Digest>Archives> September 2000

Big Sable Point

How Volunteers Keep This Light Burning Brightly

By Jim Merkel


Yvonne Vanderwall has the kind of high school memory that makes lovers of lighthouses uneasy.

“Last time we were here, we could crawl in through holes,” Vanderwall said, on a return trip to the Big Sable Point Light Station, on Lake Michigan. “I remember us being here, thinking, ‘What a shame.’”

The shame was gone when Vanderwall came with her husband and other family members at the end of May, around 14 years after her last trip to the light.

Now staffed six months a year by volunteer keepers who lead visitors on tours of the light tower, the 133-year-old station looks much the way it did when keepers maintained a regular watch for mariners on the eastern side of Lake Michigan, about half-way between the Indiana state line and the Straits of Mackinac.

“I’m glad they preserved it,” said Vanderwall, a school teacher who lives in Hart, Michigan, about a half-hour drive south of the Light Station.

Greeting Vanderwall and others when they visited were volunteer keepers including Bruce and Sandy Van Wingen of Rockford, Michigan.

“Sometimes, when school’s out, it gets really busy,” Sandy Van Wingen said, in the watchroom at the top of the tower. This summer, she and her husband Bruce, both retired school teachers from Rockford, Mich., were volunteer keepers for the third year in a row.

The Van Wingens said working at the lighthouse gives them an opportunity to work with students again, and to meet people from all over the country.

“When you get the opportunity to live there for two weeks, you can’t help but think of the past residents and what their life must have been like,” the Van Wingens said in an e-mail. “At times it is hard work, but it certainly has its paybacks such as the unspoiled view out every window and from the top of the tower.”

The Van Wingens were among a large group of volunteers who work to keep the Big Sable Point Light Station open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 1 through Oct. 31. Except for a few days during the season when bus transportation is available, visitors park in a lot in the Ludington State Park and walk 1-1/2 miles to the light. In a short time, they’ll see a metal-clad tower with the same paint job that has long informed those on the lake where they are: a white bottom, with a black middle and a white top.

The trip up the tower’s 130 steps costs visitors $2. That and proceeds from a gift shop support preservation work at the light station.

What visitors see when they get to the top is an abundance of sand and a breathtaking view of the water, from a tower extending 112 feet in the air, just shorter than the tallest light tower on Lake Michigan, at Little Sable Point to the south. They’ll get a glimpse of what keepers saw, from the time the light was lit on Nov. 1, 1867 to when the last Coast Guardsmen left the station, around 1970 or shortly thereafter.

“If there was a storm. He’d be watching out the windows here,” Bruce Van Wingen said, at the top of the light tower.

Such an event was not uncommon for the lightkeepers at Big Sable, and quite common before the construction of the light.

“Back in 1855, there were 12 wrecks between this point and nine miles into Ludington,” Sandy Van Wingen said. The carnage near what is essentially a piece of sand jutting into Lake Michigan got the attention of the federal government, which started making plans for a lighthouse in the years before the Civil War. However, it wasn’t until the year after the completion of the War Between the States that construction began. The years of appeals for a beacon paid off on Nov. 1, 1867. That night, mariners as far away as 19 miles out on the lake saw for the first time a constant white light from a 3rd Order Fresnel lens at the Big Sable Point Lighthouse.

The history of the light found in sources that include the web site of the Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association— at www.bigsablelighthouse.org—generally follows a pattern typical for light stations. Steel cladding was placed on the tower from 1900 to stop the weathering of the brick underneath. A fog signal was installed in 1908 and a road to the site built in 1933. The station was electrified in 1949, about the same time inside plumbing and central heating were added. The Keepers’ Association Web site says the light was automated in 1968, although Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association President Bob Sperling said it’s likely the Coast Guard actually left the light station after 1970.

The next two decades saw responsibility for the light pass between the Coast Guard, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and a group called the Foundation for Behavioral Research. While the foundation had it, it made repairs on the lighthouse and used it for small conferences. At other times, though, the structure increasingly became the target of vandals.

The station’s 3rd Order Fresnel lens was removed in 1985 because of vandalism. Two years later, the lens was restored, and placed in the Historic White Pine Village of the Mason County Historical Society in nearby Ludington. In its place, a 300 mm plastic lens shines forth from the top of the light tower.

While the station could have survived vandals, there was another enemy that nearly destroyed it: erosion. Ironically, the public reaction to that enemy led to the formation of an organization that should keep the light station in operation for many years to come.

At the time the station was built, it was a comfortable distance from the shore. But there was danger even in the name of the place. Sable is the French word for sand, and the light station was built on a huge point of sand extending into Lake Michigan. By the early 1940s, the lake was so close that a fog-signal building washed away. Although a seawall was built to control shore erosion, the danger continued. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the lake came as close as four feet from the tower.

