Digest>Archives> November 2002

Lighthouse Towered Over Lake Michigan Refuge

By Jim Merkel


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The South Manitou Lighthouse.
Photo by: Jim Merkel

Today, the blue bay on Lake Michigan’s South Manitou Island is usually deserted, save for boaters, the daily ferry from Leland, Mich. and occasional summertime swimmers who ventured into pristine if somewhat cold waters.

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Photo by: Jim Merkel

But when the wind and rain turned the lake into a cauldron in the1800s the crescent-shaped bay on the island’s east side became a refuge for ship captains and crews who didn’t want to end their lives on the lake’s bottom. On those days it would fill with ships on those stormy days seeking shelter.

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The South Manitou fog signal.
Photo by: Jim Merkel

No wonder the island got a lighthouse early, in 1840. No wonder the stories about the place are so rich. No wonder Emily McKinney could relate those tales with such ease, to a visitor on a day early in August.

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Emily McKinney, the student intern quoted in the ...
Photo by: Jim Merkel

“When we get up to the lighthouse, to the top, look out over that harbor and try and blur your vision and imagine 100 ships all crammed into this little space, the only rest stop,” says McKinney, who spent the summer of 2002 as a student intern for those taking the 17-mile ferry boat trips from Leland west to South Manitou.

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The South Manitou Light tower being painted by ...

It’s hot when McKinney spins her story. The flies are hungry and munch on skin, covered or uncovered. But they fail to distract from her words.

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The South Manitou Lighthouse, 1933. Photo ...

It wasn’t sailboats that filled the harbor but hundred-foot steamers. Captains tapped their barometers, trying to decide. “Should I go on? Should I stay here where I know it’s going to be safe?”

Towering above McKinney and her audience that day was the light tower that provided a beacon for the passage between South and North Manitou Islands and the shoreline until the Coast Guard turned it off in 1958. The construction of the North Manitou Shoal Light in 1935 and later the South Manitou Shoal Lighted Buoy rendered the light at South Manitou Island unnecessary. A life saving/Coast Guard station also started in 1902..

After the Coast Guard left, vandals, the weather and neglect took their toll on the old light station until 1970, when it became part of the new Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Today, the station is preserved, and a key part of visits to the island.

“The lighthouse on South Manitou Island is, or was while it was still in operation, perhaps the most beautiful on the Great Lakes,” Myron H. Vent boasted in his 1973 book, “South Manitou Island: From Pioneer Community to National Park.”

The inside of the dwelling is closed and its interior still covered with old graffiti. Efforts are on to get the money to remove the graffiti and do repairs on the lighthouse buildings. That follows efforts in the 1980s to shore up the tower, erosion during a time of higher lake levels threatened the edifice.

Today, the tower is open and guides like McKinney are more than willing to offer tours of the old station on the southeast corner of the island, just south of the bay.

Looking east from the base of the light, toward the shore, McKinney encourages her visitors to think of a time past.

“You’re not only looking at Lake Michigan out there, you’re looking at the Manitou Passage,” she said. “It’s a big stretch of water between the Straits of Mackinac in Chicago, 300 miles. If you use you imagination, take yourselves back 150 years ago.”

In that earlier time, a person looking east from the island could see 1,000 ships passing each day, carrying goods and people.

Though it was safer than the open lake, the passageway nonetheless was treacherous. No wonder lobbying started relatively early for a light station. No wonder the stories told about the place are so rich. And such stories do people like Emily McKinney tell about the lighthouse and the island where its 3rd Order Fresnel lens shone.

Congress appropriated $5,000 for a South Manitou Island light in 1838. A report that year to the Secretary of the Treasury noted that steamships visited the island’s harbor for fuel and shelter in storms, It was the only harbor admitting large vessels in all weather in the 300-mile direct route from the Straits of Mackinac to Chicago, the report said.

Construction began in 1839 and the 1-1/2-story lighthouse with a lens in the cupola first went on in 1840, under the care of Keeper William N. Burton.

