|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.
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.
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.
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.