Groups spark restoration for beloved Michigan lights

The Fox Island Lighthouse complex as it appeared in 1934.
(Photos courtesy of Michigan DNR)
Although the golden age of Michigan’s lighthouses has passed – and most of the towering beacons that once guided many a mariner safely around the Great Lakes have gone dark – the remnants of these “guardians of the lakes” still beckon historians, preservationists and lighthouse buffs fascinated by their beauty, their history and their stories.

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.)
Currently, just over 100 lighthouses still exist on the Great Lakes, thanks in part to government legislation and the preservation efforts of many volunteers who are slowly bringing these relics from the horse-and-buggy days back to life.

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.)
Moehl said GLLKA worked through the National Bicentennial Lighthouse Fund, which provides federal assistance for local lighthouse restoration efforts. The 1998 Clean Michigan Initiative added some funding, as did the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program, which is funded through the sale of special Michigan lighthouse license plates.

“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.

Fox Island Lighthouse Association board members and
volunteers head out to the island for a work project. Shown
here, left to right, are; H. Joerg Rothenberger (FILA co-founder,
board member), Cathy Allchin (FILA vice president), Phil von
Voigtlander (FILA island project manager, board member), Heather
Landis (assistant for the Historic Structures Report), Ken Czapski
(of UP Engineers & Architects, Inc. in Marquette), George “Carp”
Carpenter (former FILA secretary), plus Miss Cricket (Carp’s canine
supervisor), Chris Young (volunteer) and Jerry Spears (volunteer).
(Photo courtesy Fox Island Lighthouse Association.)
According to Sandra Bradshaw, of Suttons Bay, the effort has been a love story. “When we first formed the group we didn’t even have a boat to get us out to the island,” she said.

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)
Similar efforts are under way on behalf of Copper Harbor Light Station, nestled on the eastern tip of Keweenaw County in the Upper Peninsula. Built in 1848, the first Copper Harbor Light Station operated from 1848 to 1865 and consisted of a keeper’s house, separate light tower and landing dock. It was replaced by the current lighthouse in 1866. U.S. Coast Guard crews moved the beacon from the brick lighthouse to an automated steel tower in 1933.

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.
Recently, the Copper Harbor Light Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places, protecting it as a significant historic resource. The 1848 keeper’s dwelling now serves as the Copper Harbor Light Station’s orientation building. The grounds are maintained by DNR staff, and the site is open for tours (weather permitting) from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Visitor access is by a 15-minute boat tour operating from the Copper Harbor Marina.

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.
“We average 80 people per trip, and people come from all over America. Many of them will take one trip and then stay over in Mackinaw City and take the other trip the next day.” Moehl said, adding that the dollars visitors spend on lodging, food and sightseeing add up to a positive effect on the area’s economic bottom line.

“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 or; to get travel ideas for any of the lighthouses, large or small, found along Michigan’s shores, visit