Beaver Head Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Beaver Island, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Beaver Island is the largest of a group of islands which make up the Beaver Archipelago lying off the northeast coast of Lake Michigan, and served as the western limit of the Grays Reef Passage through which mariners passed in and out of the Straits of Mackinac. Mariners heading from the Straits to Milwaukee, Sheboygan and Green Bay, frequently made their way between the southern tip of Beaver Island and North Fox Island which lied 9 miles to the south. With numerous shoals extending from up to a mile off each of these islands, mariners began calling for the establishment of a lighthouse on the southern point of Beaver Island to serve both as a marker for the western limit of Grays Reef Passage and the turning point for the western ports in the early 1830's.

Taking up the mariner's cause, Michigan Representative Isaac Crary introduced a motion in the House requesting that the Department of Commerce conduct an investigation into the expediency of erecting a lighthouse on Beaver Island on February 19, 1838. While the motion was successfully passed, the matter languished in the bureaucracy for a decade until Representative Kinsley Scott Bingham presented a memorial on behalf of "citizens of the western lakes praying for the erection of a lighthouse on Beaver Island" on January 5, 1849. After subsequent investigation, the Commerce Department concurred with the need for the new lighthouse, and Congress responded with an appropriation of $5,000 for the station's construction on September 28, 1850.

At this time, responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation fell under the auspices of Stephen Pleasonton, who was serving as the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. Under funded and understaffed, the tight-fisted Pleasonton was forced to delegate the hands-on administration of lighthouses to the local Collectors of Customs. As collector of Customs for the Mackinac district, Charles A. Avery was instructed to select an appropriate location for the new station. Avery's representative selected a 158-acre tract of land on a bluff at the south end of the island known as "Cheyenne Point," and after it was determined that the parcel was already in Federal ownership, President Millard Fillmore signed an executive order reserving the land for lighthouse purposes on November 21, 1850.

Avery advertised for bids for construction of the station immediately, and after his bid of $4,480 was determined to be the lowest submitted, Detroit contractor John McReynolds was awarded the contract for the stations construction in March 1851. Pans for the new station specified the erection of a brick tower capped with an octagonal iron lantern attached to a 26-foot by 30-foot dwelling attached to the tower by a covered passageway. On completion, the tower stood 46 feet from grade level to ventilator ball, and was outfitted with an array of fourteen Lewis lamps with reflectors situated at a focal plane of 103 feet, by virtue of the tower's location atop the bluff. Work on the station was completed in early winter, and the light exhibited for the first time late in the 1851 season of navigation.

Click to view enlarged imageAs was frequently the case with lights erected under the Pleasonton Administration, the materials and workmanship used in the original building left much to be desired, and showing signs of deterioration the station was significantly rebuilt in 1858, and its illuminating apparatus upgraded to a revolving white Fourth Order Fresnel lens which exhibited a white light every 90 seconds, and was visible for a distance of 16 miles in clear weather conditions.

Life at the station settled into a relatively quiet routine over the following ten years, with only routine maintenance and repairs conducted. Concern about the leaking cistern in the basement was voiced by the keepers for a number of years, but the complaints were ignored until after forest fires at the south end of the island in 1868 almost consumed the station buildings for a lack of an adequate water supply.

Perhaps one of the most interesting Keepers assigned to the station was Harrison "Tip" Miller, who was appointed Keeper in 1863. Miller's father had been an early follower of Brigham Young, and the young "Tip" was baptized through a hole cut through the ice in Nuavoo, Illinois, then the home of the Mormon Church. The senior Miller followed Young west where he became disenchanted with Young's teachings. Discovering truth in the words of Prophet Strang, Miller again moved his family to Beaver Island to be closer to Strang. Fortunately away from the island when Strang was assassinated and his followers routed from the island by Archibald Newton, the Millers returned to their island home after things on Beaver Island calmed. Tip Miller and his Irish wife raised ten children at the Beaver Island lighthouse, and it would appear that he was quite an entrepreneur, enhancing his lighthouse service income serving as a fisherman, cooper and mail carrier during the winter months. Miller also had interests in patents for an ore lock and a hame fastener, in pursuit of which he traveled to Buffalo on a number of occasions to conduct patent-related business.

