|Big Sable Point, MI|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Located roughly 8 miles north of Ludington and just west of Hamlin Lake.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.