Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2011

Saving Michigan’s Lighthouses

By Rick A. Richards


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Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, Port Huron, Michigan.
Photo by: Deidra Spaleny

Convincing the residents of a community which is lucky enough to be home to a lighthouse that it’s a treasure to be preserved isn’t a difficult sell. But it’s a lot tougher convincing residents of communities that don’t have a lighthouse that preservation is also important to them as well. In the current difficult economy, legislators from Washington to state capitals to city halls are looking to cut expenses, and when preservation comes up – whether it’s a lighthouse or other notable landmark or building – they aren’t as willing to use taxpayer funds as they were just a few years ago.

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Gull Rock Lighthouse, Lake Superior, Michigan.
Photo by: Casimir Budzinski

That’s why some states are getting creative with how they raise funds to preserve and rehabilitate things like lighthouses. In Michigan, special “Save Our Lights” license plates help motorists show their support for lighthouse preservation. At the same time, the extra money spent for the special plates is put into a fund that’s distributed to lighthouse preservation organizations. The money is funneled to the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program, which is administered by the State Historic Preservation Program. Since 2000, the program has distributed $1.5 million to various lighthouse preservation projects throughout Michigan.

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Little Sable Point Lighthouse, Mears, Michigan.
Photo by: William Stombough

Last year, Michigan handed out more than $200,000 to eight lighthouse projects from the sale of the plates, said Brian Conway, state preservation officer. In order to receive the money, lighthouse preservation organizations must put up 50 percent of the money being awarded. Conway pointed out that the money distributed in 2010 was higher than the average $160,000 a year that has been distributed in the past. “Since 2000 the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program has awarded nearly $1.5 million in grants to rehabilitate lighthouses along our shorelines and in remote offshore locations,” said Conway. “Each one is unique and represents Michigan’s rich maritime past.” He added that with 128 lighthouses, Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state.

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Point Aux Barques Lighthouse, Port Hope, Michigan.
Photo by: Todd A. Shorkey

The eight lighthouse preservation grants awarded in 2010 include:

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Whitefish Point Lighthouse, near Paradise, ...
Photo by: Del Gebhardt, Jr.

- $30,000 to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association. The money will be used to rehabilitate the foundation and porch piers of the Cheboygan River Front Range Lighthouse. Terry Pepper, Executive Director of the Association, said the money will be used for structural improvements, including excavation of the stone and brick foundation and replacing the drain which leaks water into the basement. Pepper said the group received a grant in 2009 and used the money to fix leaks around the lantern and its deck.

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Old Mission Point Lighthouse, Traverse City, ...
Photo by: Rose Mears

- $40,000 to the Port Huron Museum of Arts and History. The grant will pay to replace the roof on the fog signal building and the single keeper’s building at the Fort Gratiot Light Station. Susan Bennett, Executive Director of the Museum, said that the grant will be used to re-roof some of the six structures at the five-acre site. Bennett said St. Clair County received the property last August. The museum’s responsibility is to create exhibits and organize tours. She pointed out that the Fort Gratiot Light Station, which began service in 1829, is the oldest on Lake Huron and second oldest on the Great Lakes. Its unique feature is a green light installed in the 1930s because a train track ran parallel to the coast by the lighthouse and ships could get confused between the beacon and a locomotive.

- $5,000 to Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum. The grant will be used to replace windows in the lighthouse and fog signal building at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Stef Staley, Executive Director of the Museum, said she is already putting together a grant application for 2011. Most likely, she said, that money would be used for general maintenance. “Right now, we’re setting our priorities,” she said.

w $20,000 to the Gull Rock Lightkeepers. Money from the grant will be used to rehabilitate the interior of the Gull Rock Lighthouse. A previous grant given to Gull Rock was used to prepare plans and specifications for the ongoing rehabilitation project.

- $40,000 to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The Michigan DNR is using the grant money to prepare a historic structures report for the Little Sable Point Light Station. According to the Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association, which is working with the DNR, the money will be used to set up a rehabilitation plan and create a priority list of areas that need immediate attention. Ultimately, the goal at Little Sable Point is to build a replica of the original keeper’s quarters, but that project is years away and will cost upwards of $300,000. A statement from the association said, “Little Sable Point Lighthouse is often referred to as one of the most aesthetically pleasing lights along the lakeshore. It’s a beautiful example of perfect proportion design, just tall enough and wide enough and built of such a beautiful brick that it catches the eye and steals the heart.” It’s also one of the few Michigan lighthouses more than 100 feet tall.

- $26,666 to Peninsula Township. The grant will be spent to hire a consultant who will be responsible for preparing a historic structures report for the Old Mission Point Light Station. The report will be used as a guide for future maintenance and rehabilitation work at the lighthouse.

- $16,000 to Huron County. The money will be used to restore the original third order Fresnel lens for the Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse, which is now a museum.

- $40,000 to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. The money will be used to rehabilitate the light tower below the lantern room, and strip and paint all surfaces on the Whitefish Point Lighthouse. Tom Farnquist, Executive Director of the society, said the grant is the second it has received. When the project is finished, he said the 1861 iron pile light tower will be restored to its original appearance. This year, Farnqusit said, the society expects to get another grant to complete restoration work. “All of our match money has come from earned revenue from museum gate receipts, gift shop sales and sponsorships or donations,” said Farnquist. The light tower at Whitefish Point is the oldest active lighthouse on Lake Superior, dating to 1861, Abraham Lincoln’s first year in office. This summer, it will mark its 150th anniversary.

Jeff Shook, president of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy, said lighthouses have become a symbol for the state. Many of them are major tourist attractions for the communities where they sit. For instance, he said the Whitefish Point Lighthouse in Paradise, Michigan attracts some 65,000 visitors a year.

But with the preservation needs so great and so costly, is there a lot of competition for the lighthouse preservation grants? “All the groups compete for funds,” said Shook. “If there is not enough to go around for one year and you apply, you will get it the following year, so it really works out that most of the time that everyone who requests funds will get them. “Some groups have access to local community foundations, and those grants are not available to others outside the geographic area they serve, so there is not much competition there,” said Shook. “Overall everyone helps support each other, to share the wealth so to speak. Other than the license plate program, there are no other statewide funding mechanisms.”

Shook said there has been movement in Washington to help with lighthouse preservation. “What needs to pass and get out of committee (in Congress) is the Lighthouse Act which will help fund lighthouses across the country. Michigan’s U.S. Senator Carl Levin helped introduce this bill and there needs to be a dedicated effort to get the word out on this and have everyone in the country write their senators to help move this forward. It will provide millions toward lighthouse preservation.”

At the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance, which is a network of all the various Michigan lighthouse organizations, secretary-treasurer Sally Frye said a lot of the work right now is helping communities transition from government-owned lights to locally or not-for-profit owned lighthouses. In the past couple of years, the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for the nation’s lighthouses, has turned 70 of Michigan’s lights over to local ownership. “We’re providing information about operating lighthouses and about how to fund the preservation work that needs to be done,” said Frye. “There isn’t a huge amount of money available, but there is money for roof projects, painting and for new windows and doors.” Even though the amounts are relatively small compared to the need, Frye said that more and more organizations are taking advantage of the license plate funds because of the state of the economy in Michigan. “We’re finding that most are working together and that seems to work well for everyone. Each still does their own fund-raising efforts, though.”

One idea that is catching on is a light keeper’s program in which an individual or a family can pay and stay for a week in a lighthouse. That program has been a success at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, said Frye.

For more information about Michigan’s lighthouses, visit www.gllka.com or www.michiganlighthousealliance.org.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2011 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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