FRUITLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan is home to the most lighthouses in the country — 124, according to the U.S. Lighthouse Society. A few of the decommissioned ones have been turned into museums, including one near Whitehall.
The Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association was formed in the 1980s when the Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington was in danger of being lost to Lake Michigan due to rising water levels.
“The Coast Guard at the time was just going to let the lake take the lighthouse and with that, a bunch of locals in the area got together and went out and rescued Big Sable Point,” Matt Varnum, curator for the Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association, said.
Since then, the association has expanded to caring for three additional lighthouses: the Little Sable Point Lighthouse, the Ludington North Breakwater Lighthouse and the White River Light Station and Museum.
The White River Lighthouse, which sits along Lake Michigan at White Lake southwest of Whitehall, was built between September and December of 1875.
“The very first keeper (was) Capt. William Robinson, who was originally from England. (He) made his way over here after his father let him know about the area. He actually helped in the White River Light Station in 1875. He would then get the position as head keeper here and would be here until his death in 1919,” Varnum explained.
Many assistant keepers came and went during that time. Robinson’s last assistant keeper was his oldest grandson, William Bush. Varnum said Bush went on to take over as head keeper in 1918.
The last female lighthouse keeper was Francis Johnson. She was the assistant keeper under her husband. After their divorce, she came back as head keeper.
The White River lighthouse remained active until 1960 when the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned it.
With the help of local residents, in 1966, Fruitland Township purchased the lighthouse from the Coast Guard. It opened as a museum in 1970.
Today, when visitors stop by the museum at 6199 Murray Road north of Southshore Drive, they can explore artifacts from previous lighthouse keepers and maritime exhibits.
“You will also get to see the Fourth Order Fresnel lens that was used when this (lighthouse) was in operation. It’s on display in the museum. You’ll also get to see a life ring from the Edmund Fitzgerald, which of course went down in Lake Superior” in 1975, Vernum said.
Visitors also have the option to go to the top of the tower. According to the museum’s website, children must be 40 inches tall to climb to the top. They may not be carried up the stairs.
“I tell guests when they visit, try to imagine that (Fourth Order Fresnel lens) being up in that lantern room. And there’s already limited space up there without it being placed in there and I tell them to imagine being up there and how much space would be up there,” Vernum said.
There used to be a lifesaving station across the channel, and a few of the artifacts are currently on display at the museum.
“We actually have what is called a Lyle Gun and a breeches buoy which was used to help ferry passengers on boats that were in distress get to the shoreline,” Vernum said. “That Lyle Gun would fire a metal projectile with a line attached to it to the ship. Then they would attach that rope to the ship. The breeches buoy is pretty much a life ring with pants attached to it. They would use that to ferry passengers from the ship back to shore to rescue them.”
The museum is open from May 19 to Oct. 29, with hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. In October, the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for children 17 and under and veterans and active service members are free with photo ID.
During the summer, the museum hosts a few free family-friendly concerts, yoga events and children’s storytimes on the grounds, visit the museum’s website for more information.
Anyone interested in volunteering at any of the Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association lighthouses for the day- up to two-week-long commitments is asked to submit an application here.