Michigan Lighthouses on Lake Superior

Updated on May 31, 2020
Susan Sears profile image

Susan enjoys writing on a variety of topics. She spends time exploring Michigan outdoors and loves the history surrounding the lighthouses.

Of all the Michigan Lighthouses, those on Lake Superior stand alone. Lake Superior is a cold, deep lake that often acts more like an ocean and has claimed more lives than any other Michigan Lake. It has wild, unpredictable winds that cause dangerous waves for Mariners to navigate, and the shipwrecks that grace the floor of the lake tell stories of the many lost lives. Join me as I travel up the Shipwreck Coast exploring the lighthouses along the way.

Point Iroquois Lighthouse

Point Iroquois Lighthouse
Point Iroquois Lighthouse | Source

Building of The Point Iroquois Light

Congress recognized the need for a lighthouse to guide the ships shortly after the first Soo Lock was built on the St. Mary’s river. In 1855, money was appropriated, and the first Light was constructed of stone and wood - costing a mere $5000. It began operations on June 18th, 1856 - one year after the first Lock was opened. This first Light was 45-feet tall, built on the highest location on the pointe, and was visible for about ten nautical miles. It included a flashing fourth-order Fresnel lens and dwelling for a full-time light keeper. It was in operation for only eleven years when an inspector deemed the construction as unsafe.

This period following the Civil War was also a time of the explosive building of new lighthouses and life-saving stations. In 1870, the original lighthouse was torn down, and the current Light was constructed. This Light has a 65-foot tower and is visible for about twenty-two nautical miles. In the following years, a bell tower was added, this was then replaced with a fog horn that blew every twelve seconds. Lake Superior can become a dangerous place when the thick weather sets over it - so the foghorn was a welcomed navigation tool. Later, a second Lightkeepers dwelling was added as the traffic through the Soo Locks had increased significantly.

The Canadian government built the Point Lighthouse two miles northeast of Point Iroquois, and a few months later, in 1963, the Iroquois Light was deactivated. The now-empty light became a place for wild animals and mold and became quite a dismal setting. In the 1980s, the renovation was started on the lighthouse. Then in 1988, a museum in the lighthouse keepers quarters was opened. The restoration continued, and in 1993 the Light was completely renovated.

Today the lighthouse tower and museum are open to the public for tours from Memorial Day until October 15th. The original fourth-order Fresnel lens is now at the Smithsonian Institute. A fourth-order Fresnel lens is on exhibit in the Lighthouse keepers house from the Martin Reef Light. A trip to this iconic light should be on your bucket list - as you will find, it is well worth the travels.

Fourth Order Fresnel Lens
Fourth Order Fresnel Lens | Source

The Tragic Naming of a Lighthouse - Iroquois

The winters are hard along the shores of Lake Superior. In the 1600s, life depended on good farm crops and fur trading to survive these winters. Living along the shores of Lake Superior and the mouth leading to St. Marys River was the Ojibwa Tribe - also known as the Chippewa or Anishinaabeg. This land, once all Indian territory, had been discovered by the French and missionaries in the 1620’s - now in the 1660s, the French and the Ojibwa worked to expand the fur trade. The Ojibwa gained European goods for the valued furs - primarily Beaver Fur.

The Iroquois were a regular threat to neighboring Indian tribes - attempting to dominate the then dwindling beaver fur trade the Iroquois pushed to gain more land. They had forcefully moved the Huron Tribes further north into Canada. The Iroquois were now advancing toward the shores of Lake Superior in a Westward movement to gain control over the Ojibwa lands.

In 1662 the Iroquois War Party traveled roughly 400 miles from their homelands in western New York to Michigan, home of the Ojibwa. A surprise attack on the Iroquois war party by the Ojibwa left the Iroquois with only two survivors to return to their homeland and tell their story. The Ojibwas called the battleground “Nau-do-we-e-gun-ing,” which means “Place of Iroquois Bones.” The place became known as Point Iroquois.

Whitefish Point Lighthouse
Whitefish Point Lighthouse | Source

Whitefish Point Lighthouse

This light stands tall on Lake Superior's southern shoreline, marking the end of an eighty-mile stretch of shoreline known as the Lake Superiors Shipwreck Coast. It stands tall, guarding the entrance to Whitefish Bay. This bay is sometimes the only respite from Lake Superior's fury, and the light serves as a welcome home symbol to many sailors. It stands as one of the first lights built on this lake - sharing its fame as the most prolonged standing with the lighthouse of Copper Harbor.

