South Manitou Island Lighthouse Seeing The Light

South Manitou Island, off Leeland Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Located just off the mainland coast of Lake Michigan’s east coast, a group of islands known as the Beaver Archipelago form a chain which marked the western edge of a tight passage along the coast. Known as the "Manitou Passage," vessel masters taking this narrow passage were able to reduce the travel distance between the ports of Lake Michigan’s southern shore and the Straits of Mackinac by sixty miles, as opposed to taking the more circuitous route through open water to the west of the islands. As the most southerly of this chain of islands, South Manitou also featured one of the areas safest natural harbors, and with 5,260-acres of fine timber growth covering the island, it is not surprising that a few enterprising settlers arrived during the mid 1830’s to sell firewood to steamers taking shelter in the harbor when things turned sour out in the lake. By the late 1830’s it was commonplace to find upward of fifty vessels crowded into the harbor seeking refuge and taking-on supplies when things turned sour out in the lake.

Lying a scant few miles west of Sleeping Bear Point, mariners were hard pressed to locate the southern entrance to the busy passage at night or in times of thick weather, and a cry arose throughout the maritime community to light the southern entrance to the passage. Taking up their call on February 19, 1838, Michigan State Representative Isaac Crary entered a motion before the House of Representatives to erect a lighthouse on South Manitou, and fully cognizant of the vital role played by maritime commerce in the area, Congress responded quickly with an appropriation of $5,000 for the station’s construction on July 7 of that same year.

The following month, Navy Lieutenant James T Homans was dispatched to the Great Lakes to conduct an inspection of all existing lighthouses, and to select sites for six new stations for which Congress had recently made appropriations, among which was the new light for South Manitou. On his arrival on the island, Homans confirmed the importance of the natural harbor, noting that "I saw within it, during 24 hours of my stay there, a number of vessels, the aggregate of whose tonnage was 2,000 tons. The value of this harbor is the more enhanced, by its being the only one admitting the largest vessels in all weather, in the direct route between the straits of Michilimackinac and Chicago - a distance of 300 miles." After considering a number of sites around the bay, Homans selected a site for the new lighthouse on a knoll at the bay’s southern point. Reporting that "there can be little dispute as to this point being the best for this light-house, it being open to the course of vessels going up or down the lake, and abundant depth of water within a few yards of the point for the largest craft," Homans marked the site with an appropriately marked stake, and departed for Lake Huron.

After clear title to the chosen site was obtained, the contractor arrived to begin construction in the late summer of 1839. As was most often the case during the days of the fiscally tight era of the Pleasonton administration, primary consideration in the design of the new light appears to have been driven by cost, as opposed to purposeful durability. To this end, a rubble-stone 1 ½-story dwelling was erected on the knoll, and capped with a squat wooden tower at one gable end. A wooden gallery was erected atop this tower, an iron lantern with copper dome erected at its center, and outfitted with an array of eleven Argand lamps equipped with fourteen-inch silvered reflectors. While the tower stood only thirty feet in height, the station’s location atop the thirty-foot knoll selected by Homans the previous year afforded the light a sixty-foot focal plane. However, the poor reflective efficiency of the cheaply manufactured reflectors likely afforded the station a range of visibility of less than eight miles in clear weather.

Island resident William Burton was selected as the station’s first Keeper at the standard annual salary of $350.00. However it appears that Burton took more interest in collecting and selling cordwood to passing steamers than to tending the light. In fact, he virtually abandoned life at the station, taking up residence in a house a mile from the light, close to the steamer landing. As a result Burton’s lackadaisical stewardship of the station, a large number of the trees which had been clear-cut around the station had re-grown. Arriving at the island to conduct his annual inspection of Lights in 1842, District Inspector Duane Wilson reported that he found the light was "seriously obstructed and its usefulness very much impaired by the trees surrounding it in certain directions." After a number of complaints were lodged by mariners complaining of the inconsistent manner in which Burton maintained this important aid to navigation, Stephen Pleasonton took action, and penned a letter to Abraham Wendell, the Mackinac Collector of Customs on July 20, 1842, admonishing him to "inform the Keeper if he does not keep a better light he will have to give place to some person who will. If it should be caused by want of ventilation in the lantern, you will apply the proper remedy. Two of the lamps here throw their light upon the shore, and of course are useless. You will direct the keeper to discontinue them. This keeper it seems lives a mile from the Lighthouse and does his duty by deputy. You will direct him to remove into the keeper's house and execute the duties himself, in default of which he will be removed without hesitation. It is alleged that this light is obscured in one direction by trees that may be removed at an expense of about twenty dollars. You will cause the trees to be removed if you shall find the expense will not exceed twenty or thirty dollars."

