The Christmas lighthouse: Lighting the way for more than 100 years


CHRISTMAS, Mich (WJMN) — Pushed back at the end of a gravel road off of M-28 near Munising stands a lighthouse with an important past.

In order to understand the key roles the Christmas lighthouse has played for centuries, you must come a little closer to the shore.

“This is the site of a furnace or a furnace campground it’s in Christmas, and you’re looking at one of the early blast furnaces,” Eric Drake, the heritage program manager for the Hiawatha National Forest, said. “This was an iron smelting community and started up in the 1860s. It was called Onota. It was one of the earlier sort of iron smelting communities that grew up along the south shore of Lake Superior, mostly being fed the iron that was mined out of the iron range just to the west of Marquette.”

The furnace was the ideal spot to create iron blocks, commonly known as iron pigs.

Location was everything, but ships needed a hand when maneuvering the Munising Bay waters.

“In 1868, there was those two wood structures: You had the keeper’s quarters and above that was a cupola with a light in it, the rear light, then you had a front light out in front,” Drake said. “And so when you line those two lights up one over top of the other, you knew you were in the shipping channel. There are all kinds of shoals and shallows and rock ledges and such out here in Munising Bay area, so that would lead the ships in, so they could come in safely to the dock, and here at Onota, they had a large dock that went on hundreds of feet that then the ore boats could come in and pick up the pig iron as well as deliver the raw iron.”

Blueprint for the the first wooden rear rearranged light structure. Courtesy of the Hiawatha National Forest

Though there is a rearranged light system still standing today, in 1914 the wooden structures were torn down and replaced. Then the structures got another makeover later in the 1980s to give us what we see today.

“But then by the ’80s, we [Public Service Management] developed the management plan and restored it. It was in pretty bad shape,” Drake said. “Most of that restoration involved taking care of some of the rust on the exterior, painting it and so forth.”

Blueprint current rear rearranged light structure. Courtesy of the Hiawatha National Forest

To really get the full effect, WJMN’s Haley Schoengart climbed to the top to catch a rarely-seen view of Christmas.

The Christmas Lighthouse is truly a gem: It is one of the only remaining rearranged steel-constructed lighthouses in the country.

For more information about the lighthouse, click here.

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