The Lighthouses of Michigan
Michigan holds the distinction of having more lighthouses than any other state, even states bordering the oceans. With more than 3,000 miles of coastline, Michigan has more shoreline than any other state except Alaska and the longest freshwater coast in the world.
Back in the 19th century, before freeways crisscrossed the country, the inland seas of the Great Lakes served as the highways for shipping goods. The routes were dangerous yet they were the most heavily traveled waters in America.
The majority of Michigan's lighthouses were built back in the 1800’s to warn mariners of the many hazards that lurked in the waters of the Great Lakes. More than 130 lighthouses were built near rocky shores, shallows known as shoals and port entrances, serving notice to the ships navigating those treacherous waters.
With over 120 lighthouses still standing, it is no wonder that the Welcoming Signs into Michigan proudly display a lighthouse.
The lighthouse has become one of Michigan’s most identifiable icons.
Pure Michigan is an ad campaign launched to promote tourism in Michigan. A series of heart warming and colorful ads which highlight the special qualities of Michigan, featuring the voice of Michigan native, Tim Allen, are broadcast on a national level.
"Pure Michigan lighthouses are stars of the shore, beacons of brilliance and luminaries of lore. More than 115 Great Lakes lighthouses form a stellar constellation along the Michigan coastline, guiding sailors and capturing imaginations. Some still shine for ships. Others share their stories with us first-hand as museums. As bed and breakfasts and as Michigan history in the making. So let Michigan lighthouses light our way. Because their gleaming legacy guides us to Pure Michigan."
Almost two-thirds of the existing lighthouses in Michigan are currently under the jurisdiction of the federal government or the coast guard. Sadly, they are scheduled for disposal with the next 10 years. All of the Michigan Lighthouses are historic or architecturally significant and are either on the list or are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. This has led to the Michigan’s Historic Lighthouses being named on The National Trust for Historic Preservation list of America’s most endangered places.
Michigan has taken the lead in lighthouse preservation forming the Michigan Lighthouse Project to rescue and preserve these historic facilities. This program stands as a model for lighthouse preservation for the rest of the nation. Using state grants and promotional aid from preservation groups, Michigan is determined to save her lighthouses.
The historic value of the lighthouses in Michigan highlight an integral part of our growth as a state. Although now modernized and without actual lighthouse keepers, the light that shines is still a beacon for ships traveling the lakes.
In order to preserve some of Michigan’s lighthouses, some of them have been turned into museums. Others have been purchased by private enterprise, transforming them into period inns or gift shops.
In each case, the heritage of the lighthouse is preserved and showcases the historical importance of the lighthouse, the surrounding area and those who lived the life of lighthouse keeping.
Out of the 120 lighthouses still standing, 26 have are currently open and accessible for visitors as museums, gift shops and inns. The list of these lighthouses and contact information can be found at Michigan’s Official Economic Development and Travel Site, Pure Michigan.
Highlighting just a few of them here with their corresponding map number.
Fort Gratiot Lighthouse # 26
The oldest lighthouse in Michigan is the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, older than the state itself. It is also the 2nd oldest on the Great Lakes. .It was erected in 1825 as part of the Fort Gratiot garrison. Their duty was to guard the entrance to the St Clair River.
The light was automated back in 1933 and can be seen for 17 miles out over the water. Currently, this lighthouse is still functioning as a Coast Guard station watching over one of the busiest waterways in the world.
The lighthouse is now a museum and is open to the public for tours.
Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse #18
At the northern most point of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, lies Mackinaw City. Along the shoreline is the Colonial Michilimackinac State Park. This park is a National Historic Landmark. The open-air museum preserves the rich history of the Straits of Mackinaw, a strategic link between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. As part of preservation, the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and fog signal house were incorporated into the park in 1960.
Built in 1892, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse shines for 16 miles over the straits. This narrow passage is filled with shoals and rocky outcroppings. Long before the first lighthouses, the native Ojibwa people recognized the need for help traveling through the straits and would light signal fires along the shore as warning.