Evidently the warning failed to improve the situation immediately, as Burton continued to serve as Keeper of the South Manitou Island Light until May 29, 1843, when he resigned his position to be replaced by Zachariah Ward. The selection of Keepers at the station appear to have left something to be desired, as Ward only lasted two years in the position before George Clark was appointed to replace him in August of 1845, and then Clark himself resigned to be replaced in turn by Benjamin Ross on June 27, 1849. Perhaps providing a clue to the high keeper turnover at the station, during the annual inspection of the station conducted on July 8, 1850, it was reported that while Keeper Ross’ conduct was good, the fireplace was found to have been undermined by rats, and had caved-in, and rot was found in the eaves, for which the sum of $75.00 was requested to effect necessary repairs. Ross resigned from lighthouse service on June 18, 1853, and Alonzo Slyfield was immediately appointed to replace him. However, likely as yet another reflection of the high turnover at the station, Slyfield was only appointed as "Acting Keeper, " in which position he served until being promoted to full keeper status on September 9 of that same year.

After great dissatisfaction with Stephen Pleasonton’s administration of lighthouses in the United States, responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation was removed from the Treasury Department by an Act of Congress in 1853, and transferred to the newly formed Lighthouse Board. One of the Board's first orders of business was a complete upgrading of the Lewis lamps with the superior French Fresnel lenses, and as part of this system-wide upgrade, a work crew arrived at South Manitou in 1857 and installed a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens in the lantern.

With the deterioration mentioned in the 1850 inspection largely unresolved, during the installation of the new lens in 1857 the construction crew found that the condition had deteriorated to a point that complete replacement of the structure was considered the only viable option. To this end, a work crew arrived on the island in 1858 with materials to completely replace the station. As was frequently the case, once a new lighthouse plan had been drawn-up, that plan was used at a number of stations throughout the district. The plan for the new building on South Manitou was a virtual duplicate of two other stations built that same year at Port Washington and at Grand Traverse.

The unpainted Cream City brick dwelling was erected over a full rubble stone cellar with a separate oil storage room, and stood 32’ 4 ¾" by 30’ 4 ¾" in plan, and 27’ feet high at the roof peak. With three rooms on each floor, stairs led from the cellar to the second floor, where a series of ladders provided access through the roof to the tower. As was the case with the previous station, the tower was constructed of wood and incorporated into one end of the roof ridge. Atop the short white painted tower, a square gallery was outfitted with a prefabricated octagonal cast iron lantern, into which the fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens from the old lantern was installed with its center sitting 35 feet above the structure’s foundation. By virtue of the building’s location atop the rise, the lens sat at a focal plane of 64 feet, and was visible for a distance of 14 miles in clear weather. In order to serve vessels making the passage during the frequent fogs which blanketed the area, the construction crew also erected an automated fog bell at the station. A separate wood frame building was erected near the main structure, and a bell weighing 1,000 pounds suspended from an exterior wall. The bell was rung automatically by way of an automated bell ringing mechanism located within the building. This mechanism was operated by clock-work, which when wound would strike the bell by way of a large mallet which swung through an opening in the exterior wall of the building.

Continuing the station’s established pattern of high keeper turnover, two more keepers served and resigned from the station over the following seven years until Aaron Sheridan, who moved into the dwelling with his wife Julia and their children on July 21, 1866. Some reports indicate that this new light may not have been as much of an improvement over the old station as the Lighthouse Board had planned, as local lore has it that an "enterprising" resident of Empire by the name of Joe Perry, devised a scheme whereby he capitalized on the dimness of the light. By placing a lantern on the southern end of Sleeping Bear Dunes, vessels would see the lantern, mistake it for the dim South Manitou light, and run aground on the shore north of Empire. When the crew of the ship left to get help, Perry would row a small boat out and rob the grounded vessel. Perry must have been an unsavory character, since although many of Empire’s residents knew of his exploits, and some even allowed him to store his ill-gotten gains in their houses, nobody turned him in to the authorities.

At the close of the 1860’s the Lighthouse Board came to realize that the diminutive light on South Manitou ill-served the increasing number of vessels making the Passage. Remarking that it was "frequently impossible to distinguish the present light from those on board vessels at anchor," Eleventh District Engineer Colonel J B Wheeler began to lay out plans for the erection of a more substantial station on the island. Estimating that an improved light could be established for $10,000, the Board requested the necessary appropriation in its annual report for 1869. However, Wheeler was reassigned to duty elsewhere, and Brevet Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe took over as Chief Engineer for the Eleventh District on March 24, 1870. An accomplished civil and military engineer, and a man of considerable vision, Poe’s analysis of the situation at South Manitou called for a more expansive solution. In his report for 1870, Poe stated that "the importance of this station demands even a better light than originally proposed, and but for the limited amount appropriated there would have been recommended the erection of a tower of greater height, with a lens of the Third Order." In a testament to Poe’s reputation, Congress appropriated the additional $20,000 on March 3, 1871. By July 20, 1871, a working party and all the necessary materials had been delivered on the island, and work was underway at a feverish pitch.

