By MIKE NORTON
Quick! Which of the 50 states has the most lighthouses? Maine? North Carolina? California? Florida?
Answer: None of the above. It’s the state of Michigan, hundreds of miles from the nearest seashore, but with more than 3,000 miles of coastline -- more than any other state except Alaska. During the 19th century Michigan’s “inland seas” were among the most heavily traveled waterways in the world, and more than 130 lighthouses were built to warn mariners away from their numerous beaches, shoals and headlands.
Today that busy time of sloops and schooners is only a distant memory. But the lighthouses of Michigan still stand watch, exerting a powerful attraction on those who treasure the romance and danger of the Age of Sail. Each year, growing numbers of lighthouse enthusiasts make their way to the Great Lakes State – and particularly to the region around Traverse City.
Thanks to its location on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay near the once-bustling Manitou Passage (a time-saving but frequently hazardous route between the mainland and the mysterious ManitouIslands) Traverse City is a convenient base for exploring five historic lighthouses, all located in a relatively compact area. Best of all, four of the five can be easily visited: three are open for tours, and one even allows visitors to spend a week or two in residence as volunteer lighthouse keepers.
“One thing that’s great about those lights is that they’re accessible,” says Michigan lighthouse expert and lecturer Dianna Stampfler. “The lights are all true lighthouses as well – unlike other areas where the keeper’s residence was on shore somewhere and the light was at the end of the pier.”
The most easily accessible of the Traverse City area’s lighthouses is the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Located at the tip of the LeelanauPeninsula, near the village of Northport, it is one of the oldest lighthouses on the Great Lakes, guiding ships through the northern entrance to the Manitou Passage for 150 years.
Today it is a museum surrounded by a picturesque state park where visitors can envision the once-isolated life of lighthouse keepers and their families, with extensive exhibits and period furnishings from the 1920s and 1930s. Its popular “volunteer lighthouse keeper” program also provides opportunities for enthusiasts to spend several weeks living in the lighthouse, carrying on routine maintenance and answering the questions of its frequent visitors.
Some 45 miles to the south near the town of Frankfort, the Point Betsie Lighthouse – “the second most photographed lighthouse in the U.S.” -- marks the lower entrance of the Passage. Built in 1858, its brightly-colored buildings are clustered in a scenic dune area at the very edge of the surf. Point Betsie was the last lighthouse on the eastern Lake Michigan shore to be staffed by the Coast Guard; it was automated in 1983 and is still in operation.
Like its neighbor to the north, the lighthouse now belongs to a nonprofit group, the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse, which recently completed a $1 million exterior restoration and is raising money to restore the interior as well. It, too, is open for regular tours.
The picturesque Mission Point Lighthouse was built in 1870 to warn ships away from the dangerous shoals extending into Grand Traverse Bay at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, but was replaced by an offshore beacon in 1933. The lighthouse is open for tours (and also has a popular volunteer lighthouse-keeper program) and is the centerpiece of an attractive park with popular beaches, historical exhibits and extensive hiking and skiing trails, and is a popular destination with visitors and locals alike.
Even more picturesque, but somewhat less accessible, the South Manitou Island Lighthouse can only be reached in summer, after a 1.5-hour ferryboat ride from the Lake Michigan port of Leland. But it’s certainly worth the trip; a classic 100-foot tower, the light rises abruptly from the shore of the island – and visitors are free to climb its 117 steps to the top for a thrilling view of water, sky, forests and dunes. Established in 1840 to beckon vessels to what was then the last deepwater harbor north of Chicago, the original wooden light was replaced in 1871 with the current building. Today it is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and administered by the National Park Service.
Just a few miles away, the North Manitou Island Shoal Lighthouse -- known to locals as “the crib” – is not open to visitors. Built in 1935 to mark an unusual and dangerous shoal, it stands by itself in the middle of the water. For 42 years this artificial island was home to a three-man Coast Guard crew who rotated on a three-week schedule (two weeks on and one week off) during the navigational season. Since 1980 it has been operated as an automated navigational light and has been taken over by a large population of cormorants. Although visitors are not encouraged to climb onto the large structure, it can be viewed up-close from the ferry that takes visitors to South Manitou.