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Although the Midwestern state of Michigan is located hundreds of miles from the nearest seashore and close to the heart of the North American continent it has more lighthouses than any other state. With more than 3,000 miles of shoreline Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state or Canadian province.
Michigan is a peninsula surrounded by four of the Great Lakes. The five Great Lakes are the largest bodies of freshwater on Earth, with four of the Great Lakes touching Michigan. Together, the Upper and Lower Peninsulas have more than one hundred lighthouses. In comparison, Maine has about 70 lighthouses, California about 45 lighthouses, Alaska has about 15 lighthouses, and Florida about 40 lighthouses.
To navigate the Great Lakes safely, it is essential that sailors know precisely where they are and where they are headed. While stars can help point the way and Polaris in the consternation Ursa Minor (Little Bear) has helped sailors in sea navigation for centuries, it cannot warn of a dangerous shoal (a sandbank or sandbar) or help navigate through a narrow or rock-strewn channel.
For a lighthouse to be effective as a navigation aid, it not only has to be seen but has to identify its location. A Captain of a ship uses the ‘blink blink’ of the lighthouse to tell where the ship is at night. Sailing at night in darkness and perhaps fog the Captain cannot see the shore to confirm the ships location. Then he sees a great light but where on the Great Lakes is he?
The pattern of flashes from the lighthouse or different colored lights tells what lighthouse it is and where it is along the shore; that is lighthouse characteristic. One light may flash quickly, one may flash slowly, and one light may have a red or green light flashing after the white light. Some lights may flash in patterns of two or three lights then a dark pause in between. Some lights may be flashing a pattern where the dark pause lasts longer between the flashes of light. An occulting pattern is where the flash of light lasts longer than the dark pause between the flashes. Know the lighthouse characteristic and you know where you are at night.
To know where you are in the day look for the lighthouse, the pattern or color of a lighthouse is its day mark. The white color of a lighthouse helps it stand out against trees. Some have red or black strips. Some have a strip up top. Some are painted different colors around their windows to help identify them. Some have an attached keeper house. If you know the day mark of the lighthouses you know where you are on the Great Lakes.
Some lighthouses in Michigan have been built offshore, on rocky out cropping's, or on sandy shores where they were needed along the Great Lakes with a variation of architectural types and styles. Typically the light towers in Michigan are round, conical, square, schoolhouse, skeletal and pyramid.
Round and Conical
Round lighthouses were typically built in brick and later encased in steel for protection.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse is 112 feet tall and is one of the tallest towers on Lake Michigan. The light tower has 130-step winding stairway, a covered passage connects to the keeper’s dwelling. Made of brick it was later clad in steel. It has a distinctive day mark of a wide black band. The lighthouse in Ludington guided vessels through the channel connecting the harbor, Pere Marquette River and Lake Michigan.
Conical lighthouses are similar to round lighthouse but they differ in that they have a wide base and become narrow as they reach the lantern room.
The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in Michigan and was named for a military outpost south of the lighthouse. The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse dates well before Michigan became a state in 1837. It was constructed in 1825 at the juncture of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River (near Port Huron, MI) .
Due to poor construction the tower was damaged during a storm and in 1828 fell down. A new lighthouse was built north of the military fort in 1829 that was 65 feet. The original white tower was 32 feet; the present height of the tower is 86 feet. The present tower is red brick that has been painted white. The keeper’s cottage and fog whistle house are red. In 2004 the Coast Guard moved into new headquarters adjacent to the lighthouse. The Coast Guard closed the lighthouse in 2008 due to deterioration. The St. Clair County Parks and Recreation department took over the lighthouse and grounds in 2010.
Square and Schoolhouse
Square Lighthouses (Intergral) are single buildings with the tower built into the house in a square-shaped design. Round Island in Lake Huron and Copper Harbor or Big Bay Point on Lake Superior are square type lighthouses in Michigan. Some of the dwellings were duplexes to house two light-keepers with families. Round Island and Copper Harbor were single family dwellings.
