Beacons of the Great Lakes: The true tales behind 9 Michigan lighthouses

Beacons of the Great Lakes: The True Tales Behind 9 Michigan Lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Presque Isle Township Museum Society via Facebook

By Claire Mainprize

November 6, 2023

From infamous shipwrecks and ghostly encounters to a renovation courtesy of the Boy Scouts, the stories behind these nine lighthouses in the Mitten will make you want to become a keeper.

Believe it or not, Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state: 120, to be exact. For more than two centuries, the beaming towers have guided visitors and seafaring Michiganders across the oft-angry waters of the Great Lakes.

The first lighthouse (which you’ll learn more about below) was constructed in 1825, and at one point, a whopping 250 lighthouses littered the state’s coasts. Among the 129 structures that are left, many are still in use for navigation while others have been turned into museums and tourist destinations—and then there are some that check both boxes.

Here are nine of Michigan’s most interesting lighthouses and the storied pasts that make them such.

Whitefish Point Light Station, Lake Superior

Beacons of the Great Lakes: The True Tales Behind 9 Michigan Lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum via Facebook

Located on the extreme southeastern tip of Lake Superior, the waters near this 174-year-old lighthouse are so treacherous that the area has become known as the Graveyard of the Lakes. More than 70 major shipwrecks have occurred there over the years, most notably the mysterious loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which you may already be familiar with if you’re a Gordon Lightfoot fan. If not, we’ll give you a quick recap.

The ship’s final voyage began on Nov. 9, 1975. As the conditions worsened across Lake Superior, the 29-person crew sought shelter at Whitefish Point. However, the powerful Fresnel lens on the lighthouse went out when its power lines snapped in two. After regular communication ceased the following day, a nearby ship located Fitzgerald’s lifeboats, with zero survivors.

When the Coast Guard released its official report on the incident, it said the cause could not be conclusively determined. There are conflicting theories about the wreck to this day.

Seul Choix Point Light, Lake Michigan

The name of this lighthouse in the Upper Peninsula translates to “only choice,” as it was the only place of refuge along a notoriously treacherous stretch of coast. The foreboding name was given by French Voyageurs and the local Native Americans who traded with them. The structure was finished in 1892 and is still used for navigation, although it also houses a museum that’s open to visitors from Memorial Day through mid-October.

One of the lighthouse’s former keepers may not be aware he no longer has the job, as Captain Joseph Willie Townsend is said to haunt the grounds to this day. Because the lighthouse was so remote, after Townsend died in 1910, his body was embalmed in the basement and kept there for weeks until his family could get there to pay their respects and give him a proper burial. These days, visitors say they experience his presence in a multitude of ways, including catching whiffs of his cigar smoke. There’s even a book about all the spooky encounters.

READ MORE: 7 Michigan lighthouses you can stay the night in

Presque Isle Lighthouses, Lake Huron

Beacons of the Great Lakes: The True Tales Behind 9 Michigan Lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Presque Isle Township Museum Society via Facebook

Presque Isle is home to two lighthouses, an “old” one and a “new” one, though both are well over 150 years old. While the old one was erected all the way back in 1840 and is one of the oldest lighthouses in the state, the “new” one was authorized by none other than Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s. Standing at 113 feet, the latter is the tallest lighthouse in all of the Great Lakes.

The 1905 Keeper’s House attached to the new lighthouse’s structure is now a museum that houses exhibits on shipwrecks. If you have the chance to check it out, you might hear the screams of the ghost of one keeper’s wife who, legend has it, was locked up by her husband and slowly went insane. She’s heard most frequently on dark, windy nights.

St. Helena Island Light Station, Lake Huron

In the 19th century, the tiny island of St. Helena was a crucial part of the area’s economic landscape. Not only was the port the last stop for ships to refuel, but the people in the village built boats and salted the fish before they were sent to New York. Therefore, when a lighthouse was built on the land in 1873, it was quite grand.

Sadly, after it became automated in 1922, the structure became subject to deterioration and vandalism and was virtually abandoned for decades. Enter: The Boy Scouts.

