Old Mackinac Point Light Seeing The Light

Mackinaw City, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

The Straits of Mackinac have always been critical to maritime commerce. Serving as the connecting passage between lakes Michigan and Huron, all traffic passing between the two lakes was necessarily forced to run the gauntlet between the islands and shoals which peppered the passage.

Maritime traffic expanded rapidly through the lakes in a westerly direction during the first half of the nineteenth century, and responsibility for navigational aids fell under Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. Unfortunately, Pleasonton’s experience was purely in the area of fiscal administration, and having no background in maritime matters, his administration was characterized by slow reaction and the choosing of "least cost" alternatives.

With large vessel traffic increasing from Lake Huron into the Straits, the first step in guarding the Straits was taken in 1829, through the construction of Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse to both guide mariners in making the turn into the Straits, and to warn them of the shoals and shallows surrounding the island.

Three years later in 1832, Congress acted on the Fifth Auditor’s recommendation that a lightship be placed on Waugoshance Shoal as the first attempt to mark the western entrance to the Straits. However, in typical Pleasonton fashion, the decision was made to convert the wooden vessel LOIS MCLANE into a light vessel rather than spend the money necessary to build a more suitable purpose-designed vessel. Nonetheless, the commissioning of the Lois McLane marked a historical point in inland navigation history, being the first light vessel to serve on any of the Great Lakes.

Click to view enlarged imageUnfortunately, it would appear that the Lois McLane was wholly unsuitable for the purpose for which she was converted. On visiting Mackinaw City in 1838 while conducting a report on aids to navigation in the district, Lieutenant James T. Homans reported that he "found there the light-ship, belonging to the strait of Michilimackinac undergoing extensive repairs, having been driven from her appropriate moorings during a heavy gale of wind last year, and thrown upon the beach. The difficulty of obtaining both mechanics and materials for repairs of vessels at Mackinaw is great, having always to send to Detroit, and sometimes farther for them."

Homans recommended that a new, and more suitable lightship be constructed for use on Waugoshance Shoal, and that the existing vessel be transferred for use in the more sheltered confines of Lake St. Clair.

In that same report, Homans strongly recommended that a lighthouse be constructed on "the point to the west of Mackinaw harbor." While he did not specifically refer to Old Mackinac Point, it would appear that it was indeed that point to which he was referring when he continued "the narrowest part of the strait is opposite this point; of course increases the dangers to the navigation just there, especially in the night."

Pleasonton took no action on Homans recommendations. Though new light stations were constructed to guard both eastern and western entrances to the Straits, and while thirty-nine vessels went down in the Straits in the interim, the treacherous Straits of Mackinac themselves remained unmarked for the following thirty-one years.

Administration of aids to navigation was transferred to the nine member Lighthouse Board in 1852, and with this change attention was once again focused on the Straits. Ignoring local petitions for the construction of a light on Old Mackinac Point, in 1854 the Board recommended that an appropriation of $6,000 be made for the construction McGulpin’s Point Light Station, approximately three miles to the west of Old Mackinac Point.

The Lighthouse Board renewed its recommendation every year thereafter, however Congress did not appropriate the necessary funds until July 26, 1866. Work began at McGulpin’s Point in the Spring of 1869, with the station’s Third and a Half Order Fresnel lens exhibited for the first time that fall.

Click to view enlarged imageWith thick, foggy conditions a frequent problem through the Straits, the Lighthouse Board began evaluating the possibility of installing a fog-signal in the area in 1886. Realizing that the installation of such a station at Mackinac Point would serve double duty for both guiding ships through the Straits and into Mackinaw harbor, the construction of such a station was recommended to Congress in the Board’s 1888 annual report, with a request for $5,500 for the purchase of land and materials for the installation.

Finally coming to the realization that Old Mackinac Point’s central location within the Straits was also a far better location for a first-class shore light than at McGulpin’s Point, the Board also petitioned Congress for $25,000 for the construction of a light station to augment the fog signal, suggesting that with the construction of such a facility, the McGulpin’s Point station could be declared obsolete and closed down.

In the act of March 2, 1889 Congress responded favorably to both recommendations, however an appropriation was only made for the $5,500 cost of constructing the fog signal, and none for the construction of the requested light station.

Click to view enlarged imageWith sufficient funds only for purchasing the fog signal property, a survey party arrived at Old Mackinac Point in September 1889 to select the necessary land. Negotiations for purchase of land were undertaken the following January, with a title deed filed for three separate parcels of land in June of 1890. The resulting property measured 150 feet by 170 feet, with 150 feet of frontage on the Straits. Seeing that that the property purchased was too small for the first class lighthouse and fog signal planned, the Board realized that the keepers dwelling would have to be located perilously close to the existing fog signal building and thus requested that Congress appropriate an additional $1,000 for the purchase of additional land to the east of the station, so that the fog signal could be subsequently relocated a safer distance from the keepers dwelling.

Contracts were issued for the fog-signal equipment and building materials, with some of them delivered to the point late in 1889. Work began on the station on July 1, 1890, and continued through the summer. With the structure’s completion, the wood-framed building stood 22 feet by 40 feet, sheathed on the exterior with corrugated iron and smooth iron sheets on its interior. Its twin ten-inch steam whistles were powered by a pair of boilers, set on brick foundations. Work finished on October 9, 1890, and the signals were officially placed into operation on November 5 of that same year. Over the next year of use, the station’s twin steam whistles would be operated for a total of 300 hours, with the boilers consuming 10 tons of bituminous coal and 18 cords of firewood.

