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 Beaver Island, MI    
Lighthouse accessible by ferry.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.
Description: On November 5, 1838, James T. Homans, a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, wrote the following to Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury:
The only points in my district not named for survey and examination, upon which I would report favorably for light-houses, are two: the most necessary of the two is the southern extremity of the island in lake Michigan, known as the Big Beaver. It lies in the direct route of vessels passing from the straits of Michilimackinac to Green bay, and other parts of the northwestern section of Lake Michigan. The loss of property from shipwrecks on the Beaver island has been considerable this season alone, and in value to exceed the cost of building many light-houses and maintaining them. The steamboat De Witt Clinton, in the month of September last, with a full and valuable cargo, struck in the night on a shoal near the Big Beaver, and was obliged to throw overboard nearly $20,000 worth of her lading, including the fixtures for the lantern of the light at Milwaukee, before she could be got off. The disaster to this vessel is ample testimony of the necessity of a light for that point.

Beaver Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Despite Homans’ compelling recommendation, a lighthouse wasn’t built on Beaver Island for more than a decade. In January 1849, Kinsely Bingham, a U.S. Representative for Michigan’s third district, submitted a “petition of citizens of the western lakes, praying for the erection of a light-house on Beaver island.” This time, Congress quickly responded, appropriating $5,000 for a lighthouse on September 28, 1850. In March 1851, John McReynolds of Detroit signed a contract with Charles E. Avery, Collector of Customs for the Michilimackinac District, to build a tower and dwelling for $4,480 and to have it completed by October 1, 1851. According to the contract, the lighthouse was to consist of a brick tower and a one-story dwelling, measuring thirty-four by twenty feet. Ten lamps, backed by fifteen-inch reflectors, were used in the tower's lighting apparatus that revolved every minute to produce a flashing light, and Henry Van Allen was hired as the light’s first keeper.

James Strang had led his Mormon followers to Beaver Island in 1848, and by the time Beaver Island Lighthouse was built, there was open hostility between the Mormons and non-believers on the island. Keeper Van Allen had secreted eighteen nets belonging to a Mormon at the lighthouse, and when twenty-four of Van Allen’s nets and attached buoys were pulled underwater by a strong current and thought lost, Van Allen offered to return the eighteen nets in exchange for his twenty-four. After the current slackened and Van Allen’s buoys and nets returned to the lake’s surface, the keeper was arrested and subsequently forfeited his bail by fleeing the island.

As nearly all non-believers had left the island, the next two lighthouse keepers were Strangites. After James Strang was assassinated in 1856, most Strangites were expelled from the island, and Patrick Loaney, one of the island’s original settlers, returned to the island and was subsequently appointed keeper. One of the few Strangites to remain on the island was Harrison “Tip” Miller, who was appointed keeper in 1863. Tip’s father followed Brigham Young to Utah after the assassination of Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, but after losing faith in Young, he relocated to Beaver Island and joined the Strangites. Tip Miller found it hard to provide for his wife and ten children on his keeper’s salary, so he fished, made barrels, and served as a mail carrier on the side. During the winter, he would haul mail fifty-five miles to Mackinac Island twice each week.

Fog Signal Building in 1914
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The original tower reportedly toppled over in 1857, prompting the construction of the current forty-six-foot brick tower in 1858. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was employed in the new tower to produce a white flash every ninety seconds at a focal plane of 103 feet above the lake. On April 7, 1866, Congress appropriated $5,800 for a new keeper’s dwelling, and the present two-story brick dwelling was built later that year. The large frame addition to the keeper’s dwelling was constructed in 1910.

In 1888, the Lighthouse Board noted that a fog whistle was needed at the lighthouse, and on March 2, 1889, a sundry civil act provided the funds for its construction. A ten-acre site west of the lighthouse that included a bench elevated thirty feet above the lake was purchased for the fog signal, and the necessary materials and work crew were landed on the island on August 27, 1890. A landing and water supply crib was built at the lakeshore that was linked to the fog signal building by a 142-foot-long tramway. The new first-class steam siren, transferred from Skillagallee Lighthouse, commenced operation on December 6, 1890. In 1910, a new redbrick fog signal building was built just a few yards from the edge of the lake, and the fog signal was changed to a ten-inch steam whistle on November 18 of that year. An air tyfon fog signal was installed in 1933.

