Construction at the site began in late 1851, with materials being transported by schooner to the point and then being lightered ashore. A two-room dwelling with an attached kitchen and shed was built for the keeper, a position first held by David Moon, and a thirty-foot-tall, conical, brick tower was erected nearby. A fixed light, produced by six lamps and fourteen-inch reflectors, was first exhibited in September 1852, but in 1857, the light source was changed to a fourth-order Fresnel lens.
Keeper Moon resigned after just one year at the lighthouse and was replaced by Philo Beers, who had previously been a Deputy United States Marshal. During Moon’s four years as keeper, the lighthouse was visited by pirates from nearby Beaver Island. James Strang had established himself as king of a Mormon splinter group on the island, and his followers were accused of night-time raids on the Michigan mainland. The pirates made off with all of Keeper Beers’ nets and their contents on one occasion and valuable lighthouse supplies on another.
Shortly after being placed in service, Grand Traverse Lighthouse was found to be poorly built and poorly situated. Located near the eastern side of the tip of the peninsula, the lighthouse was useful for vessels entering and leaving Grand Traverse Bay but wasn’t of much service to vessels on Lake Michigan. The original lighthouse was torn down and replaced in 1858 by a two-and-a-half-story dwelling, built using Milwaukee cream city brick and topped by a slate roof. The dwelling measured thirty by thirty-two feet, and one of its gable ends was adorned with a seven-foot-square wooden tower. A fifth-order Fresnel lens was used in the new lighthouse until 1870, when a fourth-order, Barbier and Finestre lens was installed. The Lighthouse Board called this upgrade “a very necessary and decided improvement.”
Philo Beers was no longer serving as keeper when the new lighthouse was built, but he and his son Henry, who would serve as keeper of the lighthouse from 1859 to 1861, used some of the material from the original keeper’s dwelling to build a house in nearby Northport.
In 1880, a new wood shed was built, and the dwelling’s cellar was drained and sealed with cement. A two-story barn was built near the lighthouse in 1891 with a pitched shingle roof. The barn received an addition in 1895, and in 1896 a brick oil house was constructed.
The extra workload created by the steam whistle required the assignment of an assistant keeper to the station, and in 1900, brick extensions were added to the dwelling to create two separate apartments for the keepers.
In 1933, an air diaphone, powered by air compressors driven by diesel engines, replaced the steam whistle. The most active year for the steam fog signal for which there are records was 1904, when it was in operation some 318 hours and consumed about 49 cords of wood.
The light was electrified in 1950, increasing its intensity to 15,000 candlepower. Keepers remained at Grand Traverse Lighthouse until 1972, when the lighthouse was replaced by an automated beacon mounted atop a skeletal tower.
The abandoned buildings slowly fell into disrepair until an organization, now known as Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum, was formed in 1984 with the goal of restoring the station and opening it to the public. After raccoons, squirrels, and bats had been evicted from the lighthouse, half of the structure was opened in 1986, while the rest housed a caretaker. A fourth-order Fresnel lens, formerly used at Michigan’s Alpena Lighthouse, is on exhibit in the lighthouse mounted atop the original pedestal from Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
Bobbie Ditzler served as the first president of Friends of the Lighthouse, which became Grand Traverse Lighthouse Foundation, and then Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum in 2000. Bobbie’s great uncle, Oscar Dame, served as assistant keeper at Grand Traverse Lighthouse in 1907 and then from 1923 to 1938.
Doug was able to track down a potbellied stove used in the lighthouse, and brought back his mother’s pump organ and dining room table.
Keeper James McCormick was responsible for much of the beach stonework found on the lighthouse grounds, including a stone birdhouse, a stone crown planter, and stone steps. Bette McCormick Olli, one of John and Mary McCormick’s twelve children, wrote a pamphlet on life at the lighthouse entitled, The Way It Was, which includes the following:
Ma would sometimes make rag dolls for us with button eyes and bodies filled with sand. The sand would shift and the dolls felt as though they were alive. Store bought dolls were mostly for ‘looking at’ and not to be handled carelessly.
While serving as keeper at Grand Traverse, Keeper John Marken received a thirty-year service pin in 1959 and then another pin five years later. Keeper Marten stood watch on December 24, 1967 from midnight until 8 a.m., and then left the station later that day with his wife. When Keeper Marten had not returned to the lighthouse by the next morning, Marion Lee Hancock, the coastguardsman on duty, called friends in town to try to locate him and then called Sterling Nickerson, the station’s other coastguardsman, to see if he could find the Martens. Nickerson arrived at the lighthouse thirty-five minutes later and reported that he had located the couple and their car, about a half-mile from the station. Authorities determined that at about 8:20 p.m. the night before, the Marten’s car skidded off the road and struck a tree, killing the couple instantly. Hancock served as acting officer-in-charge until William A. Staples arrived on February 4, 1968 to take charge of the station.
In 1972, an automated light atop skeletal tower replaced Grand Traverse Lighthouse, and the last Coast Guard personnel left the station.
In September 2003, ownership of Grand Traverse Lighthouse was transferred from the Coast Guard to Michigan Department of Parks and Recreation.
Instituted in 2004, a keeper program now allows lighthouse lovers to stay in the assistant keeper’s quarters in the north side of the lighthouse for week-long stints while greeting visitors and providing historical information about the station.