2017-06-15 / Life in Leelanau

Lighthouse celebrates a birthday

Museum moves into spotlight
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff


THE 165TH birthday of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse will be marked with a celebration Saturday. THE 165TH birthday of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse will be marked with a celebration Saturday. The Grand Traverse Lighthouse, one of the oldest structures of its kind on Lake Michigan, will celebrate its birthday on Saturday.

The lighthouse, located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula in Leelanau Township, will mark its 165th birthday with a day-long schedule of events.

“It was an important lighthouse as it helped guide ships through the Manitou Passage and helped them to get into West Grand Traverse Bay,” said Stef Staley, executive director of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse is one of 120 lighthouses that have protected the shorelines of Michigan for nearly two centuries.

Its origins go back to Sept. 28, 1850, when Congress appropriated $4,000 for a lighthouse on the northern tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. President Millard Filmore signed an executive order on June 30, 1851, reserving 58.75 acres of public land for the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, which was also known early on as Cathead Lighthouse due to its proximity to Cathead Point.

Construction at the site began in late 1851, with materials transported by schooner to the point and then taken to shore. A two-room dwelling with an attached kitchen and shed was built for the keeper, and a 30-foot brick tower was constructed nearby.

A fixed light, produced by six lamps and 14-inch reflectors, was first exhibited in September 1852.

Interestingly, in its first years the lighthouse was visited by “pirates” from nearby Beaver Island. James Strang had established himself as “king” of a Mormon splinter group on Beaver.

His followers were accused of staging nighttime raids on the Michigan mainland. The pirates made off with all of the keeper’s nets on one occasion and valuable lighthouse supplies on another.

The lighthouse was soon found to be poorly built and was torn down in 1858 and replaced with the 2 1/2-story dwelling that stands today. Over the years, other structures, including a fog signal building, were constructed on the lighthouse grounds.

Keepers remained at the lighthouse until 1972, when the light was replaced with an automated beacon mounted atop a skeletal tower.

The abandoned buildings slowly fell into disrepair until the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum was formed in 1984 with the goal of restoring the station and opening it to the public.

In the three decades since, much has been accomplished by the non-profit to preserve the lighthouse through fundraising and grants.

“We’re in good shape with much of the major restoration done,” Staley said. “We replaced the roof, all the plumbing and electrical as well.

Now we’re in maintenance mode.”

The museum group’s future project includes restoration of three ornate stone planters and birdbaths on the grounds. The estimated cost for the work is $25,000.

The structures were built between 1920 and ‘30.

Longterm plans for the non-profit include construction of an addition to the rear of the gift shop for artifact and collection storage, classrooms and office space.

The museum relies on donations and fundraising activities to keep its light lit. The lighthouse keeper program has proven to be a popular fundraiser over the past 14 years, attracting people from all over the country.

The charge is $150 per person per week.

“About 80 percent of them are from out-of-state,” Staley said of the keepers, who pay to stay at the lighthouse, perform routine maintenance and give tours of the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters. “We’ve had people from Minnesota, Colorado, West Virginia, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana and North Carolina.”

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