Click to view enlarged imageThe fact that Miller was a well-known and respected member of the community is evidenced by Charlevoix diarist Rosa Nettleton, who subsequent to one of Tip's visits to the mainland wrote "He is the same old "Tip" that he always was, and enjoys the same large circle of friends." For reasons that we have as yet been unable to determine, Miller was removed from lighthouse service in 1874, to be replaced by William Duclon, who would later become renowned for raising a family of seven boys in the diminutive Eagle Bluff lighthouse across the lake in Door Peninsula.

During the particularly harsh winter of 1885-1886, ice on the lake shifted the boat landing a distance from its location, requiring a work crew to be dispatched to move it back to its original location. To help prevent a reoccurrence, the crew lengthened the landing by 50 feet through the installation of a 10 foot by 18 foot stone-filled timber crib its outer end. A nasty storm the following November completely obliterated the boat house and ways, and a crew returned in 1887 to replace both structures, and erected a second timber crib offshore in front of the boathouse to help protect the structure from the violent waves. After dropping from sight for two years, 1876 was also the year in which Tip Miller resurfaced as the first Keeper at the newly established Beaver Harbor Life Saving Station, in which capacity Miller lead his valiant crew of surfmen on a number of renowned rescues before being transferred to the Point Betsie Life Saving station in 1887.

With an increasing volume of maritime traffic making its way between Beaver and North Fox islands, the Lighthouse Board recommended the establishment of a fog signal station at Beaver Island in its 188 annual report. Congress evidently concurred with the importance of such an installation, since $5,500 was appropriated for the project as part of the sundry civil act of March 2, 1889. A survey was taken on the island that summer, and a site on a small plateau 30 feet above the lake and approximately 650 feet to the west of the lighthouse selected for the new structure. With the selected site being outside of the original reservation, negotiations were immediately begin for the purchase of an additional 10 acres of land, and by June 30, the Board's offer had been accepted and title papers were awaiting the owners signature.

Click to view enlarged imageEvaluating the needs of the entire area, the decision was made to replace the steam operated fog siren at the Skillagallee light station with a ten inch steam whistle, and to transfer the siren to Beaver island. Contracts for construction of the fog signal building were awarded in July, and the construction crew and necessary materials delivered to Beaver Island on August 27. Over the following three months, the timber frame fog signal building sheathed with corrugated iron sheeting was erected on the 30 foot plateau. To facilitate the delivery of coal required to fire the boilers, a 142-foot long iron-railed tramway was erected down the face of the bluff and onto the deck of a 32-foot long crib which served both as a delivery dock and as a protection for the water intake to supply the boilers. While at the station, the work crew installed 167-feet of plank sidewalk leading from the lighthouse to the fog signal, replaced five flights of stairs and landings from the lighthouse to the water's edge, and installed a handrail for the stairs in the tower. The Skillagallee sirens were delivered at the station by lighthouse tender, and plumbed to the boilers in the new building. After testing and adjustment to ensure that they emitted the prescribed characteristic 7-second blast followed by 42-seconds of silence, the new fog signal was officially placed into service on December 6, 1890.

After the establishment of the fog signal, it became clear that the workload was more than two keepers could cover, and the decision was made to add a Second Assistant at the station in 1898. However, with the duplex dwelling already representing tight quarters for two keepers, incorporating a third keeper into the dwelling made for less than desirable living arrangements. To solve the problem, District Engineer Milton B. Adams approved plans for the enlargement and modification of the dwelling, and a construction crew was dispatched to Beaver Island in 1902 to erect a large addition on the east end of the dwelling, and to modify the interior layout into three distinct apartments. While on site, the crew erected a red brick oil storage building, enlarged the boathouse, leveled and repaired the boat landing cribs, and installed 250 feet of plank walkways.

Click to view enlarged imageAs a result of exposure to the elements and a high degree of foot traffic from the keepers going about their daily business, the plank walkways were in constant need of attention. To reduce ongoing maintenance costs, 233 feet of concrete sidewalks were poured in 1906, and the fog signal tramway rebuilt and extended 42 feet lakeward to encompass falling lake levels. After serving at the Point Betsie Life Saving Station for an amazing 21 years, Tip Miller retired from the Life Saving Service in 1908 as result of unspecified physical duties, and returned with his wife to live out their retirement years on the island they always considered to be their home.