In 1895, Round Island Lighthouse was built for the dangerous shoals around the channels between Mackinac Island and Round Island. This lighthouse also is shown in the 1980s movie Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
Schoolhouse lighthouses look similar to old schoolhouses. These lighthouses were timber framed or brick construction with a tower integrated into the roof of the house. Copper Harbor, Harbor Point, Old Mission Point, Grand Island East Channel, and Grand Island North lighthouses are examples of this lighthouse style in Michigan. This is a common style with a simple design and cost effective that is seen frequently in the Great Lakes.
Skeletal lighthouses are the most basic design. These are a steel skeleton framework to hold the light assembly. A identifying characteristic is the broad tube up the middle of the lighthouse tower that encloses the stairway. All have enclosed lantern rooms and most also have enclosed watch rooms below the lantern. Whitefish Point and South Fox Island are examples of skeletal steel frame lighthouses in Michigan.
The first onshore skeletal lighthouses in the U.S. were three experimental towers built in Michigan in 1861. DeTour Point Lighthouse on Lake Huron, on Lake Superior at Whitefish Point and at Manitou Island. The towers are square with an octagonal lantern room and are about 75 feet tall.
Pyramid lighthouses are constructed of wood or steel and are in the shape of a pyramid.
A timber-framed pyramid lighthouse was first built at the mouth of the Betsie River in Frankfort Michigan in 1873. It was replaced in 1912 with a squared pyramid tower sheathed in steel. Later the Army Corps of Engineers built two long breakwaters to protect the harbor and
replace the old piers. The square pyramid was moved on a barge to a new north breakwater and placed on top of an approximately twenty-five feet new two-story steel base. The outline of the two doors of the original lighthouse can still be seen.
Styles of Lighthouses
There are many architectural styles of lighthouses in Michigan from a castle to Victorian.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse is a two-story brick Victorian style keeper's dwelling with a square light tower on the roof, it marks the entrance to Grand Traverse Bay from Lake Michigan. Built in 1858 the lantern room is 47 feet above ground and the light is visible for 10 miles. It was restored by the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Federation and is now open as a museum.
The White River Lighthouse built at the entrance of White lake. The lighthouse is built in the Norman Gothic style made from Michigan limestone and brick with white trim. The White River lighthouse was constructed after a breech was cut from Lake Michigan to White Lake and ships would sail onto the rocks instead of through the breach. The lighthouse was built in 1875 and today is a museum.
The Holland Harbor Lighthouse (known as Big Red) is located at the entrance of a channel connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Macataw which gives access to Holland Michigan. The twin-gabled keeper's dwelling pays homage to the Dutch heritage in the area.
The buff-colored lighthouse at Old Mackinac Point is attached to a keeper's dwelling that resembles a castle. Built in 1892 to light the Straits of Mackinac. The many shoals and islands in the Straits makes navigation in the Straits hazardous. After the Mackinac Bridge was completed the lights on the bridge made the lighthouse obsolete. The property is now owned by the Mackinac Island State Park.
With the unique collection of lighthouses around both the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan they tell a fascinating history and are a major attraction and interest to many people. During the spring and summer many people tour the lighthouses; as families, individuals, and in group tours. Some of the lighthouses are open to the public as museums that showcase the time of the 1800's. The lighthouses of Michigan are appreciated and a favorite subject of photographers.
The lighthouses that dot the shores of the Great Lakes have saved and still save the lives of numerous sailors and prevent the loss of cargo by guiding the ships safely around the Great Lakes. Many of the lighthouses have become inns, museums, or private homes. Many of the lighthouse in Michigan are still operational. The lighthouses still in operation today are maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.
For more information on Michigan Lighthouses:
United States Coast Guard Historic Light Station Information & Photography Michigan
Pure Michigan Lighthouses: Historical information, pictures, and information on Michigan Lighthouses that are open to the public.