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 Big Sable Point, MI    
A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Volunteer keeper program offered.
Description: According to Captain Neils C. Palmer, who for many years was officer in charge of the Ludington Coast Guard Station, the blackest year in maritime history for the Ludington area was 1855, when several ships, including the schooners Samuel Strong, G. W. Weeks, and Almina, were wrecked with significant loss of life.

Workers painting lighthouse after work in 1900
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Called Grande Pointe au Sable by French explorers and traders, Big Sable Point, located roughly nine miles north of Ludington, was a prominent landmark for mariners traveling this treacherous stretch of Lake Michigan. Congress appropriated $6,000 for a lighthouse on Big Sable Point in 1856 and the Michigan Legislature ceded the necessary land the following year, but only $888 was spent before the remainder of the appropriation reverted to the treasury.

Following the Civil War, the matter of a lighthouse for Big Sable was picked up again, when the Lighthouse Board noted in 1865 that the point was the most important point on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan between Pointe Betsie and Muskegon and that the “interests of commerce demand that it be suitably lighted.” Congress appropriated $35,000 for the lighthouse in July 1866 and work soon got underway at the site. A stone foundation, extending six-and-a-half feet below the ground was first prepared, and atop this a brick tower was built that tapered from a diameter of roughly nineteen feet at its base to just over thirteen feet at the lantern room. Eight circular windows provide light for the tower’s interior. The upper portion of the 112-foot tower consists of a watchroom, encircled by a gallery, and the lantern room, in which a third-order L. Sautter & Cie. Fresnel lens was installed.

The dwelling for the keepers was connected to the southern side of the tower by a fourteen-foot-long covered passageway. Built of Milwaukee Cream City Brick, which was also used for the tower, the one-and-a-half-story dwelling had an apartment on the ground floor for the keeper and one upstairs for the assistant keeper. Alonzo Hyde, the first head keeper, lit the tower’s lamp for the first time on November 1, 1867, sending forth a fixed white light that could be seen for up to nineteen miles.

A circular iron oil house, capable of storing 360 gallons, was erected 106 feet south of the lighthouse in 1893. By 1899, it was apparent that measures had to be taken to preserve the deteriorating brick in the tower. A contract to address this issue was entered into on December 14, 1899, and the following year the tower was encased in eighteen metal cylinders, with different diameters, that were placed one on top of the other. The metal had a thickness of three-eighths of an inch, and the space between the cylinders and the tower was filled with concrete. When the work was completed in June 1900, the metal tower was painted white with its middle third black. In October 1916, its current daymark was established when the color of the watchroom and lantern room was changed from white to black.

A brick fog signal building was built southwest of the lighthouse in 1908 and outfitted with duplicate twenty-two horsepower oil engines and compressors. The compressed air was stored in a tank before exiting the building through a six-foot trumpet. The fog signal, which went into operation on May 20, 1909, sounded two blasts every forty-five seconds in the following manner: three-second blast, twelve seconds silence, three-second blast, twenty-seven seconds silence.

Lighthouse in 1914 before lantern was painted black
Photograph courtesy Archives of Michigan
In 1909, work began on expanding the keeper’s dwelling to accommodate a second assistant to help with the increased workload caused by the fog signal. After the addition, the dwelling had eight rooms for the head keeper in one part, and two three-room apartments for the assistants. The intensity of the light was increased on June 25, 1910 through the installation of an incandescent oil vapor lamp, and a new oil house was erected the following year.

In 1934, Keeper Lewellyn Vannatter reported that he could see the following lights on the opposite side of Lake Michigan, which were normally only visible for twenty miles: Twin River Lighthouse (distant 53 miles), Sturgeon Bay Canal Lighthouse (distant 65 miles), and the airway beacon atop the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Building in Chicago (distant 160 miles!). What Keeper Vannatter must have experienced is a rare and complex atmospheric condition known as the Fata Moranga, which allows a person to see a reflected image of the opposite shoreline.

