While Cheboygan Lighthouse was built in 1851 to mark the South Channel, the narrow passage in the North Channel remained dark. In 1867, the Lighthouse Board noted that an appropriation had once been made for a lighthouse to mark the passage, but “imperfections in the title to the proposed site” had resulted in the appropriation lapsing into the surplus fund. As a clear title could now be obtained, the Lighthouse Board requested $12,000 for a lighthouse to mark the North Channel.
Congress approved the project on February 5, 1893, but didn’t provide the necessary funds until August 18, 1894. Detailed plans and specifications for the lighthouse and necessary metalwork were drawn up, and contracts were made for the metalwork, for two fog-signal boilers, and for the erection of the lighthouse and fog signal.
Frank Rounds, who had worked on Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, was hired to build the lighthouse near the end of a long, narrow point projecting from the northern side of Round Island. A concrete and brick pier, measuring forty by thirty-nine feet and standing nine feet tall, was built as a foundation. The pier was filled with stone and boulders, save space left for a coal-bin cellar, and then paved with flagstones. The redbrick lighthouse built atop the pier consists of a twelve-foot-square tower, rising to a height of fifty-one feet, that forms the northeast corner of a two-and-a-half-story, cross-gabled dwelling.
The boilers and equipment for the station’s ten-inch steam whistle took up the first floor, while four rooms and a pantry were located on the second floor and the top floor had three rooms. Inside the tower’s octagonal lantern room was installed a fourth-order, Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens, which produced a fixed white light, interrupted every twenty seconds by a red flash. The lens was equipped with two external flash panels, covered by ruby glass screens, and the whole apparatus completed a revolution every forty seconds.
A brick oil house was built roughly ninety-five feet south of the tower, adjacent to the station’s brick privy. In 1901, a frame boathouse, boat ways, and a landing crib were added to the station. The characteristic of the light was changed on October 15, 1914 to a red flash every ten seconds, and the fog signal was changed to an air diaphone, sounding a three-second blast every thirty seconds, on August 27, 1928.
During a gale in 1914, Head Keeper George W. Smith and Samuel Massicotte, his assistant, went to the assistance of a disabled motorboat in a rowboat and took one man to shore.
At the opening of navigation in 1948, Round Island Passage Lighthouse, located just off Mackinac Island, was placed in operation, and Round Island Lighthouse became an unattended station. Round Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1955, and turned over to Hiawatha National Forest in 1958.
On October 20, 1972, a violent storm tore away the lower portion of the lighthouse’s southwest corner, threatening the structure’s integrity and exposing its interior to the elements. Mrs. Fred Haynes, a housewife from Port Huron who had a summer home on Mackinac Island, formed a group to try to save the lighthouse. “To me, the light is sort of a pillar to that north channel,” she said. “It is part of the whole scene in the straits, along with the bridge and everything. It’s the ‘statue of the Straits of Mackinac.’ If people will pay $1 million for a statue by a famous sculpture, why not pay to save this statue, too?” By selling buttons on the island and soliciting the help of the Mackinac Island Historical Society, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other organizations, the group raised enough funds to place riprap around the lighthouse in 1974 and repair its walls and foundation by 1977. As part of the preservation effort, Round Island Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in August 1974.
Additional groups came to the aid of the lighthouse in 1995, when Boy Scout Troop 323 from Freeland, Michigan teamed up with Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association to work on restoring the station’s structures. Over the years, the Boy Scouts have removed trash and debris from inside the lighthouse, repaired the foundation of the privy, and painted the lighthouse during their annual weekend outings to Round Island. A sign of the Scouts’ successful rehabilitation work came in 1996, the light’s centennial year, when Round Island Lighthouse commenced operation as a private navigational aid, showing two white flashes every ten seconds.
In 2009, people associated with the Boy Scouts’ efforts to restore the lighthouse over the previous fourteen years teamed up to form Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society. The society plans to bring together a larger group of people interested in the lighthouse to expand the restoration work. The public is invited to visit the lighthouse during an open house held each year on the second Saturday in July.
In 2020, the Round Island Preservation Society launched a fundraising campaign to secure money for placing riprap around the lighthouse to protect it from record high water levels experienced in recent years. After an anonymous donor gave $250,000 in the fall, fast-track approval by state and federal officials was obtained so that the rocks could be put in place before the end of the year. North Shore Marine Terminal of Escanaba was contracted for the work, and in late November 1,500 tons of protective stones were placed around the lighthouse and oil house.