Little Traverse  Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Harbor Springs, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

For centuries the area around Little Traverse Bay had been the home of Ottawa Indians. Around 1700, French Jesuits arrived in the area and constructed a mission at the famous L'Arbre Croche village, a huge native village which stretched from Cross Village to Harbor Springs. Dependant on agriculture, fishing and trapping in 1847, the village of L'Arbre Croche was home to the largest concentration of natives people in what would become the state of Michigan.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the Richard Cooper's establishment of his store in 1853, a few white settlers began to move into the area, however in accordance with treaty agreements made in Detroit in 1855, the native people continued to hold most of the prime land around the bay. With beginning exploitation of the rich forest resources surrounding the bay, the Michigan Legislature passed a resolution requesting federal funding of harbor improvements in Little Traverse Bay, and the erection of a lighthouse to guide vessels around the point which protruded into the northern arm of the bay.

After simultaneous memorials were presented in the Senate and House on March 13, 1871, the matter was referred to the Commerce Committee for evaluation, with the Commerce Committee in turn forwarding the request to Brevet Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe, the Chief Engineer of the Ninth District for his evaluation. In his report to the Commerce Committee dated April 11, Poe observed that "By reference to the tracing of the lake-survey detail chart of Little Traverse, enclosed herewith Ö the relation of the harbor of Little Traverse to the navigation of Lake Michigan can be readily seen and appreciated. The harbor itself is excellent in every respect, easy of access, affording good anchorage and a complete shelter from all winds. A Light-house of the fifth-order, together with a Fog-bell of 600 pounds with Stevenís striking apparatus, will make the harbor available. In addition to its relation to the general commerce of Lake Michigan, the harbor has some local importance. This is increasing, and, doubtless, will continue to do so." Following-up on Poeís report, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation for $15,000 in its annual report for 1873. However, strapped for funds, Congress ignored the request. While the Board reiterated its request for funding the following year, the matter was soon dropped in favor of more important projects elsewhere throughout the system.

As was frequently the case, treaties with the native Americans were frequently and expeditiously "modified" after their original signing, and with the passage of treaty limitations in 1875, the land around Little Traverse Bay was opened-up for settlers, and the flood gates opened. Harbor Springs was formally incorporated as a village in 1880. After the opening of land availability, land lookers moved through the area, claiming huge tracts of forest for their respective companies, with lumbering operations following quickly on their heels. Simultaneously with this commercial boom, word of the beauty of the bay, its sunsets, clean air, cool breezes and clear water spread throughout the Midwest, and an ever increasing number of moneyed individuals, their pockets bulging with the bounty of the industrialization of the southern Michigan cities began pouring into the area, building summer cottages, mansions and hotels.

Click to view enlarged imageWith this unprecedented boom in commercial and recreational activity, there was a massive increase in vessel traffic in Little Traverse Bay, and local interests again began petitioning for the construction of the lighthouse recommended almost ten years previously. This time, the response was more positive, with Congress approving the $15,000 appropriation for the establishment of a light at Little Traverse on August 7, 1882. By the end of the year, plans for the new station had been drawn up, and a survey team dispatched to identify the ideal location for the new station.

Click to view enlarged imageAfter obtaining clear title to the selected reservation early in 1884, a construction crew was delivered to Harbor Point on May 14, and work at the site began in earnest. By June 30, the basement had been excavated and the cut stone foundation walls laid. Joists for the first floor had been installed and the brickwork carried up to a height of two feet above the foundation level. The 1 ½-story brick dwelling stood 25í by 37 feet in plan, with a 10í square tower standing 30 feet in height integrated into its south gable end. The tower was capped by a square copper-floored gallery with iron hand railings, centered on which an octagonal cast iron lantern was installed. The District Lampist arrived from Detroit and installed the stationís fixed red Fourth Order Fresnel lens ordered from Sautter and Lemonier of Paris, France. 42-year old Elizabeth Whitney Williams accepted a transfer from the St. James Harbor lighthouse on Beaver Island where she had been serving for the past twelve years. Construction was completed on September 18, and with Elizabethís and her husband Danielís arrival, she climbed the stairs of her new station and officially exhibited the new light on the evening of September 25, 1884, sending the light 13 miles across the bay.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the creation of the Twelfth Lighthouse District, which encompassed all of Lake Michigan on July 25, 1886, a search was on for a location for a buoy depot to serve the northern portion of the lake. Identifying that the protection offered by Harbor Point represented a perfect location for such an facility, the Board requested an appropriation of $50.000 to purchase a site and erect the necessary sheds and wharves at Little Traverse. However, this request was not repeated in subsequent reports, and the buoy depot was eventually established at Charlevoix.

Click to view enlarged imageWith increasing population, a municipal water supply was established at Harbor Sprigs 1891, and the Twelfth District Engineer Major William Ludlow took advantage of the availability of the supply of clean potable water by having the station hooked-up to the system that same year. Three years later, a summer kitchen was erected, a new woodshed was constructed, the old woodshed converted into a barn for Mrs. Williamís horse, and wooden sidewalks laid to connect all of the station buildings.