“The Coast Guard in anticipation that the tower was going to be lost to the lake had installed a new light out there,” said Mary James, the part-time paid director of the Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association.

Faced with what seemed the inevitable, a group of citizens organized to push the lake back. In 1987, they organized the keepers association, and started the restoration and shore protection work.

“Waves were practically at the base of the lighthouse, and the intent was just to have the lighthouse topple into the water,” said Thom Hawley, a local preservationist who became active in the movement to save the lighthouse. Today, he’s a member of the association’s board of directors. “Fortunately, there was a group of volunteers locally who saw the importance of preserving this historic building and structure and took efforts to raise money and awareness for the preservation of the property.”

James said the lake came dangerously close to the lighthouse both because of erosion and a natural process in which the lake rises and falls over fairly regular intervals. Today, the lake is about two feet lower than it was when it came closest to the lighthouse. However, James said, “Had they not done the work that they did back in the 1980s, that lighthouse would not be standing where it is today.”

With the lighthouse saved, the organization kept up its work to show how it was when keepers scrubbed and painted and scrubbed again, fearful of the wrath of an inspector with white gloves.

That work included the painting of the tower in 1989, the repairing and re-shingling of the roof in 1995 and the restoration and painting of the exterior of the keepers’ quarters. Recent work also has included the replacement of sidewalks and electrical wiring in keepers quarters. The society has replaced the glass panels in the lantern room, restored the tower interior and refinished the wood floors in the lower level of the original 1867 keepers quarters. Also, the association is negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to secure a long-term lease on the property.

Today, thanks to the work of the association, volunteer keepers have things a lot easier than the families of early keepers. There are microwaves, gas stoves, refrigerators, and inside plumbing. While a few families bring their own televisions so their children can watch tapes, James said, “We would rather have them enjoy their surroundings and experience life without TV, like the original keepers.”

The modern conveniences didn’t please a daughter of a man who served as a first assistant keeper in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

During a tour of the lighthouse, the assistant keeper’s daughter pointed to a door she hadn’t seen before. Told it led to a bathroom, “She got kind of indignant and she said, ‘Well, when I was here, the bathroom was out here,’ and she pointed to the dunes. They had outside privies then,” Sandy Van Wingen said.

“She didn’t like living out here one little bit,” Sandy Van Wingen said. “She said boys wouldn’t come out here to court her for one thing. It was pretty lonely and she didn’t have her own bedroom. Most of the quarters except the main keeper’s had only one bedroom, so if they had children, they were made to sleep kind of by the wall. She said she slept on a cot.”

Another person the Van Wingens encountered while they were at the lighthouse was Dr. Allan Parker, a retired optometrist living in Ludington, which is south of the station.

Around sixth grade, Parker became a friend of Gilbert Rogan, a son of George Rogan, who was keeper from 1936 to 1949. Gilbert often had to walk the 1-1/2 miles into the Ludington State Park to get a ride to school in Ludington with the park director and his children. Because of the distance into Ludington - about 10 miles south - Gilbert often would stay over at the Parker house. In return, Parker sometimes would stay at the lighthouse.

Sleeping would be a problem for Parker, when the fog whistle started blowing.

“Gilbert, he’d be sleeping like a log,” Parker said. But Parker wasn’t used to it, and would stay awake. “You wouldn’t get much sleep,” Parker said.

“He loved to come out here and stay overnight. He thought it was a real adventure,” Sandy Van Wingen said.

One other person who remembers those days before the light was automated was Leslie Meverden. His father Homer Meverden was a keeper on the Great Lakes from 1936 to 1968, and served at Big Sable from 1949 to 1968.

Now 64, retired and living in Ludington, Leslie Meverden was 13 when his father transferred to Big Sable, and stayed there until 1956, when he got married. He has fond memories of climbing the Big Sable lighthouse and tossing model airplanes off the top.

“It was good memories,” Meverden said. “You (didn’t) have a lot of people around, so you have to make do by what you have.”

Meverden recalls that his father and the two assistant keepers at the lighthouse worked revolving four-hour shifts. When they were on at night, they kept the light running, while they did maintenance during their daytime shifts.

Living at the light helped Meverden develop a love for the outdoors, he said. “It was an interesting life.” Meverden said. “You didn’t have a lot of friends because there was nobody around, usually.”

James said people who had relatives who served at the light station frequently make visits there, and often provide old pictures. “We’re constantly learning new things about the light here and the people who lived there,” James said.

This story appeared in the September 2000 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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