On April 17, 1916, the light source was changed to incandescent oil vapor, which increased the intensity of the white flash to 14,000 candlepower and the fixed light to 1,700. At this time, the light’s signature was a 1.3-second flash every twenty seconds. The light was electrified in 1938, and then discontinued in 1962, when an automated radio beacon was established just north of the lighthouse.

After being leased to four individuals and having served as a hunting lodge for a time, the decommissioned lighthouse was declared surplus property in December 1972. Six educational and health organizations applied for ownership, and the lighthouse was awarded to a coalition of fourteen community colleges that planned to use the site for biology and ecological education. These plans must not have worked out, as in 1975 the property was deeded to Charlevoix Public Schools for the token sum of $1.

Beaver Island Lighthouse and fog signal
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
During the summers of 1978 – 1980, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) provided funds for underprivileged teenagers to live in tents at the lighthouse and help restore the historic structure. By this time, nearly all the windows and doors in the lighthouse were broken, and the interior walls were peppered with gunshot holes. Students from Beaver Island High School donated their timer during the winters to convert a maintenance building into a cafeteria and further the restoration of the lighthouse.

The lighthouse is now run as the Beaver Island Lighthouse School and is available for students in northwest Michigan, aged sixteen to twenty-one, who have dropped out of school or are at risk of doing so. Three forty-eight-day sessions are offered each year – fall, winter, and spring – during which students are given two, four-day breaks to return to the mainland.

Steve Finch was serving as the school’s site supervisor in 2011, but just a few years before that he had been traveling the country as a salesman when his own son, who was struggling in school, graduated from the lighthouse school. “I figured I could end my life having sold a bunch of stuff, or I could help change some lives,” Finch said. After working with the school’s summer construction camps, Finch quit his sales jobs and took charge of the school.

Using a $257,813 Clean Michigan Initiative, Waterfront Redevelopment Grant and a $150,000 National Park Service, Save America’s Treasures Grant, the lighthouse and fog signal were restored in 2003 – 2004. Though the lighthouse no longer serves its intended purpose of guiding mariners through the treacherous waters surrounding Beaver Island, it is helping many a young person make important course corrections in their journey through life.

Head Keepers: Henry Van Allen (1851 – 1852), Dennis Chidester (1852 – 1856), Joseph Lobdell (1856 – 1859), Patrick Loaney (1859 – 1861), Gilman Appleby (1861 – 1863), Harrison “Tip” Miller (1863 – 1874), William H. Duclon (1874 – 1883), George E. Lasley (1883 – 1896), Andrew G. Bourissau (1896 – 1897), Charles O. Butler (1897 – 1904), Medad Spencert (1904 – 1909), James Wachter (1909 – 1912), Dominick D. Gallagher (1912 – 1928), Chester B. Marshall (1928 – 1936), Carl Olson (1938 – 1939), Alexander Durette (1939 – 1940), Owen Gallagher (1940).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3

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.
  4. beaverislandlighthouse.org
  5. “Tiny island school a beacon for wayward teens,” Martha Irvine, Associate Press, January 23, 2011.
  6. Beaver Island Light Station Historic Structures Report, May 25, 2001.

Location: Located on the southern end of Beaver Island, which is roughly 30 miles northwest of Charlevoix.
Latitude: 45.57552
Longitude: -85.57343

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


Travel Instructions: Beaver Island can be reached via ferry service through the Beaver Island Boat Company, or you can fly to the island with Fresh Air Aviation. Transportation to take you to the Beaver Head Lighthouse can be rented on the island, or you can take an island tour, available from the Beaver Island Boat Company, that includes a stop at the lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by Charlevoix Public Schools and managed by Beaver Island Lighthouse School. Grounds/tower open. Dwelling closed.

Find the closest hotels to Beaver Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Inside the corridor that links the dwelling to the tower is a display on the history of the lighthouses and a display cabinet containing a fourth-order Fresnel lens. According to a sign near the lens, the lens was reportedly used for fifty years at the William Livingston Lighthouse on Belle Isle near Detroit.

The lens now at Beaver Island Lighthouse was purchased from the Coast Guard by Francis Stebbins, who displayed it at Old Presque Isle Lighthouse, which he had acquired years earlier. James Stebbins, son of Francis Stebbins, donated the lens to Charlevoix Public Schools for display at Beaver Island Lighthouse.


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.