Click to view enlarged imageFinally, on March 3, 1891, Congress appropriated the $20,000 needed for the construction of the light station at the Point. The Board reacted quickly, with the district Engineer Major William Ludlow completing plans and specifications for the construction of the station that June. Bids were immediately sought for the needed materials, and contracts for all metalwork required were awarded on October 10, with its delivery at the Detroit lighthouse depot planned for January 17, 1892. With no bids forthcoming for the construction of the station, the work was re-advertised in March of 1892. John Peter Schmitt submitted the lowest bid, and was awarded the contract for the station’s construction.

The lighthouse tender Amaranth delivered the necessary  supplies and Schmitt's work party at the Point in the latter part of May, and work on the station began in earnest. On a foundation of ashlar limestone, the tower and attached keeper’s dwelling were both constructed of Cream City brick, trimmed with Indiana limestone. The double-walled tower was laid with an outside diameter of 13 feet 4 inches, and as each course was added, rose to a height of 45 feet, surmounted by a circular iron gallery and an 8 foot 8 inch diameter watch room, which was in-turn capped by a prefabricated octagonal iron lantern.

Click to view enlarged imageThe first floor of the large duplex dwelling featured twin parlors, kitchens and living rooms and three bedrooms on each unit’s second floor. The building was capped with a tin roof, painted a bright red to increase the station’s visibility during daylight hours.

The station complex was completed with a 16 foot by 24 foot storehouse, a wooden barn, and a circular iron oil storage building with a total capacity of 360 gallons of kerosene in standard Lighthouse Board five gallon containers.

The district lampist arrived at the station and installed and adjusted the station’s red Fourth Order Fresnel lens to ensure that it met the specification of a fixed red light varied by a red flash every ten seconds. Keeper George W. Marshall displayed the light for the first time on October 25, 1892, and with their work complete, the tender Amaranth arrived at the Point and removed the work party on October 27.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress finally appropriated the $1,000 for the purchase of additional property in 1893, and title papers for the additional property adjacent to the station were filed with the US Attorney on July 24, 1893. These papers were returned by the Attorney on January 24, 1894, with Mackinaw City unwilling to give up the land as a result of it’s planned use as a public park. Thus the Lighthouse Board entered into a series of negotiations with the City which lasted until 1907, when title to the property was eventually obtained through condemnation. With legal title to the additional property in hand, the old fog signal building was demolished, the land re-graded and the existing red brick building constructed some fifty feet further to the east of the keeper’s dwelling. In that year, the fog signal was in operation for 471 hours, with its' hungry boilers fired with a total of 5 tons of anthracite coal and 62 cords of wood.

Click to view enlarged imageAs the use of automobiles became increasingly widespread in the early 1900’s, Midwesterners began to take increasing advantage of the newfound freedom that their automobiles provided, driving ever increasing distances to vacation. The unspoiled beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula beckoned, and regular car ferry service began to ply the waters between Mackinaw and St. Ignace. With large amounts of vessel traffic now moving through and across the Straits, the Old Mackinac station became increasingly important as the light enabled the car ferries to operate throughout the night.

When the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957, the car ferries were out of business, and with the brightly illuminated bridge serving as a navigation aid par excellence, the old light station was immediately rendered obsolete and was decommissioned.

The property was acquired by Mackinac State Historic Parks in 1960, and the station was operated as a maritime museum from for 1972 through 1988, but was subsequently closed.

Click to view enlarged imageAs a result of the recent surge in interest in lighthouses, Mackinac State Historical Parks once again has plans to restore the magnificent structure to its original glory. To this end, the 1909 fog signal building was renovated and reopened to the public as an information center and gift shop in June 2000. Over the ensuing years, plans have been formulated for the station's restoration, which began in the late fall of 2003 with replacement of the roofs on both the lighthouse and fog signal building.

At the end of 2003, work on the roof had been completed, and the windows stripped and boarded-up. Work will continue into the Spring of 2004, with a grand reopening of the station planned for June 12, 2004. Work on the station will not be complete at the reopening, but visitors will be allowed to tour the structure to view the work in process. When work on the station is complete, plans call for re-erecting the station barn and installing the wooden picket fence which surrounded the station grounds in the early 1900's.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Old Mackinac Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

Whoever wrote that lighthouses are to Americans what castles are to Europeans, surely must have visited the Old Mackinac Light Station! 

Situated majestically at the northernmost point of Michigan's lower peninsula, the Lighthouse Board knew exactly what they were doing when they placed the station, since even today it offers a commanding view of maritime traffic passing through and across the Straits.

MSHP plans to open the lighthouse to the public on June 12, with a Grand Opening ceremony planned for June 26. The gift shop in the fog signal building is expected to be open on a daily basis from May 12th through October 14th, with hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To make a donation to help with the restoration, contact:

Mackinac Associates
Box 873
Mackinaw City, MI 49701

MSHP also has a printable donation form online. Click here to view this form. 

Finding this Light

From I75 Northbound, take exit 339, and turn North on to Nicolet St. and head three blocks to Huron Avenue, and the lighthouse parking area.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994
Report to the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. Lt. James T. Homans 1838 
Annual Reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1890-1903.
Photographs from the author's personal collection.
Shipwrecks of the Straits of Mackinac, Dr. Charles E. & Jeri Baron Feltner, 1991
Photographs courtesy of James Belisle.
Mackinac State Historical Parks website
Personal observation at Mackinac Point, 09/11/1998 & 09/12/1999 & 9/17/2000.
The Keeper's Log, Journal of the USLHS, Summer 2000.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag

© Terry Pepper. This page last updated 12/02/2007 .

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