Lighthouses stand prominently along the Michigan shoreline, many for more than 100 years.
“I thought the popularity of lighthouses was reaching its zenith a decade ago. But it has increased and increased — people are truly addicted to them,” says Terry Pepper, executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA) in Mackinaw City, one of the nation’s oldest lighthouse preservation groups.
“This is the first year our volunteer light keeper program at our lighthouse in Cheboygan is completely booked up so early for the season.”
The non-profit GLLKA owns two lighthouses, both of which offer volunteer keeper programs: the Cheboygan River Front Range Lighthouse, first lit in 1880, and the St. Helena Island Light Station in the Mackinac Straits, lit in 1873.
The GLLKA also serves as a clearinghouse for information about Great Lakes lighthouses, including comprehensive listings of volunteer opportunities to live as a lighthouse keeper and vacation travel accommodations at lighthouses that have been converted to bed and breakfast inns.
In all, there are 129 lighthouses in the Great Lakes State. Most still operate as aids to mariners, but many are no longer owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, which took them over in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt combined the U.S. Lighthouse Service with the U.S. Coast Guard.
Once manned by men and women who tended to their care, the lights were eventually automated to save money, rendering the lightkeeper’s job obsolete. Later advances in navigation technology further diminished the need for lighthouses, which are costly to maintain.
I’m not a lighthouse junkie, but I like the people who come there to hear the stories I can tell about it.
— Brett Saunders
In 2000, Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act to provide a mechanism for turning state beacons over to historic preservation groups, local communities and the National Park Service.
Some, like the Big Bay Lighthouse in Marquette County, built in 1896 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are in the hands of private owners; this site is now a bed and breakfast that caters to travelers on a cliff offering sweeping Lake Superior views.
Others, like DeTour Reef Lighthouse in the St. Mary’s River near Drummond Island, are managed by nonprofit groups like the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society. While members maintain the lighthouse and give tours, the group also opens a volunteer light keeper program to the public.
Several Michigan lighthouses feature volunteer keeper programs. Participants offer their time and service and sometimes pay a fee to see what it’s like to reside inside a beacon.
“I’m not a lighthouse junkie, but I like the people who come there to hear the stories I can tell about it,” shares Brett Saunders, a retired Lake Orion High School teacher who returned in spring to the Tawas Point Lighthouse on Lake Huron for his fourth season as a volunteer light keeper.
“I go back because I like the peacefulness of it,” he shares. “Photography is my hobby and I enjoy the birds there.”
Tawas Point Lighthouse was automated and closed by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1953. Today, it’s managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as part of Tawas Point State Park. It was built in 1876 to replace the Ottawa Point Light, an earlier beacon nearly a mile inland, which had fallen to disrepair and no longer protected boaters. The submerged remains of the May Queen, a schooner that foundered in 1859, can be seen off the point by visitors.
“What is this love affair that people in America have with lighthouse?” Pepper asks. “I think they are like America’s castles — beautiful and in interesting locations. And they hold some incredible stories.”
Learn more about Great Lakes lighthouses at gllka.com. For more stories and sites to visit, go to gllka.com and turn to page 64 in this issue of BLUE.