Together with the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, two Boy Scout troops restored the lighthouse and even won awards for their work. According to PBS, the scouts took a total of 14 trips to the location to move 57 tons of limestone and other debris and boulders with only wheelbarrows to aid them. One Eagle Scout earned the highest rank in the program by restoring the two-hole privy.

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, Lake Huron

Beacons of the Great Lakes: The True Tales Behind 9 Michigan Lighthouses

Photo courtesy of The Outdoor Adventures of Sam & Tim via Facebook

This lighthouse is cool for numerous reasons, the most notable being that it’s older than the state of Michigan itself. That’s right, Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was built a whopping 12 years before the Mitten State was admitted to the Union in 1837. It should come as no surprise, then, that it’s the oldest lighthouse in the state. It’s also located in the town where Thomas Edison grew up, having been built 22 years before he was born.

One last interesting fact about the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse is that it’s made of 94 intricate iron stairs, which you can climb to get an incredible view of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River.

Holland Harbor Lighthouse, aka “Big Red,” Lake Michigan

Beacons of the Great Lakes: The true tales behind 9 Michigan lighthouses

Photo courtesy of Discover Holland via Facebook

While this one does have a compelling history to go with it, what makes it extra special is the way it looks. As you might have guessed from its nickname, the Holland Harbor Lighthouse is big and red.

The original structure was built in 1870, two decades after the Holland Harbor was completed. It was very basic: The keeper, who reportedly took an annual salary of $540, had to travel from his house along a catwalk to the wooden lighthouse, where he would place his lamp under a magnifying device. When there was too much fog for ships to see the light, he would blow a fish horn.

After undergoing several other improvements, the lighthouse got its signature color in 1956. Its breathtaking exterior makes it the most photographed lighthouse in the state, according to the city of Holland.

South Haven Lighthouse, Lake Michigan

Beacons of the Great Lakes: The true tales behind 9 Michigan lighthouses

Photo courtesy of South Haven Lighthouse via Facebook

If you’re interested in all things paranormal, you’ll get a kick out of the haunting of South Haven Lighthouse. According to lore, a wounded Civil War soldier by the name of Captain James S. Donahue was appointed keeper of this lighthouse in 1874. Despite having lost a leg in battle, he reportedly saved more than 12 lives during his 35 years tending to the lighthouse.

His former home is now a research facility where many visitors have said his spirit still hangs around the grounds. Among other eerie occurrences, they have heard footsteps and seen doors open on their own, and they’re pretty sure Donahue is the one behind it all.

Little Sable Light, Lake Michigan

Unlike some of the other structures on this list, the Little Sable Lighthouse does not live up to its name. In reality, it’s anything but little, as it’s actually one of the tallest lighthouses in the state. It takes 130 steps to get to the top, where the original third-order Fresnel lens is still intact.

From May to September, you can climb up the tower for a small fee and catch stunning views of Silver Lake State Park’s sand dunes and forests as well as Lake Michigan’s southern coast.

Big Bay Point Lighthouse, Lake Superior

There probably aren’t many haunted lighthouses that you can actually stay the night in, but Big Bay Point Lighthouse isn’t like other lighthouses. Located 25 miles north of Marquette near a remote and rocky coastline, the lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now a fully operational bed and breakfast—though you won’t find any TVs or phones in the seven guest rooms. This place is all about rest, relaxation, and possibly a ghostly encounter or two.

Yep, Big Bay hosts yet another one of Michigan’s haunted lighthouses. Reportedly, the first keeper, H. William Prior, had a son who helped him with the operations but sadly had his life cut short due to an accident. Afterward, the grief-stricken father went into the woods alone and wasn’t seen again until a hunter came across his skeleton hanging from a tree a year later. Nowadays, the innkeepers hear him slam cupboards and paranormal experts have detected as many as five spirits on the grounds.

Author

  • Claire Mainprize

    Claire Mainprize is a writer and editor who covers the intersections of pop culture, lifestyle, and spirituality. Find more of her work at ClaireMainprize.com.

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