven Light, were short, squat and outfitted with a catwalk, a second-story steel walkway that allowed lighthouse access even when the pier below was perilously encased in ice or awash with thunderous waves in stormy weather. Others were built for visibility miles off shore, like the Little Sable Point Light near Mears, made of towering brick, or the Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington, steel-encased and brilliantly striped black and white.
Modern navigational aids like GPS and autopilot have long since rendered most of Michigan’s lighthouses redundant. Yet the soaring beacons, painted brilliant red or striped black and white, sometimes topped with red roofs or black, wrought iron lanterns, could hardly be any more beautiful. Backed with golden beaches and the ever-changing appearance of the Great Lakes’ crashing surf or aquamarine bays, they are a photographer’s dream.
SAILING TO THE LIGHTS
Some of Michigan’s most spectacular lights lie not along the mainland but on the Great Lakes’ small islands and shoals. It takes a boat and a little effort to see these lights up close, but getting there is half the fun.
Not far from Traverse City, the Manitou Island ferry out of Leland transports visitors to South Manitou Island, its white brick tower visible from Michigan’s mainland on a clear day. The ferry skims past the square, white North Manitou Island Crib en route, a lighthouse built on an artificial island and typically crowded with resting double-crested cormorants. Once the ferry reaches South Manitou, the island’s 100-foot-tall white light stands out as its most distinctive feature. For a few bucks visitors climb the circular staircase to the light’s black, wrought-iron observation deck. This is the southernmost natural Lake Michigan harbor between these waters and the city of Chicago.
Farther north, Shepler’s Ferry has moved beyond its traditional role transporting tourists to Mackinac Island and expanded into a historic lighthouse cruise. The westbound journey carries travelers directly under the Mackinac Bridge, past Colonial Fort Michilimackinac and within view of the honey-colored brick Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse on its three-hour tour.
Along the way the ship passes the red and white striped White Shoal Lighthouse, set on a sandbar north of Wilderness State Park; the weathered-looking Waugoshance Light, considered one of the world’s most threatened lighthouses; and the white, rocket-shaped Gray’s Reef Lighthouse. The towering red and white St. Helena Island Lighthouse marks the final lighthouse on Shepler’s itinerary before the ship returns to its Mackinaw City dock.
An eastbound Lake Huron version of Shepler’s lighthouse tour is also available, passing by a string of remote island lighthouses: Round Island, Bois Blanc, Poe Reef, Fourteen Foot Shoal and the Cheboygan Crib. Each cruise features narration recounting the history of Great Lakes lights and includes anecdotes of the shipwrecks they were intended to prevent. A portion of all lighthouse cruise proceeds supports lighthouse preservation and restoration.
The words and music of Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” play on a loop as visitors enter the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. However hokey the song may seem at home, it feels pretty relevant here in Whitefish Point, in the eastern corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the harbor the Fitzgerald’s crewmen hoped to reach on Nov. 10, 1975, and the site of the ship’s only salvaged remains.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is part of the sprawling complex of buildings affiliated with the Whitefish Point Lighthouse and Life Saving Station north of Sault Ste. Marie. Brilliant against the thunderous Lake Superior surf, the lighthouse and its buildings were constructed of concrete and cast iron, painted a vibrant white and topped with roofs so red they could scarcely be missed by a passing ship.
There are dozens of gripping stories recounted in this Upper Peninsula museum, a memorial to at least 5,000 shipwrecks that have littered the floors of the Great Lakes over the centuries. One exhibit recounts the story of the wooden steamers Vienna of Cleveland and Nipigon, which rammed into one another in 1892, sinking the Vienna. Another retells the poor luck of the 1857 ship Comet, involved in no fewer than three wrecks before finally being rammed and sunk in 1875. Salvaged ship artifacts bring these and dozens of other shipwreck stories to life.
But the museum’s most evocative display covers that 1975 wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. A 15-minute documentary tells the ore carrier’s story, from her journey from Superior, Wis., loaded with 26,000 tons of taconite ore en route to Sault Ste. Marie and the early winter storm — the “gales of November” that Lightfoot sings about — that did her in. The bell recovered from the famous ship sits on display, recovered from the wreck in 1995, as well as a memorial to the 29-man crew that went down in 30foot waves that caught her just 10 miles from safety at Whitefish Point.
Remote Great Lakes beaches, the striking beauty of the crashing surf, curious whitetail deer grazing in the woods nearby and the lore of 150 years of lighthouse history — the romance of a lighthouse stay lures guests to the few Michigan lights that have been converted to B&Bs.
One of the most popular is Big Bay Point Lighthouse. Located 30 miles northwest of Marquette, Big Bay Point has been converted into an inn with 14 rooms overlooking the clear, cold waters of Lake Superior.
A white lantern sits atop this 60-footsquare, red brick light, originally built in 1896 to guide Great Lakes sailors past this treacherous stretch of Upper Peninsula shore. Visitors ascend the 60-foot tower to survey the lake from the top of a sandstone cliff. There is little to obstruct a view of the lake, its surrounding hardwood and pine forests and, off in the distance, the towering Huron Mountains.
When they’re not admiring the view from the tower, visitors hike along trails that crisscross the surrounding forest or take off the chill of a breezy Lake Superior evening before a fireplace in the Big Bay Point’s common room. Guestrooms named for former lighthouse keepers are furnished with period furniture.
On windy evenings, the ghost of a madwoman screams from the tower of Old Presque Isle Lighthouse on Lake Huron. So say the locals. Legend has it that while Old Presque Isle was active one of the keepers’ wives was kept locked in the tower until she went mad.
Often the setting for dramatic — even tragic — Great Lakes storms and shipwreck rescues, it’s no wonder that Michigan’s lighthouses draw not only those with a penchant for rugged outdoorsmanship and romance. They also draw visitors intrigued with tales of hauntings and ghostly apparitions.
The screaming ghost is only one of the strange occurrences that are said to happen at this Lake Huron light. The light was operational for only 30 years, built in 1840 and then replaced in 1871 by the taller and more elegant New Presque Isle Lighthouse just a short distance away.
Old Presque Isle’s more famous haunting revolves around former lighthouse resident George Parris. Caretaker and tour guide in the 1990s, long after the light had been converted from a navigational aid to a museum, Parris died of a heart attack. In the ensuing years multiple visitors, including Parris’ widow, Great Lakes sailors, Air National Guard pilots and Coast Guard personnel, have reported Old Presque Isle’s light continuing to burn regularly in spite of the fact that the tower’s light has been physically removed. Modern visitors claim to feel the occasional brush of a hand on their shoulders while ascending the tower. These inexplicable touches, the screaming woman and the light’s persistent yellow glow leads many to conclude that the lighthouse’s previous occupants aren’t quite ready to leave their lighthouse.
Who could blame them?
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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