Poe's plans for the new station called for the erection of a 65-foot tall brick tower connected to the existing dwelling by a covered passageway to provide the keepers shelter when tending the light during inclement weather. Thirty feet lakeward from the dwelling, a tight core of massive oak pilings were driven deep into the sand to form a firm base for the new tower. Atop this timber base, a team of masons carefully laid a foundation of cut limestone to support the brickwork of the tower itself. With an outside diameter of 18 feet at the base, double brick walls were erected with an air space between to both increase stability and to provide ventilation within the structure. While the outer walls tapered gracefully over their 65 foot height, the inner wall formed a perfect cylinder to house the cast iron spiral stairway. Three landings provided observation points, with each outfitted with a graceful arch-topped window. The tower was equipped with two entrance doors at the lower end. One door at the stone foundation level provided exterior access, and the second door, one stair flight above, provided access to the thirty foot long covered passageway connecting the tower to the first floor of the dwelling. The fourth landing in the tower was outfitted with four similar arch-topped windows, and provided the keepers with a lofty watch room full view of the horizon. A gently curved iron ladder provided access to the mechanical room above, where the pedestal for the lens was located, and from which access could be gained to a wide gallery which encircled the structure. The gallery was supported by a series of gracefully formed cast iron corbels, which together with the arch-topped windows become a signature of a number of Poe-designed towers that would be built throughout the District. Atop the mechanical room, the Third Order Lantern was centered on its own narrow gallery to provide the keepers with access to the exterior glass.

Click to view enlarged imageWork on the new tower continued into 1872, when the district Lampist Mr. Crump, arrived at the station and oversaw the removal of the Third Order Fresenel-stytle lens from its shipping crates, and their transportation up the tower to the lantern. The lens, which had been designed and manufactured by Henry-Lepaute of Paris, was carefully assembled atop its the cast iron pedestal. Standing 91 feet above the foundation, the magnificent glass jewel boasted a focal plane of 104 feet, and equipped with a triple wick lamp, the new light would be visible for a distance of 17 ½ miles in clear weather.

With the additional responsibilities represented by the tending of a light in such a tall tower, the decision was made to add a First Assistant to the station, and Aaron Sheridan managed to have his wife Julia appointed to the position on September 30, 1872. Thus, it is likely that the new light was exhibited for the first time at somewhere close to that date. No longer serving any purpose, the old tower and lantern were removed from the dwelling, the roof re-shingled, and the work crew departed, leaving Keeper Sheridan and his family to keep watch over the Passage.

1875 saw the erection of wood-framed fog signal building at the station. Outfitted with a boiler fired by coal or wood, the steam was piped to a single 10-inch locomotive whistle located atop the roof of the building. The old fog bell was left standing to serve as an emergency backup in case the steam whistle failed. With the addition of the steam fog signal to the list of duties for the station, Jeremiah Becker was appointed as the station’s Second Assistant, arriving at the station on May 27.

Click to view enlarged image1878 saw what is certainly the most distressing accident in the long history of the South Manitou Light. On April 8 of that year, Aaron and Julia Sheridan, along with their newest baby accepted an offer of a boat ride with one of their island acquaintances. While the two older Sheridan children watched from the lighthouse, a sudden squall blowing in from across the lake swung the sail boat’s boom around, striking Aaron on the head, and throwing him from the boat. Aaron was likely knocked unconscious by the blow, as he never surfaced. As the boast capsized, Julia was thrown overboard, and clutching her baby in one arm managed to hang on to the gunwale with her free arm. The boat owner tried to reach for a rope to secure Julia to the boat, but when he turned around, both Julia and her baby had slipped beneath the waves. The boat owner hung on for dear life, to be rescued on North Manitou Island the following day. South Manitou residents later reported that the two remaining Sheridan children were seen for a number of days walking along the shore crying, looking over the water for the bodies of their deceased mother and father.

Tragedy was soon lost in the grind of daily work, as the steam fog signals at South Manitou were quickly deemed so vital to maritime commerce in thick weather that in 1878 a second similarly equipped fog signal building was erected a hundred feet to the east of the original structure. This second structure was designed to serve only as a backup in case of failure of the original system, and no longer serving any purpose, the fog bell and machinery were shipped to Duluth for use at the that port’s new harbor entrance.

