The first lighthouse on South Manitou Island was built in 1839 and displayed a fixed white light using eight lamps and fourteen-inch reflectors. Built with the same specifications used for the still-standing old Presque Isle Lighthouse, the lighthouse consisted of a thirty-four by twenty-foot stone dwelling and a detached thirty-foot-tall, brick and stone tower. The tower’s lantern room was roughly thirty-five feet above the ground, but the knoll on which the lighthouse stood gave the light a focal plane of sixty-five feet above the lake.
William N. Burton, son of the island’s first permanent settler, was employed as the light’s first keeper. An inspection report in 1850 noted the tower and dwelling both needed pointing and whitewashing and that the fireplaces in the dwelling had been undermined by rats and should be relaid. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower’s lantern room in 1857, and by that time a fog bell was also being used at the station.
Crafted into the yellow bricks on the southern side of the current keeper’s dwelling is the year of its construction: 1858. With the original lighthouse beyond repair, a new one was built in 1858, consisting of the current keeper’s dwelling topped by a short wooden tower and lantern room. This lighthouse resembled the one built that same year in Grand Traverse and the one built at Port Washington, Wisconsin in 1860. The 1858 lighthouse used the fourth-order Fresnel lens installed in its predecessor the previous year, but a decade later the light was considered inadequate for so important a location. In 1869, T.H. Stevens, district inspector, made the following report on South Manitou Island Lighthouse:
South Manitou is one of the most important stations in the district. The channel between South Manitou Island and the mainland is about (7) seven miles in width. Through this passage the principal commerce of the lakes pass, and this light being their guide. In my opinion a tower of greater elevation – a lens of a larger order and of a characteristic distinction not readily mistaken, is required.
It is also a guide to a Harbor of Refuge. That is probably used more than any other on the entire Chain of Lakes, and it is frequently impossible to distinguish it from the lights of vessels at anchor.
Inspector Stevens recommended that the skeletal tower on Manitou Island in Lake Superior be relocated to South Manitou Island as the establishment of Gull Rock Lighthouse had lessened the importance of Manitou Island Light.
Congress appropriated $10,000 for improving the light on South Manitou Island in 1870, and added another $20,000 to this on March 3, 1871. Rather than relocate the light from Manitou Island, the Lighthouse Board decided to build a tall brick tower on South Manitou Island. A work crew arrived on the island in 1871 and constructed the current 100-foot lighthouse atop a pile foundation. The tower has a diameter of eighteen feet, four inches and its base and tapers to twelve feet, eight inches at its top, where a third-order, Henry-LePaute Fresnel was installed inside a decagonal lantern room to produce a fixed white light at a focal plane of 104 feet. A forty-four-foot-long covered passageway connected the new tower to the 1858 dwelling.
Before being appointed head keeper of South Manitou Island Lighthouse in 1866, Aaron A. Sheridan served in the Civil War, where the bones in his lower left arm were shattered during the Battle of Ringgold, rendering his arm useless. On July 14, 1869, W.H. Arthur, master of the Equinox out of Buffalo, filed a complaint with the customs collector at Chicago claiming that the light on South Manitou Island was out between midnight and 1 a.m. the previous day. Keeper Sheridan was asked to explain the outage and responded that the lamp was overflowing that night, prompting him to reduce the flow by about one-third. After watching the light until midnight, Keeper Sheridan laid down for an hour or so, and when he got up to check on the light, he found the oil had stopped flowing and the light had gone out.
Julia Sheridan, wife of Keeper Aaron Sheridan, was appointed the station’s first assistant keeper in 1872, to help with the extra work required by the taller tower and third-order light, and Jeremiah Becker became the station’s first second assistant keeper in 1875, to help operate the steam whistle. In May 1875, Keeper Sheridan let the water in the boilers get too low, and superheated steam caused the top of the boiler to change color and nearly explode. The lighthouse inspector, on reporting the incident to the Lighthouse Board, noted that “a single lesson in steam engineering was not sufficient to qualify an inexperienced keeper for running the engine successfully.” Though Keeper Sheridan had an excellent record as a keeper, the inspector felt he should have been transferred to another station and a person familiar with steam machinery placed in charge of the station.