During the summer of 1934, a large sea serpent had struck terror in the hearts of swimmers on boaters in Lake Michigan. Keeper Vannatter solved the mystery surrounding this creature when he discovered a large wooden head and midsection on the shore near Big Sable Lighthouse. The sections were expertly painted and jointed together, and the head featured gleaming eyes.

By 1941, Lake Michigan had started to undermine the fog signal building, making its continued use hazardous. A square, pyramidal, skeletal tower, topped by an enclosed wooden section, was erected in 1941 to house the fog signal equipment, and the old fog signal building was razed. Interlocking steel pilings were driven in front of the station in 1943 to protect the station from the advancing waters of Lake Michigan.

The modern conveniences of electricity, provided by a diesel generator, and indoor plumbing and heating were added to the station in 1949. Power lines were extended to the point in 1953. In 1968 the tradition of light-keeping begun in 1867 ended when the station was fully automated. Coast Guard personnel left the station for good in April 1971.

After being left vacant by the Coast Guard, the light station was used by the Foundation of Behavioral Research in the early 1970s under the leadership of the research director of Kalamazoo State Hospital. After the director’s position was terminated for mishandling funds, the state’s Department of Social Services ran an experimental program for delinquents at the lighthouse using survival therapy techniques.

1908 fog signal building and other outbuildings
Photograph courtesy Archives of Michigan
Expecting the lighthouse to topple into Lake Michigan at any time, the Coast Guard built a new tower farther inland in 1985 as a backup. The Fresnel lens was removed from the lighthouse at this time and replaced by a modern beacon mounted outside the lantern room. The third-order lens from Big Sable is now on display at the maritime museum at Historic White Pine Village in Ludington.

The Foundation of Behavioral Research became caretakers of the lighthouse again in October 1986, when they signed a twenty-five year lease on the property. The foundation worked closely with Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association, which was formed in 1987 to save the station. Local businesses joined in the battle to fight erosion on the point, and the work paid off – the backup light never had to be used. The Keepers Association, which is now known as Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association to reflect its expanding stewardship over other lighthouses, took over the lease for Big Sable in the early 1990s. The station was transferred from the federal government to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources in 2002, but a new lease was quickly granted to Keepers Association who will continue to care for the property.

During the summer months, volunteer keepers live in the second story of the keeper’s dwelling and provide tours to visitors and help with general maintenance. The Keepers Association plans to recreate the station as it appeared in 1948, and one major step in achieving this goal was the completion in 2009 of a replica of the 1941 fog signal tower.

Head Keepers: Alonzo Hyde, Sr. (1867 – 1869), Alonzo W. Hyde (1869 – 1871), Newton L. Bird (1871 – 1873), Burr Caswell (1875 – 1882), Hans L. Hansen (1882 – 1887), James W. Rich (1887 – 1888), Thomas J. Bailey (1889 – 1893), Thomas Gardner (1893 – 1899), George R. Blake (1899 – 1905), Samuel Gagnon (1905 – 1922), Joseph Kimmes (1922 – 1923), Lewellyn Vannatter (1923 – 1936), George Rogan (1936 – 1949), David M. Sauers (1949 – 1954), Henry Vavrina (1955 – 1965), Homer R. Meverden (1965 – 1968), James E. Holmes (1968 – 1970), Bernard Smith (1971).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Annual Report of the Lake Carriers' Association, various years.

Location: Located roughly 8 miles north of Ludington and just west of Hamlin Lake.
Latitude: 44.05772
Longitude: -86.51448

For a larger map of Big Sable Point Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Ludington, proceed north on Highway 116 (Lakeshore Drive) for 6.5 miles to Ludington State Park. At the park, ask for directions to the trailhead for the 1.6 mile walk over a sandy road to the Big Sable Lighthouse. The lighthouse is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., May through October. Call (231) 845-7417 to confirm hours.

The lighthouse is owned by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and is managed by Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open in season.

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