When Dan Oginsky and Dave McWilliam first climbed the North Manitou Shoal Light in September 2016, they saw firsthand a light in need of extensive repair. The beacon’s lead-based paint was peeling off in sheets, and its 80-year-old windows were in such bad condition, they had been boarded over. The light’s glass lantern panes had been replaced with plastic grown weathered and dingy with time, and the lighthouse was covered with decades of cormorant guano.
“It was in need of a lot of work,” said Oginski, “but I’ll never forget climbing that ladder. It was thrilling.”
Oginsky and McWilliam, close friends since their student days at Michigan State University, happened on the idea of purchasing the light commonly known as “the Crib” following a Boy Scout excursion with their sons to North Manitou Island in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Casual banter on the hiking trail led them to discuss what fun it would be to own a lighthouse. Within days, the pair would learn that the federal government was selling several of its Michigan lights, including the beacon they had ferried past en route to the island. Their fate as lighthouse keepers seemed inevitable.
A team of six others — their respective spouses Anna Oginsky and Sherry McWilliam, and friends Todd and Natalie Buckley and Jake and Suzanne Kaberle — joined the men that autumn to submit what would become the winning public auction bid of $73,000. The couples formed the Michigan nonprofit North Manitou Light Keepers (northmanitoulightkeepers.com) and began renovating the light the following summer.
Built to replace a lightship in the shallow passageway between the Manitou Islands and the Leelanau Peninsula, the Crib was completed in 1935. The lighthouse tower was built atop a 60-foot square concrete platform resting on pilings driven 24 feet into the bottom of Lake Michigan. The Crib was operated by a three-man Coast Guard crew.
By the late 1970s, the North Manitou Shoal Light was the Great Lakes’ only remaining manned lighthouse, and in 1980, the Coast Guard replaced the light’s Fresnel lens and its crew with an automated beacon. Left behind on the unoccupied station was an assortment of navigational equipment, including lights and a foghorn, which remain today.
“Restoring the Crib has really been a challenge,” said McWilliam. “While the light is only three miles from Pyramid Point, it’s nine miles from the closest marina.” All of the light’s construction materials, temporary cranes, tools and crew arrive by boat. EPA regulations required the full scaffolding and negative pressure tenting of the Crib during clean-up to avoid dispersing dislodged paint and other debris into the Great Lakes.
“And then there are the logistics of water and weather conditions, and trying to work on this thing from a boat,” added McWilliam.
Still, the restoration team has made considerable improvements to the light to date. In addition to media blasting and repainting the Crib, the owners have restored all of the original windows, replaced the lantern’s glass panes and much of the Crib’s deck. Still to come in Phase I of the restoration are improved docking facilities and modernization of the light’s electrical and plumbing systems.
“Our primary goal,” Oginsky said, “is to protect and preserve the lighthouse, to prevent it from deteriorating any more than it already has. We also want to restore the light to its original appearance, with the addition of modern utilities and plumbing,”
The North Manitou Light Keepers expects to open the Crib to visitors by July 4, 2021. Tours will include boat transportation from Leland and a guided tour of the restored light. Interior displays will recount the North Manitou Shoal Light’s history and pay homage to the Coast Guard members who manned the Crib for 45 years. Phase II of the restoration, set to begin in late summer 2020, will add creature comforts to make the Crib suitable for rustic overnight visits.
“We expect an overnight stay will draw those with a spirit of adventure” said Oginsky, “and there is a real sense of adventure when you stand on the Crib.” Both men describe the thrill of being surrounded by surf, watching 1,000-foot lakers pass at close range, and of seeing the sun both rise and set on Lake Michigan.
Of the estimated $2 million required to fully restore the Crib, the North Manitou Light Keepers has raised and spent approximately $500,000 so far, including the original cost of the lighthouse itself. The association continues to seek out sponsors to assist with raising additional funds.
“Personally, my goal is to give the lighthouse back to the community,” said McWilliam. “When you stand on the decking of this lighthouse, you’re experiencing such a unique piece of Michigan’s maritime history. That needs to be shared with as many people as possible.”
Amy Eckert is an award-winning travel writer who lives in Holland.