Keeper Sheridan and his wife were returning from the mainland on March 15, 1878 with their ten-month-old baby Robert and Chris Ankerson, a resident of South Manitou, when the boat they were in capsized about a mile from the island. Ankerson was able to cling to the upset vessel until help arrived from the island and reported that Keeper Sheridan could have saved himself but sacrificed his life trying to save his wife and child. Keeper Sheridan twice assisted his wife and son to the overturned boat, but due to the high seas and cold water, Julia was unable to maintain a grip on the rolling boat. Julia eventually slipped beneath the waves, and in a vain attempt to save her, Keeper Sheridan followed her to a watery grave. Katherine Hutzler was babysitting the Sheridans’ five other sons at the time of the accident and often told the story of how the boys, who were between the ages of three and twelve, ran up and down the beach weeping while searching for the bodies of their parents and baby brother. During his twelve years of service, Keeper Sheridan had an excellent record, and his final act speaks highly of his devotion to his family.
Lyman Sheridan, Aaron Sheridan’s first cousin, became the next head keeper of the lighthouse, and his life was also touched by tragedy at the station. Lyman’s wife Mary contracted tuberculosis at the lighthouse and passed away in 1882. Keeper Sheridan believed the illness was a result of the dampness of the dwelling they had to live in and promptly resigned as he couldn’t bear to live at the station that had brought such sorrow to his family. Lyman sold all of the family’s furniture to Martin Knudsen, the next head keeper, and left the island.
Keeper Knudsen also had to deal with dampness at the lighthouse and reported that puddles of water would accumulate in the floor of the tower and paper on the walls of the dwelling loosened up from the excess moisture. Knudsen tackled this issue by “opening every window in clear, dry weather, closing them and keeping doors closed during damp weather, except one window to leeward in the top of tower under watch room, which was always left open, except in stormy or very damp weather.” Keeper Knudsen later reported, “I was at South Manitou from 1882 till in September, 1889, and during the last two years was not troubled with any dampness in tower or dwelling, and am satisfied that by constant care in ventilating when the weather is favorable, both summer and winter, very little dampness need be experienced in most localities.”
A duck flew through the storm pane and plate glass in the tower last night. Both the outside and inside glass were cracked all to pieces, and one duck lay dead near the lens. I think more than one struck, but only one got inside. When the inside plate broke it struck the lens and chipped it in a few places. We have put in a new storm pane.Bird strikes occasionally occurred at lighthouses, but it wasn’t often that the fowl actually broke through the glass panes and damaged the Fresnel lens.
The fog signal at South Manitou was changed to an air diaphone in 1933, and in 1942, the light was supplied with electric power. The activities at South Manitou Lighthouse and the nearby South Manitou Lifeboat Station were consolidated in 1945, six years after the Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses. The station’s fog signal was discontinued in 1954.
South Manitou Island Lighthouse was deactivated in 1958 and stood neglected until it was incorporated into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 1970. Park rangers provide tours of the tower to some of the almost 9,000 people who take the ferryboat ride to South Manitou each summer, but restoration of the interior of the dwelling is still awaiting funding.
After a successful campaign carried out by the Manitou Island Memorial Society and Manitou Island Transit to re-light the light, the Park Service restored the lantern room and the tower’s spiral staircase in the summer of 2008, and a replica of the light’s original third-order Fresnel lens, created by Artworks Florida, was installed in the lantern late that fall. In conjunction with the reactivation of South Manitou Lighthouse on May 30, 2009, an interpretive talk on the history of Manitou Passage and the shipwrecks that made the lighthouse necessary was held at the park’s maritime museum, housed in a historic lifesaving station in Glen Haven. The modern beacon, which was lit by Jack Sheridan, great-grandson of Keeper Aaron Sheridan, now shines forth each year between May and October.