To serve the growing number of pleasure boats transporting vacationers in and out of the harbor in thick weather, a fog bell tower was established on the point in front of the lighthouse on June 1, 1896. Standing 18-feet tall at the eaves, the tower was divided into upper and lower sections. The bell was suspended in the open upper section and a Stevens automated bell striking apparatus located in the enclosed lower section. Powered by a weight within a vertical wooden conduit, with its cable wound around a drum on the mechanism, the weight was cranked to the top of the conduit, and the drum rotated as the weight slowly fell to the bottom of the conduit. The mechanisms within the Stevens apparatus converted this rotary motion to a linear motion, which was then transferred to a large hammer which struck the bell with two sharp blows every 30 seconds.

I Click to view enlarged imagen the early days of the US lighthouse service, lard and sperm oil ware used for fueling the lamps. Relatively non-volatile, the oil was stored in special rooms in lighthouse cellars or in the dwelling itself. With a change to the significantly more volatile kerosene, a number of devastating dwelling fires were experienced, and beginning late in the 1880's the Lighthouse Board began building separate oil storage buildings at all US light stations. To this end, a work crew and materials were delivered at the station in 1898, and a brick oil storage building was erected a safe distance from the main building.

Click to view enlarged imageOther than the installation of a lightning rod on the tower the following year, Elizabethís life at Little Traverse settled into a peaceful routine for the next decade. While her husband Daniel photographed the resort country around the bat, selling his images the summer resort visitors, the relative peace and quiet afforded Elizabeth the opportunity to write her recollections of childhood on Beaver Island during the reign of King James Strang, and her life as keeper of the Stí James Harbor lighthouse after the death of her first husband. At the urging of friends, the 63-year old Elizabeth published her famous autobiography "A Child of the Seaí in 1905, with Elizabethís memoirs bringing considerable admiration, as people learned of her interesting and trying life story. After 43 years of lighthouse service, Elizabeth retired in 1913, and she and Daniel retired in Charlevoix, where she had spent her winters during her years tending the Beaver Harbor light.

On November 3, 1913, Alfred Erickson accepted a transfer from the Calumet Pierhead Light where he had been serving as Keeper for the past two years. A young man of twenty-six, Ericson had entered lighthouse service at the age of seventeen, with his first assignment being as Second Assistant at Plum Island, before serving at Chicago Harbor and Sheboygan Pierhead stations before accepting his transfer to Calumet in 1911.

Click to view enlarged imageOther than a change in the characteristic of the fog bell from a double stroke every 30 seconds to a single stroke every 30 seconds in 1914, Ericsonís life settled into the same quite routine as Elizabethís before him, and he continued to enjoy duty at Little Traverse until he resigned from service in 1940, the year after President Roosevelt transferred responsibility for the nationís aids to navigation to the Coast Guard in 1939. With this transfer, the old "Wickies" were given the option of continuing as civilians, or transferring into the Coast Guard. Many of the old civilian keepers could not stand the mountains of paperwork resulting from the Coast Guard takeover, and since Ericson was only 53 years of age, it is likely that he found other work in the area. With the Coast Guard takeover, the characteristic of the light was changed from fixed red to fixed green.

Click to view enlarged imageWith improvements in RADAR and LORAN-C in the late 1950ís, the vital role played by the old lighthouses and fog signals faded, and a move was on to automate as many lights as possible in order to eliminate the costs associated with full time crews at the stations. To this end, a work crew arrived at Harbor Point in 1963 and erected a 41-foot tall white-painted steel skeleton tower, outfitted with a flashing green electric light. Standing at a focal plane of 72 feet, the new light was visible for a distance of 14 miles.

The old lighthouse property was sold to the exclusive and gated Harbor Springs community in which it was isolated, and remains under the collective ownership of the community to this day. The grounds are maintained in immaculate condition, and while no longer illuminated, the Fourth Order Fresnel lens can still be seen sitting proudly within the stationís lantern

Keepers of
this Light

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

Finding this Light


Take US-31 to downtown Petoskey, and turn off at the entrance to the municipal marina, where there are plenty of parking spaces. If you do not have your own boat, the only way to obtain offshore views of the station will be by hiring a charter fishing boat to take you out to the Point.

Note that it is impossible to gain access to the station from the land, as there is only one road leading out to the Point, and it passes right through the guarded entrance to the gated community of Harbor Point.
Reference Sources

Journals of the US Senate and House of Representatives, March 13, 1871
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1871 - 1909
Annual report of the Lake Carrier's Association, 1914
Little Traverse Lighthouse, pamphlet, Harbor Point Association
A look around Little Traverse Bay, Mary Candace Eaton, Little Traverse Historical Society.
The Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, Ann & John Mahan, 1996
Personal observations at Harbor Point, 09/16/2000


This page last modified 01-28-2011

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