|The Fox Island Lighthouse complex as it appeared in 1934. |
(Photos courtesy of Michigan DNR)
It is believed that as many as 370 lighthouses once dotted the Great Lakes during the mid-1800s. According to Dick Moehl, president of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA), that number is not surprising considering Michigan has more than 3,200 miles of shoreline.
“People take the Great Lakes for granted,” Moehl said. “Seventy percent of all goods and services coming into Michigan are touched by the Great Lakes. Without them, how do you keep commerce going?”
An avid boater, Moehl acknowledged that new Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and modern navigational systems have aided in phasing out the Great Lakes lighthouses, but he knows firsthand just how reassuring a thin slice of light beaming across choppy waters on a treacherous night can be.
|The Fox Island Lighthouse sat neglected for years before members |
of the Fox Island Lighthouse Association began their restoration
projects. (Photo courtesy Fox Island Lighthouse Association.)
Moehl credited the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 for bringing about needed policy changes in the way the General Services Administration (the disposal arm of federal properties for the Department of the Interior) transferred the lighthouses to interested groups.
“The legislation sparked a new renaissance for historic sites, and in a way, it made us pioneers,” Moehl said of his nonprofit GLLKA group.
Pioneer or not, Moehl knows that lighthouse preservation isn’t a one-time thing and it doesn’t come cheap. The group has to adhere to strict historic standards when working on its five lighthouse restoration projects, including the crown jewel, the St. Helena Lighthouse that sits two miles offshore from Gros Cap and 10 miles west of Mackinac Island in the Straits of Mackinac. They looked for funding through several sources.
|The Fox Island light as it appeared during a summer 2012 visit.
(Photo courtesy Fox Island Lighthouse Association.)
“A lot of good things have happened since the legislation was passed. All the shore lights have been wonderfully cared for,” Moehl said. “The next concern is for the offshore lights that are harder to maintain.” Moehl said that any type of offshore work is limited to only four or five months out of the year.
The Friends of the Fox Island Lighthouse know what difficulties a short work season can mean to restoration efforts.
Sitting 17 miles off Cat’s Head Point on the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, the 1867 South Fox Island lighthouse was transferred to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as a potential harbor of refuge. A group of individuals interested in preserving the light officially formed the nonprofit Fox Island Lighthouse Association in 2005 and has partnered with the DNR to restore the light.
The group received the gift of a boat they christened The Lightkeeper – big and sturdy enough to make the two-hour trip out to the island carrying both materials and volunteers.
The island’s remote location and lack of a dock near the work site can make for a logistical nightmare. Many work parties have been marooned by unpredictable weather. Nevertheless, the group has persevered – making the most of its shoestring budget and grateful for the many lighthouse lovers willing to roll up their sleeves and volunteer their time clearing vegetation and stabilizing the structures.
Bradshaw admitted she doesn’t know what the future holds for the light that has sat neglected for so many years. “It’s a lonely place out there,” she said. “But we’re working together to save that little light.”
|The 1866 Copper Harbor lighthouse as it stood in 1906. |
(Photos courtesy of the DNR)
In 1976, the brick lighthouse was opened as a museum, and in 1995 a formal on-site restoration project was initiated by the Michigan Historical Center and Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division. That project included work on the 1848 keeper’s dwelling, 1866 brick lighthouse and outdoor interpretive trails. The Michigan Historical Center was responsible for the research, interpretive planning and archaeological work funding, while the DNR staff at Ft. Wilkins carried out the hands-on, hammer-and-nails restoration work.
|A view of the Copper Harbor 1866 Lighthouse |
in 2009, after the restoration.
Whether it’s boat tours or bake sales, fundraising is an ongoing concern of any lighthouse preservation group. The Friends of Fox Island partner their fundraising efforts with the Grand Traverse Lighthouse at Leelanau State Park in Northport.
“People have nicknamed the St. Helena light the ‘Miracle of the Straits of Mackinac,’” Moehl said. “We get calls from across America wanting to know how we’ve done it. A lot of what we do is by sheer moxie.”
Moehl said that one of their biggest sources of funding has been their lighthouse boat tours. The group teams with Shepler Ferry for 42 cruises a year. Each cruise is packed with visitors eager to sightsee and photograph the lighthouses along two separate tour directions through the Straits.
In Moehl’s opinion, the trickle-down economics of their preservation efforts are a plus for the Mackinac City area.
|One of the interior rooms of the |
Copper Harbor Lighthouse Museum.
“Lighthouse restoration makes a good all-American story,” Moehl said. “But even more so, it’s Michigan’s story. The lights, their history, their lore – they’re all Pure Michigan.”
To learn more about lighthouse restoration work and volunteer opportunities with the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association or the Fox Island Lighthouse Association, visit www.gllka.com or www.southfox.org; to get travel ideas for any of the lighthouses, large or small, found along Michigan’s shores, visit www.michigan.org/lighthouses/.