Built-in 1848, it is considered one of the most important lights on the lake. The steel cylinder that stands at the site now was built in 1861- during the Civil War times. It is intriguing that the light still stands strong after enduring the ever-changing weather that Lake Superior brings. The structure was designed with a broad base that gradually narrows to support the lantern room on top of the structure. A keeper's house was built connected by a hall on the second floor. The light turned with a clockwork mechanism that had to be wound by the keeper every hour. Dense fog often engulfs the shoreline of Lake Superior and Whitefish Bay, so a fog signal building was added in 1875 - a welcome addition to the structure. It underwent many changes over the years, a second assistant keeper house was added, remodeling and altering the lights as technology updated. In 1971 the station was automated by the Coast Guard, and it no longer required a keeper.

This site is an excellent place for a visit - the once keepers house and assistant keepers house have been restored to the original historical period and is open to the public. One of the buildings also houses the Shipwreck Musem - it contains many artifacts from the Edmund Fitzgerald, including the bell, which is rung yearly. There is a monument on the beach, and while you are there, you might get lucky and find a banded agate, especially after a storm. Along with the fantastic pieces at the museum, the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory has an information booth to aid you in identifying the many birds found there. You may see eagles, hawks, geese, falcons, owls, or other birds that stop at Whitefish Point in their migration. Lake Superior is a frigid lake - cold enough to preserve the ships on its bottom as though they were recently sunk. The Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve is also an exciting place for scuba divers - the water is so clear that a person can see 30-50 feet down even at 100 feet depth.

The light is located about a 70-mile drive from Sault St. Marie. This area is part of a state wildlife sanctuary; the drive alone offers many beautiful sites. I saw eagles, deer, and other animals during my leisurely drive. So as your planning your vacation this year, maybe plan a day to visit the Sou Locks and take a ride up the coast to Whitefish Point Lighthouse and The Shipwreck Museum - it will be a trip remembered for a very long time.

The Day The Light Went Out

The Whitefish Point Light has remained lit daily for 150 years, other than the fateful night on November 10, 1975. That night the Edmund Fitzgerald was struggling against a raging lake. It sustained storm-damaged radar controls, still forty-eight miles northwest of Whitefish Bay guided by the light - its only hope. The light suddenly clicked off, leaving the already crippled freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew to join the others in what has become known as the Graveyard of Ships.

The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald

Memorial Service

Each year on November 10, at Whitefish Point Light Station, a Memorial service is held. The ship's bell rings thirty times. Once for each of the twenty-nine crew members of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Then one time for all the mariners who were lost at sea. This service is a public event - though sobering - it is worth the trip to be a part of the memorial service. The Whitefish Point Light has remained lit daily for 150 years, other than the fateful night on November 10, 1975. That night the Edmund

Crisp Point Lighthouse

Crisp Point Lighthouse
Crisp Point Lighthouse | Source

Crisp Point Lighthouse

This Lighthouse stands fourteen desolate miles up the shoreline west from Whitefish Point. This lonely stretch of beach is what protected the Lighthouse from being destroyed by vandals.

Crisp Point started as a Lifesaving station and, once built, was named after Christopher Crisp - who was considered an “iron-willed boatman.” It was first proposed in 1896, finally approved in 1902, and construction began in 1903. The 15 acres that the light sits on was purchased for a mear $30.00.

The light stands 58 feet tall and was lit in May of 1904. The structures, the Lighthouse, and the Lifesaving Station stood only a few yards from the shore. With the strong Lake Superior waves and weather, erosion was taking its toll on the buildings. In 1996 the foundation began to collapse, and the light was placed on the Most Endangered list of the Lighthouse Digest. The Lighthouse was given a little more security, with $42,000 worth of boulders placed along the beach in front of the light by the Crisp Point Lighthouse Historical Society.

Today Crisp Point Light is no longer on the endangered list and is in pristine condition. The site holds the Lighthouse, a rebuilt service building, a small store, and a museum. The trip to this Lighthouse is long and arduous, being a lonely 18 miles off the main road. Once you get there, the beautiful stretch of beach and the sturdy standing Lighthouse will be worth the effort. As you are there, look back into time and imagine what it would have been like as a Guardian of the Light in this secluded location.

Au Sable Light Station

Au Sable Light Station
Au Sable Light Station | Source

Au Sable Light Station

Located within the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is The Au Sable Light Station. The light was built in 1874, lighting the area known as the "shipwreck coast" a known hazard to the early sailors. It marks the Au Sable reef - a reef that is only 6 feet deep at some points and juts into Lake Superior for almost a mile. It was known as a ship trap and ensnared many ships in the 1800s.

