The beacon atop the South Manitou Island Lighthouse in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has been dark for years, but light is returning to the historic tower, thanks to a cooperative effort by the NPS and several generous partners.
There's been a light station at this strategic location for many a year. A park publication notes,
With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1826, the development of commercial navigation on the Great Lakes increased rapidly. The Manitou Passage was the most important route for schooners and steamers traveling the 300 mile length of Lake Michigan. South Manitou Island provided a wood fueling stop for steamers. The island had the only deep natural harbor between the Manitou Passage and Chicago, 220 miles to the south, providing a safe and well protected haven from storms.
To guide storm-driven ships, Congress appropriated $5,000 in 1838 for the construction of a lighthouse. Construction began in 1839, but very little is known about this first lighthouse on South Manitou Island.
In 1858, the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment recognized the need for greater safety and replaced this house with a two-story brick residence with a 35 foot tower on top. The tower housed a Fourth Order Fresnel lens. A fog signal building was added and both structures still stand today.
In response to increased shipping traffic, a 100-foot tower was built in 1871, and it's a dandy.
The tower is 18 feet in diameter at the base. The walls are hollow and 5 feet thick at the base tapering to 3 feet thick at the top. A passageway was added connecting the tower to the keeper's dwelling. A Third Order Fresnel lens from Paris was installed with a 3-wick lamp that had a range of 18 miles. In 1875, the first steam fog signal on Lake Michigan was installed replacing the fog bell.
In 1901 the U.S. Life-Saving Service built a station on the island to assist ships in distress. The life-savers could row out in their surfboat or use a line-throwing gun and breeches buoy to rescue stranded sailors. A wreck from this era, the Three Brothers (1911), is located just off shore between the dock and the lighthouse. There is a sign describing the shipwreck along the trail to the lighthouse. In 1915 the U.S. Life-Saving Service became part of the U.S. Coast Guard.
After World War II, the availability of modern equipment such as Coast Guard cutters and then helicopters brought new approaches to rescues on the Great Lakes, and the station was permanently closed in 1958.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1970 and ownership of the lighthouse was eventually transferred to the NPS. Now, visitors to the area will be able to enjoy a replica light atop the tower from May through October.
On Saturday, May 30, 2009, the National Park Service will officially celebrate the relighting of the South Manitou Island Lighthouse. The lantern room has been completely refurbished, and a replica third-order Fresnel lens has been installed.
Festivities will begin at 9:00 p.m. at the Maritime Museum in Glen Haven. A National Park Service ranger will present a half-hour interpretive program about the history of the Manitou Passage, and the shipwrecks that made it necessary to install a lighthouse to guide mariners through its hazardous waters.
Following the program, Superintendent Dusty Shultz and representatives from the partner groups will provide brief remarks and recognize the numerous donors who made this project a reality. Light refreshments will be served and, once it becomes dark enough, the light will be illuminated for everyone on shore to see and enjoy.
Superintendent Shultz notes, “The South Manitou Island Light project was a success because of strong partnerships and commitments from private donors. Thanks to our generous supporters, the South Manitou light will shine on the horizon from May through October, and visitors to the island will be able to view the replica lens and lantern room and better appreciate all the work accomplished on this project.”
The replica third-order Fresnel lens was fabricated by Artworks Florida, and the lens is illuminated by a lighting source with a low-wattage bulb designed by Electro-Optics Technology, Inc. of Traverse City. A crew of NPS maintenance personnel restored the lantern room and spiral stairway of the tower during the summer of 2008, and installed the lens and light in the fall.
The project was made possible by a partnership that included the park, Manitou Islands Memorial Society, Manitou Island Transit, and Electro-Optics Technology, Inc.
The Maritime Museum, site of the event on May 30, is located on Glen Haven Road, one half mile west of the Cannery in Glen Haven, an historic village located three miles west of Glen Arbor, Michigan. Directions to the park and other information to help you plan a visit are available on the park's website.
If you'd like to visit the lighthouse itself during the summer months, you're welcome to take a tour and climb the 117 steps of the circular staircase to the light station, 104 feet above the ground. For your efforts, you can enjoy the beautiful view of the Manitou Passage and the island. You can walk all the way around the light at the top on the observation deck.