After 25 years exposure to the elements, the fog signal building was showing significant signs of deterioration, and plans were underway to replace the aging building with more durable structure. A work crew and materials arrived at the station in 1915 and erected a twenty-two foot wide by forty-foot long brick structure on the beach at the foot of the bluff in front of the old signal location. After the boilers and sirens were transferred and plumbed, the old structure was demolished.

The illuminating apparatus was upgraded to an incandescent oil vapor system in 1917, with an increase in intensity of the fixed light to 1,700 candlepower and the white flash to 14,000 candlepower. With this installation, the characteristic of the light was also changed to show a fixed white light with a single 1.3 second flash every 20 seconds.

Click to view enlarged image1931 was a sad day on Beaver Island when it was discovered that Harrison "Tip" Miller had passed away in his home at the age of ninety-three. However, Millers name would remain forever in the island lexicon in the form of Miller's Marsh, which was named after the indomitable light keeper, life saver and entrepreneur.

Two years after Miller's death, the fog signal at the Beaver Island light was upgraded to an air "Tyfon" powered by a diesel engine-powered air compressor. With the introduction of electric power to the station in 1938, the incandescent oil vapor lamp was replaced by an electric arc lamp.

Responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation was transferred to the Coast Guard in 1939, and with that change, crews of seamen were assigned to work with the keepers at the station. As part of this responsibility reassignment, the Civilian keepers were given the option of either incorporating into the Coast Guard at a relative rating, or maintaining their civilian status. Evidently all three of the civilian keepers assigned to Beaver Island were less than enamored with the opportunities represented by incorporation into the Coast Guard, as they all resigned from service within a year of the take over.

Click to view enlarged imageAt this time, the Tyfon system was also replaced by a compressed-air air diaphragm horn, which emitted 2 loud grunting blasts every 30 seconds. Civilization finally arrived at the station in 1953 with the running of a telephone line out to the station. Through the 1950's and early 1960's, significant advances were made in onboard radar and electronic navigation systems, and the once important role played by light stations and fog signal stations reduced significantly.

With the establishment of an automatic radio beacon tower to the east of the station in 1962, the Beaver Island light station had outlived its usefulness. The seamen assigned to the station were transferred to alternate assignments and the buildings boarded up and abandoned. At some time thereafter, the lighthouse was transferred into private ownership, and served as a hunting club for a number of years. However, without the constant attention of a team of dedicated keepers, the condition of the station buildings deteriorated, and the lighthouse suffered the ravages of mindless vandals who ravaged the interior rooms, broke out windows and doors, and even went so far as to pepper the interior walls with rifle fire.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Charlevoix Public School System saw an opportunity to use the restoration of the station to provide work experience to disadvantaged area youth. In 1975, ownership of the station buildings and reservation were transferred to the school district for the sum of $1.00, and work began at the station that same year. In concert with the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District and the Northwest Michigan Council of Government, CETA and DNR grants for restoration were obtained, and summer work/study programs at the station were initiated in 1978. Over the following few summers, the windows, doors and floors in the dwelling, garage and barn were repaired and replaced and the exterior of all the station structures scraped and painted. Cabins were built as housing for the students, hiking trails were cut through the woods, and an increasing number of programs were established, ranging from carpentry to computer operation.

Exposed as it is to the elements, the brick fog signal building was showing significant spalling at the turn of the twenty-first century, and a grant was obtained to restore the structure in 2003.

Keepers of
this Light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Beaver Island Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

Beaver Island may be reached by ferry from the Beaver Island Boat Company Dock In Charlevoix. Click here to visit their website for current fare and schedule information, or call them toll free at (888) 446-4095.

From the St' James dock at which the ferry lands, you will need to enquire about renting a car or motor scooter for the 40 minute drive to the south end of the island where the Beaver Island Lighthouse is located. 

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1853 - 1909.
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various, 1910 - 1939
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1871 - 1939
Journal of Beaver Island History
, Volume 2, 1980
Rosa Nettleton collection, 1882, Charlevoix Public Library.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research


This page last modified 05/07/2004

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