I feel so fortunate to have been born and live in Michigan because we have the best of both worlds. Fertile farmland produces an array of crops, and Michigan offers more coastline than any other state except Alaska, 3,177 mile to be exact. Scattered around that shoreline are more than 115 lighthouses, more beacons of beauty than any other state can boast.
Every lighthouse is constructed and painted differently, making each one unique. The reason for this, other than attracting visitors who love to photograph them, was to tell the ships where they were. At night, each one would flash a different sequence of light signals and, by day, sailors knew the distinct paint scheme of each lighthouse, allowing them to pinpoint their location.
Although modern technology has rendered them obsolete, lighthouses still serve as charming landmarks. Their original and sole purpose was to guide sailors safely through dangerous water and around land masses jutting out in the water. The lighthouse keeper’s job was to maintain the beacon by making sure it was on every night and off every morning. It may sound exciting to actually live in a lighthouse, but the everyday activities could get pretty physical.
Most lighthouses have spiral steps leading up to the beacon, many numbering around 200. That is a lot of steps to climb a few times each day. The quarters were often small and damp, being by the water. The first lighthouses in the United States date back to the 1700s, before electricity. The light was created by burning whale oil and kerosene. It would be a full-time job just keeping them full! Oddly enough, the first lighthouse to use electricity was the Statue of Liberty in 1886.
Sadly, lighthouses aren’t manned any longer, but rather, the present working ones are just towers off shore. The last manned lighthouse in Michigan was Point Betsie Light on the northeast shore of Lake Michigan, north of Frankfort. But have heart, if you are set on being a lighthouse keeper, the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association is offering opportunities for volunteer keepers to live in one of two Michigan lighthouses.
Cheboygan River Front Light is looking for couples to live in the sentinel on weekends from Memorial Day through October. Duties would include giving tours, staffing the gift shop, doing light housekeeping and minor maintenance. It has the modern amenities of electricity and indoor plumbing.
If you like it a little more rustic, St. Helena Island Lighthouse may be your cup of tea. It has no electric, no indoor plumbing and the only way there and back is from Mackinaw City via the ferry. They are looking for volunteers to clean, paint and clear brush. Now, that’s a rustic vacation! Any takers for either of these “jobs” may call the association at 231-436-5580. (And check out the group's website!)
Beware though, legend has it that many lighthouses are haunted – the most famous being Waugoshance Lighthouse, located on the northeast end of Lake Michigan. The story goes that John Herman, the lightkeeper, was a drunk and prankster. Drunk one night, he locked an assistant in the lamp room and then wandered away, never to be seen again. Shortly after, strange things began to happen like empty coal buckets being mysteriously filled and chairs kicked out from under keepers who were all alone and fell asleep. Naturally, they had a hard time finding someone to staff the lighthouse, so they built a new one nearby and let the ghosts have the old one.
Each lighthouse has its own fascinating history and stories behind it. It is always nicer to visit these treasures when you can tour the inside as well as the grounds. A prime time for this is during Michigan’s Lighthouse Festival, typically near Columbus Day. This year it runs from October 9 through 12 and the main events are held at Alpena’s APLEX Center with more than 100 maritime vendors. Lighthouses will be open from Tawas to Mackinaw. For more details, visit the festival's website.
Plan on staying at least a couple days if you want to tour more than one. The first time Jim and I went we thought we’d see four or five in a day, not realizing we would spend a lot of time driving with 20 miles or more between each sentinel. The drives aren’t so bad, though, considering that October in Michigan usually offers prime fall colors.
Shepler’s Ferry out of Mackinaw City offers lighthouse cruises, which are a great way to get some fantastic photos. The only downside is you don’t actually get to stop and browse through any.
Just as important as their original function to guide ships safely to port, lighthouses today fill a gap linking present day to the past. These beacons are a shining part of Michigan’s heritage that offer charming and unique places of interest along the coasts. Need a weekend of R&R? Head east or west up Michigan’s shores and take a gentle step back in time.
Photo: Fotolia/James Phelps Jr.