Digest>Archives> July 2004

Rescuing of the Thunder Bay Beacon

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse and keeper’s house ...

Located southeast end of

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Cracks have formed in the lighthouse tower’s ...

Thunder Bay Island, Lake Huron

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TBIPS volunteers work on the keeper’s house. ...

Nearest City - Alpena, Michigan

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TBIPS volunteers at work on the keeper’s house. ...

Established 1832

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TBIPS volunteer Don Beam caulking windows on the ...

Automated 1980

Still operated as an active aid to


Accessible by boat only

Tower Height 50 feet

*Not to be confused with Thunder Bay Main Light in Thunder Bay, Lake Ontario, Canada.

The City of Alpena is known for its wood, cement, and heavy machinery industries that started from the logging industry in the 1800’s.

Alpena is the site of the annual Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival held every October. The festival draws thousands of people from allover the United States and Canada. It is also home to Huron Lights, a lighthouse gift store run by volunteers, of the area’s many lighthouses. It is also home to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival Lighthouse Museum dedicated to lighthouses and the shipping history of the Great Lakes.

To learn more about how you can help, contact:

Thunder Bay Island Preservation Soc.

P.O. Box 212

Alpena, MI 49707

You can email TBIPS President Sue Skibbe at sueskibbe@hotmail.com.

The area around Thunder Bay Island, at the north end of Thunder Bay in Lake Huron near Alpena, Michigan, long ago earned the nickname “Shipwreck Alley” because so many vessels were unable to clear the reefs around the island as they approached the bay in bad weather. The establishment of a lighthouse on the 215-acre island in 1832 certainly saved countless vessels and lives, but now it’s the Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse that’s desperately in need of rescue. Luckily, a dedicated group of volunteers is working to do just that.

The first lighthouse built at the southeastern end of the island, the third lighthouse on Lake Huron, fell down in 1831 before it could even be lit, according to Steve Tongue, historian for the Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society. A new tower was soon erected and was first lighted in October 1832. The lighthouse was originally only 40 feet tall, but in 1857, it was encased in Cream City brick and raised to its present height of 50 feet.

Inspections in the late 19th century reported the older, lower part of the tower to be in deteriorated condition, but it appears that nothing was done to remedy the situation. The present brick, two-story keeper’s dwelling, attached to the tower via a covered passageway, replaced an earlier stone house in 1868. A U.S. Life-Saving Service station was added on the west side of the island in 1876. The station, later operated by the Coast Guard, closed in 1951.

In 1983, the light became one of the last on the Great Lakes to be automated by the Coast Guard, and the site was virtually abandoned. The weather and vandals were not kind to the buildings, and a news report that the property was to be excessed by the federal government caught the attention of concerned local citizens. One of those people was Paula Glennie, whose father had served in the Coast Guard on the island. Glennie’s advocacy led to the formation of the Thunder Bay Island Preservation Society (TBIPS), and the group was incorporated as a nonprofit in July 1996. Glennie and several others negotiated a 10-year lease on the light station with the Coast Guard. That lease was recently renegotiated to extend to 2027.

Since 1996, TBIPS has accomplished a great deal, including repair of the roof on the rear entry of the keeper’s house, replacement of broken windows and rotted windowsills in the house, and roof repair and door replacement on the fog signal building. Fascia has been replaced on the back of the keeper’s house, and all the exterior trim has been scraped, primed, and painted. Overgrown brush has been cleared from the buildings, and temporary docks have been constructed to improve access. This work has all been done by volunteers, usually on weekly Wednesday morning work parties that go to the island in a landing craft owned by Herb Palmer. In 2003, TBIPS volunteers made 20 trips to the island and completed 586.5 volunteer-hours of work.

According to TBIPS President Sue Skibbe, on the agenda for this year is repair of a dormer on the fog signal building and painting of the building’s exterior trim. The boathouse is in severe disrepair, but renovation estimates in excess of $250,000 are beyond the organization’s current financial reach.

But the most pressing need of all is the repair of the lighthouse tower, which has developed a major crack in its stucco-covered outer surface, with several smaller cracks running from the large one. In 2001, TBIPS received a matching grant from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality for $110,000 as part of the Clean Water Initiative Redevelopment Grant program. TBIPS was required to raise $27,500 as their matching part of the grant, with an original deadline in the summer of 2003.

The deadline was extended to July 18, 2004, and, at this writing in April, $7,600 still must be raised. According to Sue Skibbe, “We will need to get the tower work underway this summer as we have been cautioned by the engineer that the surface cracks have started to separate severely from the underlayment and we will probably not make it another winter before the stucco begins to fall to the ground.”

TBIPS Historian Steve Tongue explains, “We were given the go-ahead to proceed with planning for the work and we hired U.P. Engineers of Marquette, Michigan to do a condition assessment of the tower and develop a set of bid documents for the restoration work.” Approval of the bid documents was received from the State Historic Preservation on April 8, and the work went out for bid.

Sue Skibbe says it’s hard to single out any volunteers because so many have helped along the way, but Herb Palmer, Bill Riggs, Steve Tongue, and Frank Hanson are worthy of special mention. She also says that Alpena Township Supervisor Marie Twite “has been a wonderful partner for us. She and her board have been extremely helpful whenever we’ve gone to them. They believed in us when we were just getting started, and we’ve worked hard not to disappoint them.” The membership of TBIPS has voted to pursue a partnership with Alpena Township to gain ownership of the island’s southern portion.

Funds for restoration of the light station have also come from other sources including the Community Foundation for Northeastern Michigan and Wal-Mart Corporation. Skibbe says TBIPS hopes in the future to provide public tours of the island and light station, which is currently off limits to the public except through special arrangements with the Coast Guard.

Steve Tongue has written a new book on the history of the island called Lanterns and Lifeboats, and proceeds from sales of the book go toward the restoration of the lighthouse station.

To order, send $14.95 plus $2.00 shipping & handling to: TBILPS, P.O. Box 212, Alpena MI 49707, Attn: Book Committee

This story appeared in the July 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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