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 Point Betsie, MI    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Overnight lodging available.
Description: Known now as Point Betsie, this important prominence on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan was originally named Pointe Aux Bec Scies, meaning point of sawbill ducks, by French explorers. In 1852, the superintendent of lights on the Great Lakes recommended the construction of three new lighthouses, two on Lake Superior and one on Point Betsie that would mark the southern entrance to the Manitou Passage and serve as a point of departure for ports in the southern portion of Lake Michigan.

Early view of Point Betsie Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Congress appropriated $5,000 for Point Betsie Lighthouse on March 3, 1853. A contract was let for the lighthouse in 1854, but the light was not activated until October 20, 1858. The yellow-brick lighthouse consisted of a circular, thirty-seven-foot tower connected by a passageway to a two-story dwelling. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower’s lantern room, where it produced a fixed white light varied by a white flash at a focal plane of fifty-three feet above the lake.

Just a year after it was placed in service, the lighthouse site had to be protected from the lake, and over the years various measures were used to keep Lake Michigan at bay.

In 1880, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board included the following paragraph, which seemed to foretell an early end to Point Bestie Lighthouse.

This is one of the most important lights on Lake Michigan. The present light has never given satisfaction. The tower was built by contract in 1858 and the work was miserably done. A new tower with sufficient height to put the focal plane 100 feet above the lake should be built, and the fourth-order lens should be replaced by a third-order. An appropriation of $40,000 is recommended for this work.

The Lighthouse Board repeated this request for several years, but then, “after careful consideration,” it decided in 1889 that since the light from Point Betsie already overlapped with that of South Manitou Island Lighthouse, the next light north, what was really needed at the point was a fog signal and a lens that produced a more frequent flash. The following year, a concrete apron, poured around 1873 to protect the lighthouse, was broken out and an underpinning of concrete, four feet deep, was placed beneath the tower to provide a secure foundation. A 240-foot revetment, consisting of two rows of piles driven to a depth of at least ten feet and capped with a stone-filled wooden crib, was also built along the shore in front of the lighthouse in 1890.

Aerial view of Point Betsie in 1960s.
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The requested steam fog signal arrived on December 31, 1891, after an act earlier that year had provided $5,500 for its constructions, and a change in the light came on April 23, 1892, when a new fourth-order lens reduced the period between the light’s white flashes from ninety to ten seconds. The fog signal was housed in a frame building, built 120 feet north of the lighthouse and covered with corrugated iron siding and roofing. A circular iron oil house with a capacity of 300 gallons was also added to the station in 1892.

The extra work needed to run the fog signal led to the assignment of an assistant keeper to Point Betsie. The living portion of the lighthouse was renovated in 1895, when an additional six rooms were added to the dwelling, allowing it to be separated into two apartments. On November 3, 1899, the dwelling and tower were painted white with red roofs to provide a better daymark for mariners.

Keeper Phil Sheridan, whose service from 1895 to 1917 as head keeper is the longest in the history of the station, was painting the lighthouse tower in 1914, when the rope supporting the swinging seat he was perched in broke. As Sheridan plummeted thirty-five feet to the ground, his legs struck an iron railing breaking his right leg and crushing his left ankle. An artery in one leg was also severed, but Sheridan recovered to continue his service at Point Betsie.

In 1912, a ten-inch chime whistle, operated by compressed air, replaced the steam fog signal plant at Point Betsie. The following year, the illumination for the light was changed to incandescent oil vapor, increasing the intensity of the light to 55,000 candlepower. The station was electrified in 1921, allowing a type “G” diaphone, which had a sound radius several times that of the air whistle, to be used. A radiobeacon was placed in commission at the station on February 28, 1927.

In the fall of 1983, the Coast Guard automated Point Betsie Lighthouse and Sherwood Point Lighthouse, the last two staffed lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Coast Guard personnel continued to live at Point Betsie until the dwelling's heating system failed in 1996, prompting the Coast Guard to relocate its staff to Frankfort.

Point Betsie Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Jim Thias
On June 5, 2004, title to the lighthouse was transferred from the Coast Guard to Benzie County. The county, in turn, immediately leased the property to The Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse. After writing grants and holding dynamic fund-raisers, the group renovated the exterior of the lighthouse in 2006 at a cost of about $1 million. As part of the renovation, the lighthouse colors were reverted to those more historically accurate shown in the photograph to the right: a black lantern, green trim and doors, and a bright red cedar shingled roof.

The energetic group restored the fog signal building in 2008, and then embarked on restoring the interior of the lighthouse. The ground floor of the lighthouse now serves as an exhibition area depicting the history of the lighthouse and lifesaving operations at Point Betsie, and the assistant keeper’s quarters is now a two-bedroom apartment available as a vacation rental. During a ceremony held at the lighthouse on June 7, 2010, The Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse received the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation, which recognizes key achievements in historic preservation. To cap off their efforts, the group succeeded in having the fourth-order Fresnel lens, which was removed from the tower in 1996 and placed on display at the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station/Maritime Museum, returned to the lighthouse.

Head Keepers: David Flury (1859), Abel Barnes (1859 – 1860), P.D. Barnes (1860 – 1861), Alonzo J. Slyfield (1861 – 1882), Edwin R. Slyfield (1882 – 1888), Peter Dues (1888 – 1893), Soren Christianson (1893 – 1895), Philip Sheridan (1895 – 1917), Severin Danielsen (1917 – 1928), Charles E. Tesnow (1928 – 1933), Edward M. Wheaton (1933 – 1946), John P. Campbell (1958 – 1963).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

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, naturally, on Point Betsie just beyond the southern end of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Latitude: 44.691259
Longitude: -86.255211

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


Travel Instructions: From Highway 22, at the western end of Crystal Lake south of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, take Point Betsie Road west for just under a mile. Point Betsie Lighthouse will be on your right at the end of the road.

The lighthouse is open on weekends from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. During July and August, the lighthouse is also open on Fridays. For hours, click here.

The lighthouse is owned by Benzie County and managed by The Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open in season.

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