Charity Island Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Saginaw Bay, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Located in Saginaw Bay, some thirty-four miles off the mouth of the Saginaw River, the 322 acre chunk of chert stone which constitutes Big Charity Island is surrounded by a number of shoals extending from both its northern and southern shores. As such, even in the 1830's the island represented a significant obstacle to the growing number of lumber vessels making their way in and out of the river.

Click to view anlarged imageIn his 1838 report to the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, Lieutenant James T. Homan reported that "a light-house on the northeastern part of the outermost of the Charity islands in that bay, which may be seen soon after leaving that on Point-aux-Barques, and form a connecting link with one at the mouth of Saganaw (sic) river, the bay navigators will feel themselves more secure."

Click to view enlarged imageSuccinct as they were, Homans' recommendation remained unheeded, and it was not until after the formation of the Light-house Board in 1851 that attention turned to the improvement of aids to navigation in Saginaw Bay, and Congress finally appropriated the expenditure of $4,800 for the construction of a light station on the island in 1856. 

Construction on the island began in 1856, and continued into the following year. Colin Graham was appointed as the station's first keeper on May 26, 1857, and exhibited the light for the first time on an unrecorded date soon after his arrival.

Click to view enlarged imageThe 39-foot tall brick tower was capped by an octagonal cast iron lantern displaying a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens. The tower's location on a slight rise at the northwest point of the island placed the lens at a 45-foot focal plane  providing a 13-mile range of visibility, serving not only to warn mariners of the shoals around the island, but as a link in the chain of coast lights the Board was constructing along the western coast of the lake.

By virtue of its exposed location, the station was in a state of constant repair. By 1868 the infiltration of the elements necessitated a major re-plastering of the walls and ceiling and the complete replacement of the kitchen floor.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1907 the station was one of the earliest on the Great Lakes to be converted to the new acetylene illuminant system with the installation of an 800-candlepower acetylene lamp within the Fourth Order Fresnel. At this time the light's signature was also changed to exhibit a fixed white light varied by a flash every ten seconds to better distinguish the station. With continued improvements to the acetylene system over the ensuing years, the Charity Island Light was completely automated in 1916, when the station's last keeper Joseph Singleton boarded-up the building and transferred elsewhere. Thus closed, the station required only infrequent service and deliveries of acetylene gas by the crew of the Lighthouse Service tender. The entire island with the exception of a small area of land surrounding the tower was sold to the R.L Gillingham Fishing Company in 1926 who used the dwelling as a cottage and as temporary housing for fishermen in the employ of the company.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1939, the Charity Island station was deemed obsolete with the construction of the "state-of-the-art" offshore light at Gravelly Shoal, and the the station deactivated and abandoned by the Coast Guard. Without any maintenance the station's structures began to deteriorate rapidly.

The island was again sold a development group in the 1960s. Various schemes for development of the island, along with rumors of various non-profit groups planning on restoring the light station have come and gone, and after the complete collapse of the original dwelling, it was torn down and replaced by the current owner with an historically inappropriate modern Cape Cod style cottage.

While the brick tower remains in marginal condition, it appears as though it might still be restorable, and many visitors climb the tower for a commanding view of both the east and west shoreline and most of Saginaw Bay. 

Keepers of this Light

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

Reference sources

Lieut. James T. Homans 1838 report on lights to the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury.
Lighthouse Board Annual Reports, 1855 through 1908.
Great Lake Light Lists,
1876 & 1920.
Thompson's Coast Pilot
, 1869.
Scott's Coast Pilot, 1909.
Email from Joann Gulau of CIPC, 06/25/03
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Tom & Phyllis Tag


Terry Pepper. This page last updated 03/01/2011.

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