Click to view enlarged imagePrior to the 1890's, lamp oil had been stored in storage rooms within the dwellings at almost all US light stations. With the adoption of the more volatile kerosene as the primary lamp fuel, a number of dwelling fires had been experienced, and a system-wide project of erecting separate oil storage buildings was undertaken. To this end, the lighthouse tender WARRINGTON arrived at South Manitou late in 1892 and delivered the iron components for the erection of a circular oil storage building which was erected the following spring, approximately 100 feet northwest of the tower.

After almost twenty years of heavy use, the boilers and whistles in both fog signal buildings were found to be in poor condition, and bids for furnishing replacement equipment were advertised on April 15, 1896. Contracts were awarded that summer, and the equipment was delivered at the Detroit depot in September. The materials were loaded on the lighthouse tender AMARANTH for transportation to South Manitou. However being that their delivery to the island was so late in the season, the actual installation of the new machinery did not begin until the opening of the 1897 navigation season, with the work completed that July. While on the island, the work crew also rebuilt and fireproofed both fog signal buildings and laid 1,400 feet of sidewalk to connect the station buildings.

The installation of the new fog signal equipment appears to have been completed just in time, as 1898 found the South Manitou keepers busy feeding the hungry boilers with 71 cords of wood and a ton of coal to keep the whistles screaming their warning over the lake for a station record 1,085 hours.

Click to view enlarged imageThe first decade of the twentieth century saw large metal tanks being installed in the fog signal buildings to increase the supply of water, which was previously supplied only by a pump submerged in the lake. The boathouse was rebuilt, and with lake levels receding, the boat ways were extended to allow the station boat to launch into deeper water. 300 feet of sidewalk was replaced and a second oil house of brick construction was erected. As a result of recent improvements in lighting technology, the stations illuminating apparatus was upgraded to an incandescent oil vapor system on 1910, which resulted in an increase in output of the light to 7,300 candlepower and an increase in its range of visibility to 19 miles.

Things were relatively uneventful over the following twenty years, and with slowly declining maritime traffic, the station began to waned in importance. 1933 saw the last major change at the station, with the removal of the steam fog whistles and the installation of twin Type "F" diaphone signals, operated by electric air compressors powered by twin diesel generators.

With the erection of the North Manitou Shoal Light in 1935 and the subsequent establishment of the South Manitou Shoal Lighted Gong Buoy some time thereafter, a series of events was unfolding that would lead to the end of the South Manitou light. Advances in radio and radar technology after the Second World War provided vessels masters with the ability to "see" through the dark of night and the thickest of weather, reducing the dependence on expensive manned light stations. On December 12, 1958, the final crew departed the South Manitou Light Station, leaving the tower behind them to stand blind sentinel over the Passage.

Click to view enlarged image1958 was also the year in which the National Park Service first began an evaluation of the Sleeping Bear area as a possible site for a new National Park. After considerable political wrangling, including the unsuccessful introduction of a number of Bills before Congress over the following decade, a law was finally passed on October 21 1970 setting aside $200,000,000 for purchasing land for the new park, including large sections of both North and South Manitou Islands.

With the establishment of the new park, the Park Service assumed responsibility for all historic structures within the park, including both the lighthouse and the old Coast Guard station. In accordance with standard National Park practice, the emphasis on such management has been more geared towards stabilization than restoration, and considerable work has been undertaken to ensure the long term viability of the structures.

Today, modern ferry boats depart from the docks at Leland carrying both day visitors and longer-term campers out to the Manitous, and Rangers stand ready to take visitors on guided tours of one of the most majestic and storied lighthouses in all of the Great Lakes.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We have yet to visit this light, and thus have nothing to report. We expect to visit South Manitou Island in late summer of 2000, and will update this page after that trip.

Finding this Light

A trip to South Manitou Island is by necessity a full day excursion.

Manitou Island Transit operates their ferry out of Leeland, with boarding beginning at 9.15am, the boat departs for the South Manitou at 10.00am, arriving at the island at 11.00am. Visitors then have five hours to explore the island, and return to the dock to catch the ferry's departure at  4.30pm, arriving back in Leeland at 6.00pm.

Since there is no food available on South Manitou, packing a picnic lunch is a must-have! Operating on a seven day a week basis in June, July and August, Tuesdays and Thursdays are dropped from the schedule in the months of May, September and October.

Reference Sources

Congressional records, various, 1838 - 1870
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1853 - 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Bureau, various, 1910 - 1939
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1876 - 1959
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, Various, 1906 - 1953
Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 
South Manitou Island - Pioneer Community to National Park, Myron H. Vent, 1973.
Exploring North Manitou, South Manitou.., Robert H. Ruchhoft, 1991
Lights Of The Lakes, Chris Duncan, Mich. Coastal Mgmt. Program, 06/07/1984
The South Manitou Story, Gerald E. Crowner, 1982
Some Other Day (Remembering Empire), Empire Heritage Group, 1987
USCG Historians office, Photographic archives.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 01/03/2005

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