National Lighthouse Day: A look at Michigan’s maritime past, present and future

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Did you know that August 7 is National Lighthouse Day? The national holiday was passed by Congress in 1989, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the act that established federal support for the nation’s lighthouses, beacons, and piers.

It’s not a popular holiday, but a holiday that hits close to home in Michigan.

No US state has more lighthouses than Michigan. The state’s ties to the Great Lakes are unlimited. The waters help fuel Michigan’s economy, make the state a year-round tourist attraction, and even give Mitten State its iconic shape.

In honour of national lighthouse daylet’s take a look at some of the facts, figures, and stories that shed light on Michigan’s lighthouse history.

IN NUMBERS

Between the two peninsulas, Michigan has more than 3,280 miles of coastline – second only to Alaska with 6,640 miles of shoreline on the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.

While the numbers peaked in the 19th century, Michigan still has 120 historic lighthouses spanning the Great Lakes and the shipping lanes that connect the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean.

According to the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, there are 41 historic lighthouses on Lake Michigan, 39 on Lake Superior, 31 on Lake Huron, and four on Lake St. Clair. There are still three historic lighthouses along parts of the Detroit River, and one on the St. Clair River and one on the St. Mary’s River.

While Michigan has about 30 miles of shoreline along Lake Erie, there are no historic lighthouses along this stretch of land. There is a lighthouse on Turtle Island, which straddles the state lines of Michigan and Ohio, but the light is in Ohio territory. The island, which is only 1.5 acres, is privately owned and uninhabited.

The Rock of Ages Lighthouse is just over 2 miles off the southwest coast of Isle Royale in Lake Superior. At 130 feet tall, it is Michigan’s tallest historic lighthouse. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

MICHIGAN’S TALLEST HISTORIC LIGHTHOUSE

Rock of Ages Lighthouse off Isle Royale is considered Michigan’s tallest historic lighthouse, but that’s not fully settled. The height of the light varies depending on who you ask. Some historians only measure the tower, while others consider the height of the light above the water.

The White Shoal Lighthouse, about 20 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge, is 124 feet tall. (Courtesy of NOAA)

According to 1910 Register of the Lighthouse Board and Lighthouse Service, the Rock of Ages Lighthouse measures 130 feet from base to tip. However, according to the National Park Service, which oversees Isle Royale State Park, the lighthouse is 117 feet tall.

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The other competitor is the White Shoal Lighthouse, about 20 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge. According to the 1940 Lighthouse Board and Lighthouse Service register, it is 124 feet tall.

A lighthouse for the Rock of Ages reef was first recommended to Congress in 1896 and refitted after a second large ship, the Henry Chisholm, sank in 1898. Construction began in 1907 and was completed in 1908. A crew of four served the lighthouse until 1977, when at which the lighthouse was automated.

Construction was much more difficult on the White Shoal. Due to its location near the Straits of Mackinac, work could only be carried out during the shipping season. After being approved by Congress in 1907, construction began in the spring of 1908. It was completed in September 1910.

Like many historic lighthouses, after being automated, the building eventually fell into disrepair. A local preservation group works to make repairs on the lighthouse. The White Shoal’s distinct “barber pole” design is the face of the State Historic Preservation Office’s “Save Our Lights” campaign.

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse in Port Huron, built in 1829, is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Michigan. The fort’s first lighthouse was built in 1825 but collapsed in a storm in 1828. (Doug Kerr/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

MICHIGAN’S OLDEST HISTORICAL LIGHTHOUSE

Michigan’s oldest surviving lighthouse is in Port Huron: Fort Gratiot lighthouse.

Fort Gratiot was built in 1814 to guard the junction of the St. Clair River and Lake Huron during the War of 1812. As shipping traffic increased, the need for a lighthouse quickly became apparent. The lighthouse was first built in 1825 but was destroyed in a storm in 1828. It was rebuilt the following year and the 1829 structure is now the oldest historic lighthouse in the state.

The new lighthouse was built north of the military fort. Lucius Lyons — one of the founders of Grand Rapids who eventually represented Michigan in Congress and the U.S. Senate — won the construction contract and led the construction process.

The lighthouse is still functioning and is now in the care of the St. Clair County Department of Parks and Recreation. After undergoing millions of dollars in repairs, the lighthouse is once again open for tours – one of Michigan’s few historic lighthouses that allows visitors to climb to the top of the tower.

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Although Fort Gratiot is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Michigan, it is not the oldest on the Great Lakes. This honor goes to Marblehead Lighthouse at the end of Sandusky Bay in Ohio. The Marblehead has been running regularly since 1822.

A map showing the location of each lighthouse on the Great Lakes. (Courtesy of the Great Lakes Lightkeepers Association)

PROTECTING A PART OF MICHIGAN’S HISTORY

Lighthouses throughout Michigan have several nonprofit groups and organizations working to preserve pieces of the state’s maritime history. The main thing is powered by the State Historic Preservation Office.

Bryan Lijewski and his team at SHPO help run Michigan’s Lighthouse Assistance Program. The MLAP was launched in 2001, raising funds and converting them into grants for local organizations to carry out repairs and restore historic lighthouses. According to Lijewski, the program was started after Michigan’s historic lighthouses were included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Most Endangered” list in 1998.

The MLAP is funded entirely by personalized license plates. The “Save Our Lights” campaign is one of 16 different specialty plates Michigan drivers can choose from.

“When someone buys this plate for $35, $25 goes directly into this preservation fund. And then every time they renew the plate, $10 goes into that fund,” Lijewski told News 8.

The MLAP brings in between $110,000 and $120,000 each year, which is usually enough to fund two to three major grants.

“We usually try to grant the same amount (which we bring),” Lijewski said. “Projects can range from $10,000 to $60,000, so you can see how that $100,000, $120,000 would be consumed pretty quickly.”

Lijewski encourages Michigan residents to share their appreciation for the state’s historic lighthouses and to give back where you can.

“I think people realize that. They appreciate the fact that we have these (historic lighthouses) and we have so many of them,” Lijewski said. “Do the tower climbs, visit the lighthouses, support them in any way possible.Buy your “Save Our Lights” fundraising license plate…and enjoy.

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