Alas, Burton did not have the single-minded devotion to the calling that normally comes to mind when people think of lighthouse keepers. He had a sideline, or rather, thought of light keeping as a sideline.

The first settler on the island, Burton started a lumbering business to provide wood for the vessels that stopped at the island. He seemed a sensible choice for the post of keeper.

“He never moved in near the lighthouse. He stayed a mile away because he had his lumbering business,” McKinney said. “He was fired after a couple of years because he’d always send some lackey to go check the light for him. . . . .He lost his job for freelancing a little too much.”

Nobody seemed to mind when Bael Ward was appointed keeper in Burton’s place in 1843. Burton focused his energy on his business. Ward was told he had to live in the lighthouse.

Year passed and a new brick lighthouse went up in 1858. Then in 1871, a new 100-foot-tall brick tower went up, enabling mariners to see it 17 miles away.

For those in storms, the sight of the beacon would have been a magnificent one, McKinney says.

Before the light went on, a man who had been in a boat on a storm-tossed lake in the area of South Manitou recounted the sense of terror he felt. It might have been different after the light’s construction, McKinney said. “All these people on the boat, scared and frightened, look up and see a 100-foot-tall whitewashed tower with that white light, shining on the lake. It would have looked just like an angel,” she said.

The light would have brought comfort to those in ships passing by. But there was no comfort for Keeper Aaron Sheridan, his wife and their infant on March 15, 1878. The tragic events of that day were recorded by Arthur and Evelyn Knudsen and preserved in Vent’s book “South Manitou Island: From Pioneer Community to National Park.”

“While their two older children watched from the lighthouse window, they started for a sailboat ride with Chris Anchersen and were still within sight of land when a sudden squall came up and capsized the boat. The sail-boom swung around and struck Aaron with such force that he fell into the water. The blow probably knocked him unconscious, for his body never reappeared. Mrs. Sheridan, with her baby clasped tightly in one arm, was clinging to the boat with her free hand. Anchersen looked around for rope with which to fasten Mrs. Sheridan and the baby to the boat, but when he found it, Mrs. Sheridan had lost her hold and both she and her baby had disappeared into the water. Anchersen clung to the boat and drifted toward North Manitou Island, which he finally reached the next day.”

The visitor today can walk over the site where the two Sheridan children wandered the shore, crying and looking for the bodies of their parents.

That same visitor can view the site of the shipwreck of the Three Brothers shipwreck, just off shore. The bulk freighter coming from Chicago was wrecked on Sept. 27, 1911, loaded with lumber and with 13 people on board. The vessel began to sink in a storm and was intentionally run aground near the lifesaving station. Everyone was saved, but the freighter and its cargo were a loss.

Unlike many at island lighthouses, the keepers and their families at the South Manitou Island Light Station were not isolated. A small village and farming community ensured they were not alone. A school house, farms and cemetery are within walking distance of the lighthouse.

“There’s some interesting stories about the cattle on the island free roaming and the kids going to school,” McKinney said. “Didn’t have to watch out for drug dealers, but you had to watch out for cattle and keep an eye on the trees, which ones you could climb up if the cattle came and charged you.”

Although the last of the permanent residents left in the early 1970s, some would say somebody remains.

In one tale McKinney related, some maintenance people unlocked the lighthouse and heard two people having a conversation at the top of the tower. Worried that someone had broken in, they called for a National Park Service law enforcement ranger to go up to the top.

“The passageway to the keeper’s quarters was still locked from the inside. And as they climbed the tower, the stopped hearing the voices. And there was nobody up there. All three of them heard it,” McKinney said.

Such tales may help to ensure the light station’s survival.

“While we’re doing these tours, I like to have people think about why this building is still standing after 132 years,” McKinney says, near the top of the tower’s 125 steps.

The solid construction plays a part, she says, but only a partial one.

“It has nothing to do with bricks or mortar,” she said. “As long as you come to this lighthouse, hear about the stories,” she said, “It will be here another 130 years.”

This story appeared in the November 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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