The light is a white cone that held its third-order Fresnel lens - kept lit by the lightkeeper until 1958 when it was automated. It now holds a 12 inch solar-powered light. A red brick light keepers house stands next to the tower. Through the years, other buildings were added - a boathouse (1875), a second light keepers house (1909), and a steel oil house (1915). All of these buildings are gone other than the lighthouse, the original renovated light keepers house, and an outhouse.

The lighthouse is open to visitors in the summer months - it consists of an apartment for volunteer caretakers, and a gift shop in the original light keeper's house. The United States Coast Guard maintains the automated light, and the complex is maintained by volunteers and then National Park Service. So take some time out this summer and visit the beautiful Pictured Rocks, hike the beautiful trails, or take a kayak or boat tour. Then stop by for a tour of The Au Sable Light Station for a walk back in history.

Author on Kayak Tour of Pictured Rocks
Author on Kayak Tour of Pictured Rocks | Source

Pictured Rock

Take some time out this summer and visit the beautiful Pictured Rocks, hike the trails, or take a kayak or boat tour. I was in awe, imagining the danger that these massive structures hold for ships.

Soo Locks

Soo Locks - View From My Tour
Soo Locks - View From My Tour | Source

Soo Locks

Although not a lighthouse, it would be amiss not to include the Soo Locks in your travels. Often called a Wonder of the World. The locks are a set of parallel locks that allow safe passage from the Upper Peninsula lakes to the Lower Peninsula. They are located on the St Marys River and connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron at the area that was once a dangerous waterfall and rapids, making the voyage impossible.

There are four locks in total, with three of them currently operating, the smaller lock on the Canadian side is for the shorter tour and recreational boats. They are maintained and operated by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. On average, 10,000 ships pass through the locks each year - even though the locks are closed from January to March each winter.

The Locks are worth seeing, and while you are there, plan to visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society located on the American side near the tour boats. I found this to be a wonderful trip and enjoyed taking the tour boat through the locks, a fantastic adventure. I ended my stay with the museum and left in a reflective mood - amazed at the history held within the Great Lakes.

Michigan Lighthouses on Lake Superior

A
USDA Iroquois lighthouse:
12942 W Lakeshore Dr, Brimley, MI 49715, USA

get directions

B
Whitefish Pointe:
Whitefish Point, MI 49768, USA

get directions

C
Crisp Pointe Lighthouse:
1944 Co Hwy 412, Newberry, MI 49868, USA

get directions

D
Au Sable Light Station:
County Road H58, Grand Marais, MI 49839, USA

get directions

E
Soo Locks:
Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783, USA

get directions

Though Not a Light an important Landmark

Resources

(1997). Whitefish Point Lighthouse Overlooking Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior. Retrieved 12:03, March 22, 2020, from http://www.exploringthenorth.com/whitefish/whitefish.html

(2019, December 12). Whitefish Point Light. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:05, March 30, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Whitefish_Point_Light&oldid=930501405

(2020, February 26). Point Iroquois Light. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:57, April 10, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Point_Iroquois_Light&oldid=942708058

(2010, March 2) Midland Remembers: History of the lighthouse. Midland Daily News, Retrieved 15:03, April 8, 2020, from https://www.ourmidland.com/news/article/Midland-Remembers-History-of-the-lighthouse-6992115.php

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, January 28). Soo Locks. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:09, April 20, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Soo_Locks&oldid=938029356

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, January 5). Au Sable Light. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:34, May 28, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Au_Sable_Light&oldid=934287017

Comments

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    • Susan Sears profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Sears 

      5 weeks ago

      Your welcome James - a fellow Michigander - hopefully you are enjoying some of our great lighthouses.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      5 weeks ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this excellent article. I enjoyed the journey. And I'm a Michigander.

    • Susan Sears profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Sears 

      5 weeks ago

      You're Welcome, Eric, maybe in your wanderings, you can visit one of these treasures.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Thank you so much for this lovely piece. I will think of the really cool places for some time.

    • Susan Sears profile imageAUTHOR

      Susan Sears 

      5 weeks ago

      Liz,

      I feel lighthouses are fascinating too. The history surrounding many of them makes for some great reading and research, along with the beauty of visiting them and imagining days of the lighthouse era.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 weeks ago from UK

      This is a well-illustrated, interesting and well-structured article. Lighthouses are fascinating. You have explained their role well and added a lot of interesting historical information in this hub

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