Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2011

America’s Most Endangered Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison


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A view of the east side of Poverty Island ...
Photo by: Terry Pepper

Lighthouse Digest is declaring Michigan’s 1874 Poverty Island Lighthouse Station as the “Most Endangered Lighthouse in the United States.”

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Front view of Michigan’s endangered Poverty ...
Photo by: Terry Pepper

Located on an island in northwest Lake Michigan near the community of Fairport, the lighthouse was abandoned by the Coast Guard in 1957 and was left to the elements. In the 1970s, the Coast Guard removed the lantern room and lighthouse equipment from the structures. The lantern room was left on the ground and other equipment was strewn around the area as if it were a dump.

However, from the time the light station was abandoned in 1957, it took the Coast Guard another 39 years before it declared in 1996 that Poverty Island Lighthouse, and the 171-acre island that it sits on, as excess property. When this was done, it was assumed that the lighthouse would be offered up for adoption under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, but it was not.

One year before Poverty Island Lighthouse was declared excess property, the Coast Guard filled out an application to nominate the lighthouse as being eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. In their application they wrote, “The Poverty Island Light Station is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of Michigan’s history. It has historic importance as representative of the Federal government’s role in providing for safe navigation on the Great Lakes.”

Later in the same application they wrote, “This property embodies the distinctive characteristics of an important lighthouse type, period, and method of construction. It is significant as an example of third-quarter nineteenth century lighthouse design, a stage in the development of Great Lakes lighthouses that began in the early nineteenth century.”

The facts are somewhat muddled as to why the Coast Guard never followed through on their original announcement that the lighthouse was being declared excess property and should have been, at that time, transferred to the General Services Administration. But we can only surmise that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) did not want the 171-acre island to fall into the hands of any other government agency or non profit. This is an obvious conclusion that we reached from the letter that was sent to us by the Seney National Wild Life Refuge in which they stated, “Having a partner willing to take care of the structures is an important step in realizing the acquisition of the island by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should we decide it is beneficial to our mission.”

So, while government bureaucrats keep the island and the lighthouse site in a state of limbo, the historic structures were allowed to deteriorate. We can only assume that the structures were deliberately allowed to fall into such a state of collapse that the buildings could never be saved, except perhaps the tower. That way the entire island could revert back to the elements and the birds, thereby keeping people off the island.

There are many who have told us that the USFWS has been trying for years to work with various partner organizations to save the lighthouse, even though they have no official authority to do so, especially since the Coast Guard still owns the island and the lighthouse. However, in the past, the U.S. Coast Guard has almost always bowed to other government agencies such as USFWS.

Reportedly the USFWS wants to protect a rare shrub on the island called the Canada Yew and protect the endangered Emerald Dragonfly, which may or may not exist on the island. The mission of USFWS is not to protect historic properties, and neither is the Coast Guard’s, although it should be. Although the Coast Guard is not in the business of saving the historic properties that the people of this country have entrusted them with, there are many instances where the Coast Guard has stepped in to help save a lighthouse.

However, it is possible that one excuse the Coast Guard will give is that the lighthouse cannot be turned over to anyone until environmental issues relating to petroleum and other waste have been addressed at Poverty Island. This is pretty much hogwash, something that can easily be overcome as been done in many ways in the past, unless of course there is nuclear waste on the island, which there is not. Also, if environmental issues are a concern, why hasn’t the problem been addressed sometime during the 64 years since they walked away from Poverty Island?

The amazing history of Poverty Island, such as its shipwrecks, the possible lost treasure of gold, and the memories of the lives of the light keeper’s and their family members who lived there could fill pages upon pages, something we’ll try to provide to you in future editions. However, we now have to wonder what the lighthouse keepers who lived here would think of what has been allowed to happen to the once proud light station where they worked so hard for the benefit of others. Why have they been forgotten? Why has the lighthouse been allowed to fall into a total state of disrepair? It’s also a question that we as taxpayers should be asking.

Poverty Island Lighthouse was built for one purpose only; to save lives; now it needs to be saved. Although there appears to be a renewed interest in saving Poverty Island Lighthouse, the various concerns interested in doing so will need to band together to show a united front. Plus, the obstacles they will face in saving a lighthouse as remote at this one may now be insurmountable although not impossible.

However, what has been allowed to happen at Poverty Island is a complete travesty, a travesty that was caused and created by the federal government. It is now time for federal as well as local public agencies and officials to step to the plate and help those who want to save Poverty Island Lighthouse.

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This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 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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