The Straits of Machinaw connect two of the great lakes and is one of the busiest crossroads of the Great Lakes. It is also home to many shipwrecks. Fog envelopes the narrow passage frequently and storms that build up over the lakes often stall over the straits, increasing the hazards of traveling through the straits.
The building of the Mackinaw Bridge, completed in 1957, made the lighthouse unnecessary, due to the many signal lights that show safe passage through the pillars of the bridge.
Sea plane tours are perhaps the best way to view the Straits of Mackinaw.
The Whitefish Point Lighthouse #16
Whitefish Point Lighthouse is one of the oldest lighthouses on Lake Superior. It was built in 1848 and completed with the first lighting in 1849. Structural damage caused the lighthouse to be rebuilt in 1861. The Coast Guard automated the light station in 1971 and it is still operating to this day.
In over 150 years of service, only once did the light fail. It was November 10, 1975; the night the Edmund Fitzgerald sunk just 17 miles north of the entrance to the Whitefish Bay. Severe storms raged over the entire area prompting not only the closure of the locks, where the ore carrier was headed but also caused the light at Whitefish Point to shut down.
The lighthouse is now preserved and the lighthouse keeper’s dwelling is open to the public. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, home to the bell off the Edmond Fitzgerald, is also located here. The 80 miles stretch of coastline approaching Whitefish Bay is known as the Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast.
This passage at Whitefish Point is also called the Graveyard of Ships because more ships have been lost navigating these treacherous waters of the bay than anywhere else in the Great Lakes.
Copper Harbor Lighthouse # 13
The Copper Harbor Lighthouse is located on the northern coast of the Keweenaw Peninsula of Lake Superior. This lighthouse was built back in 1949 and used gas and oil to produce light until 1937 when it was converted to electricity. The lighthouse tower is capped in copper, unique copper found only in northern Michigan.
The lighthouse is part of the Fort Wilkins Historic State Park. Acquired by the state in 1963, it is now a nautical museum. It is situated on the mainland in the state park; however, there is no access to the lighthouse from land. You can only get to the lighthouse and museum by ferry. The lighthouse keeper’s home is still intact, now refurbished, and is included in the tour of the museum.
Grand Traverse Lighthouse #4
Grand Travers Lighthouse was originally constructed in 1852; however, it needed to be rebuilt in 1858. The present lighthouse was built at the same location but in a more visible spot for passing ships to see clearly. Forty one years later, in 1899, a fog signal was added. Locally called the Northport Lighthouse, this lighthouse marks the entrance to the Grand Traverse Bay. It is located at the end point of the Leelanau Peninsula and inside the Leelanau State Park. Guiding ships through the Manitou Passage of Lake Michigan, the lighthouse also marked the shallows off the peninsula.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse is one of the oldest lighthouses on Lake Michigan and was such a busy lighthouse that two keepers were needed to keep the light and fog signal properly prepared. The keeper’s dwelling was converted into a two-family residence in 1900.
The light was automated in 1972 and the building closed. Fourteen years later, the Lighthouse opened again as a museum with extensive exhibits including the keeper’s home restored to the time period of 1920 – 1930.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse #2
Big Sable Point Lighthouse is part of the Ludington Sate Park. First lit in 1867, the conical tower stands 112-feet high. The light was automated in 1968, the last lighthouse of the Great Lakes to get electricity.
Due to erosion, the lighthouse tower was encased with steel plate in 1902. The big black line was added so sailors could spot the lighthouse against the backdrop of the sand dunes during the daylight hours.
The museum and restoration is provided by the Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association and the light is maintained by the Coast Guard. The remote lighthouse and gift shop, staffed by volunteers, is reached by a hike through the park or scheduled ferry trips to the point.
Visiting the lighthouses in Michigan gives us a fascinating look at the rich history of our state and the important role that the Great Lakes have played in that history.
Preserving the lighthouses is very important to the citizens of Michigan. While not all of them have been refurbished as museums, they are all worth visiting.
For more information and resources regarding the Lighthouses in Michigan, please see:
For tours of Michigan Lighthouses
A photo book of Michigan Lighthouses
I hope you have enjoyed your brief visit to Michigan's Lighthouses.