GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Did you know that Aug. 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 one that hits close to home in Michigan.
No state in the U.S. has more lighthouses than Michigan. The state’s ties to the Great Lakes are limitless. The waters help fuel Michigan’s economy, make the state a year-round tourist attraction and even give the Mitten State its iconic shape.
In honor of National Lighthouse Day, let’s look at some of the facts, figures and stories that highlight Michigan’s lighthouse history.
BY THE 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 covering 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 each on the St. Clair River and St. Mary’s River.
While Michigan has roughly 30 miles of shoreline along Lake Erie, there are no historic lighthouses along that stretch of land. There is a lighthouse on Turtle Island, which straddles the state lines between Michigan and Ohio, however the light is on Ohio territory. The island, which is only 1.5 acres in size, is privately owned and uninhabited.
MICHIGAN’S TALLEST HISTORIC LIGHTHOUSE
The Rock of Ages Lighthouse off the coast of Isle Royale is considered Michigan’s tallest historic lighthouse, but that’s not entirely settled. The light’s height varies depending on who you ask. Some historians only measure the tower, while some factor in how high the light stands above the water.
According to the Lighthouse Board and Lighthouse Service’s 1910 Registry, the Rock of Ages Lighthouse stands 130 feet from base to tip. However, according to the National Park Service, which oversees Isle Royale National Park, the lighthouse is 117 feet tall.
The other contender is the White Shoal Lighthouse, about 20 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge. According to the 1940 Registry from the Lighthouse Board and Lighthouse Service, it stands 124 feet tall.
A lighthouse for the Rock of Ages reef was first recommended to Congress in 1896 and brought up again after a second large ship, the Henry Chisholm, went down in 1898. Construction started in 1907 and wrapped up in 1908. A four-member crew served the lighthouse until 1977 when the lighthouse was automated.
Construction was much more difficult on the White Shoal. Because of its location near the Straits of Mackinac, work could only be done during shipping season. After being approved by Congress in 1907, construction started in the spring of 1908. It was finished in September 1910.
Like many historic lighthouses, after being automated the building eventually fell into disrepair. A local preservation group is working to do the 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.
MICHIGAN’S OLDEST HISTORIC LIGHTHOUSE
The oldest lighthouse still standing in Michigan is in Port Huron: The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse.
Fort Gratiot was built in 1814 to guard the juncture of the St. Clair River and Lake Huron during the War of 1812. With shipping traffic picking up, the need for a lighthouse quickly became clear. 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 now stands as the state’s oldest historic lighthouse.
The new lighthouse was built north of the military fort. Lucius Lyon — one of the founders of Grand Rapids who eventually went on to represent Michigan in Congress and the U.S. Senate — won the construction contract and led the building process.
The lighthouse is still functioning and is now under the care of the St. Clair County Parks and Recreation Department. After undergoing millions of dollars in repairs, the lighthouse is once again open for tours — one of the few historic lighthouses in Michigan that allows visitors to climb to the top of the tower.
While Fort Gratiot is the oldest standing lighthouse in Michigan, it is not the oldest on the Great Lakes. That honor belongs to the Marblehead Lighthouse at the tip of the Sandusky Bay in Ohio. The Marblehead has operated consistently since 1822.
PROTECTING A PART OF MICHIGAN HISTORY
Lighthouses all across Michigan have several groups and nonprofits working to preserve pieces of the state’s maritime history. The bulk of it is fueled by the State’s Historic Preservation Office.
Bryan Lijewski and his team at the SHPO help run the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program. The MLAP launched in 2001, raising funds and converting them to grants for local organizations to make repairs and restore historic lighthouses. According to Lijewski, the program was launched after Michigan’s historic lighthouses were included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 1998 “most endangered” list.
The MLAP is funded completely by vanity license plates. The “Save Our Lights” campaign is one of 16 different specialty plates Michigan drivers can choose.
“When someone purchases that plate for $35, $25 goes directly into that preservation fund. And then each 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 — usually enough to fund two to three major grants.
“We usually try to grant out the same amount (that we bring in),” Lijewski said. “Projects can range from $10,000 to $60,000, so you can see how that $100,000, $120,000 would get eaten up pretty quickly.”
Lijewski encourages Michiganders to share their appreciation for the state’s historical lighthouses and 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 you can. Buy your ‘Save Our Lights’ fundraising license plate … and just enjoy them.”