Digest>Archives> October 2000

Mission to Mama

By Jerry Biggs


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Old Mission Lighthouse, Grand Traverse Bay, Lake ...
Photo by: Jerry Biggs

Grand Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan and the Detroit River are 240 miles apart. The bay is formed by the Leelanau Peninsula on the Manitou Passage to the west, and the mainland shore from Traverse City to Charlevoix to the east. Old Mission Peninsula divides Grand Traverse Bay into East and West Arms.

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Mama Juda Lighthouse, Detroit River (circa 1866) ...

There are lighthouses at the tips of the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. But before there were lighthouses, there were American Indian settlements, missions, on both peninsulas. Northport, on the Leelanau Peninsula, was first known as Waukazooville, named after the reigning chief. Northport was at that time, more important than Traverse City, now northwestern Michigan’s major city. The cherry orchards, Cherry Festival, bi-annual visits by the Navy’s Blue Angels, wine vineyards and casinos came later. The tallest building in Traverse City boasts an aid to navigation but a clearance from the hotel gods is required to see it.

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Grassy Island Lighthouse, Detroit River (circa ...

The city also is home to a maritime academy. Northport recently completed its sesquicentennial and was far more important in the early years because of its popular hotels and ship docks. The charter boat fishing industry is said to have been spawned near the shores of the village. With that amount of boat traffic, lighthouses were a necessity. The U.S. Life-Saving Service also established stations at Sleeping Bear, Glen Haven and North Manitou Island, all serving northwestern Michigan.

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Mama Juda Lighthouse, (a/k/a Mamajuda), Detroit ...

Meanwhile to the south, the Detroit River was always busy and still is. Downriver Detroit (west) had numerous lighthouses; the first was at Gibraltar. The only survivors are the Grosse Ile Range Light (wooden) and the Detroit River Light at the entrance to Lake Erie. At the eastern end of the Detroit River were the now extinct Belle Isle and Windmill Point lighthouses plus the Peche Island Range Light, which has been transplanted in Marine City on the St.Clair River. Not far removed from the Grosse Ile beacon were the Grassy Island and Mama Juda lighthouses. Both sites are now under water.

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Old Mission Lighthouse, Grand Traverse Bay, Lake ...

In 1898, Lt. Colonel Jared A. Smith, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Light House Engineer, 10th District submitted a report of soundings along a line of the “Proposed Mammy Judy (sic) Range, Detroit River.” A drawing showed an overhead view of the Grosse Ile Range, a keeper’s house, a boat and a storehouse. “Mammy Judy L.H. and keeper’s dwelling (to the south). Beyond a fish pond, to the north, was the location for the front (range) beacon.” The range continued northward toward Grassy Island Lighthouse.

Mama Juda was a 30-acre island located between Hennepin Point at the north end of Grosse Ile, and Fighting Island along the Canadian shore of the Detroit River. The island was named after an American Indian woman who set up a fishing camp every season when fish were running in the river. In that early era, fishing was excellent from Downriver Detroit to the mouth of Lake St.Clair.

A lighthouse was built on Mama Juda in 1849. The keeper and his family lived on a small farm on the island. In 1950, high water washed away the lighthouse and eventually the whole island by 1960. A freighter reportedly struck the station in 1920 and destroyed the structure. Only a few boulders mark the site that was once Mama Juda Island.

The island was at a junction of channels and long stretches of shoals from Mama Juda to the City of Wyandotte. The first Mama Juda Lighthouse was 34 feet in height. It was rebuilt in 1866 and displayed a fixed, red light.

Five different keepers tended the lighthouse during its existence. James Story was the keeper in 1901. His daughter Dorothy was born on the island the same year. She never left Mama Juda until the age of eight when she went off to school in Wyandotte. Keeper Story rowed Dorothy to and from school, one mile each way. The family later transferred to the Grosse Ile Light and then to Windmill Point before her father retired. She resided in the downriver area until she passed away in 1989.

The keepers at Mama Juda or Grosse Ile reportedly maintained all of the lights in the area, including the local channel lights, by rowboat.

A year before Dorothy Story was born, another young lady made news at Mama Juda Island. A man in a rowboat attempted to hitch a tow from a passing steamer, but the rowboat capsized. The steamer’s captain signaled to the Mama Juda keeper for help, but the keeper was away in his rowboat on business. His 14-year-old daughter Maebelle Mason launched a small skiff and rowed a mile to the drowning man. She was able to pull him aboard the skiff and rowed back to Mama Juda Island with the overturned boat in tow. Maebelle Mason was awarded the Silver Life Saving Medal plus a gold medal from the Ship Masters Association for her heroics.

An old photo of a misidentified lighthouse was the impetus for this article. After several years of searching, the pieces finally fell into place. The photo is of a wooden building mounted on pilings over water. The architectural style of the old wooden lighthouse was familiar but not in that particular watery setting. The initial reaction was to place its location in a swampy Louisiana bayou. The writer was able to fix the approximate locale: the Detroit River. After that it was a blank wall.

“Range Light Rich” to the rescue! Artist/researcher Rich Katuzin is one of the best Great Lakes lighthouse researchers in captivity. More than once he has found “experts” promulgating erroneous information. “Captain K of the Romulus Galaxy” is a longtime resident of Downriver Detroit.

The writer also has a vintage photo of the Old Mission Lighthouse; it is a twin of the Mama Juda Island Lighthouse. There were only two of this style built. Using both photos, the writer conducted a lighthouse Rorschach test on researcher Katuzin. Without hesitation he identified the lighthouse on pilings as Mama Juda Island Lighthouse (circa 1866-1910).

“What a scoop!” Rich exclaimed. “It looks like Mission Point Lighthouse has a twin and that style of architecture can be moved up earlier from 1870 to 1866”. Katuzin’s archival collection includes a drawing of Mama Juda, prior to 1910, showing a short, square tower. Other old photos confirm what the drawing indicated. The site very much resembles a Gulf Coast bayou.

Rich confirms that Mama Juda Lighthouse was established in 1849 and was rebuilt in 1866. In 1865 the light was fixed with a visibility of eight miles. In 1894 the Mama Juda Front Range Light was built and equipped with a fixed, red light. The 1866 version was similar to Grassy Island Lighthouse, with a round, masonry tower.

“There is a good possibility that the lighthouse was rebuilt a second time (circa 1910) indicating that the structure had an earlier form from 1849 to 1866.

“Wooden lighthouse architecture in Michigan—with the square, wooden tower in the roof-peak—appeared in 1870: Mission Point Lighthouse. The 1866 rebuild of Mama Juda was the precursor to the 1870 Mission Point,” concluded Katuzin.

Mama Juda Island Lighthouse had its moments of historic notoriety and then disappeared under the waves. There are no known legends or anecdotes attributed to Old Mission Point Lighthouse but the wooden building still stands. The well-maintained lighthouse is the crown of a large county park at the tip of the peninsula.

“When my father (keeper James McCormick) retired from the lighthouse service in 1939, he was offered Old Mission Light, for $1.00, recalled his son, Doug McCormick. “I had enough of lighthouses,” was keeper McCormick’s response. That tip of the peninsula would sell for about $1 million in today’s real estate market.

This story appeared in the October 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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