It was a lovely sunny morning with a hint of cool breeze wafting over the bay. Karen was determined to exercise a pent-up urge to do some housekeeping, and it was obvious that the best “help” I could contribute was to go elsewhere and stay there until she was finished.
Then, suddenly, it struck me, how awesome it was to be able to say that – for a city-raised landlubber like me, anyway -- as if it was no big thing. “I’ll go hike around at the lighthouse” like I was saying, “I’ll go hang out at the hardware store.” (Which, actually, is a lot farther away from our place than the lighthouse is.)
How cool is that? I wondered. I live near a lighthouse. There’s a shipwreck just around the point, and eagles nesting on the bluffs. And I’ve been here so long now that I don’t even give it much thought. That’s the human mind for you. If you don’t keep an eye on it, it’ll take the most amazing circumstances and make you forget how wonderful they are.
The Mission Point Lighthouse isn’t a big fancy lighthouse, to be sure. In fact, it’s about the smallest, least fancy lighthouse you can imagine. Cozy is the word that comes to mind. You take the long drive along M-37, past cherry orchards and vineyards, up hills and along beaches, until you come to the very end of the road – where the sign says you have reached the 45th Parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole -- and there it is, standing on a low bluff above the shoals. Like a white clapboard cottage with a fat little cupola poking up through its roof.
But we love it just the same. Walking out over the bleak and stony shoals where the indescribable teal blue of the water lies at the edge of the horizon, listening to the cries of gulls, terns and killdeer, it’s quite wonderful to look back and see the little lighthouse peeking out from the thick forest that surrounds it. Like an old friend. “It’s not the end of the world,” they told us when we first moved to Old Mission, “but you can see it from here.”
It doesn’t take a genius to see why a lighthouse was needed here; all you have to do is walk out to the edge of the bluff and look out over the broad shoal where the east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay come together. In this season of low water, it’s a wide puddly expanse of shingle and rock -- including some large boulders -- cradled between two narrow spits of land. But when the water is high, it’s hiding just out of sight, waiting to rip the bottom out of any unwary vessel.
Which is what happened back in the middle of the 19th century, when a large ship ran up on the shoal and sank. In response, Congress set $6,000 aside to build a lighthouse. Unfortunately, the War Between the States intervened, so the project wasn’t finished until late 1870. It stood guard over that treacherous reef for the next 63 years, and was finally decommissioned and replaced with an automatic light offshore in 1933.
Like so many other abandoned lighthouses around the country, the Mission Point light fell into disrepair and was in danger of being torn down. But in 1948, the residents of the Peninsula took up a collection among themselves and raised around $1,900 to buy the lighthouse and the surrounding property and turn it into a park. When I first moved out to Old Mission almost 30 years ago, the township park supervisor used to live there with his family, and my son would go there after school to play with their kids. But most people couldn’t just go up to the door and ask to have a look around; it wasn’t open to the general public.
That’s all changed now. The place has been added to the National and State Historic Register, and has been beautifully restored with historic furnishings, documents and exhibits. (Thanks to the National Park Service, the lighthouse’s long-lost Fresnel lens has been replaced.) There are self-guided tours where you can climb to the top of the little tower and look out over the shoals just as the real keepers did a century ago, and even a well-organized “volunteer lighthouse keeper” program where you can pay a modest fee to live and work in the lighthouse.