Michigan Part 1: A Lighthouse and Historic Ship Tour of Ludington and Manistee

Where: Ludington and Manistee, Michigan

Trip Date: 6/15-6/17/17

Michigan Map

The road trip so far.

Ludington North Breakwater Lighthouse

We finally made it to Michigan! And of course the first thing I did was find the nearest lighthouse. In Ludington, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, that wasn’t difficult. Ludington North Breakwater Lighthouse was right downtown in the harbor. As the name suggests, it stands on the end of a long breakwater that juts out into the lake.

I have mainly seen lighthouses in southeastern coastal areas such as the Outer Banks of North Carolina, so I am accustomed to thinking of them as very tall stone towers. But, as I have discovered on this trip, that is certainly not always the case. A lot of the lighthouses in the Great Lakes area, at least on Lake Michigan so far, are much shorter constructed in a wide variety of shapes. It has been awesome to see some of the different architectural designs and attempt to capture them on paper (as you will see many times in the next few weeks).

As the first lighthouse of the trip, Ludington Light was certainly new to me. It is a square tower—57 feet tall—constructed out of steel, and sits on top of a wedge-shaped base that looks almost like a ship’s bow. The original light was a small tower built on the south breakwater in around 1890, but was replaced by the current tower in 1924-25 when a ship rammed it and damaged the structure.

North Breakwater Lighthouse

A very quick doodle of the Ludington North Breakwater Lighthouse

Apparently, in the 1990s while the north breakwater was undergoing renovation, someone noticed that the lighthouse had started to settle on one side. Inspectors deemed the tower safe, but it does lean about four degrees off center.

Big Sable Point Lighthouse

Just a few miles north we found Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington State Park. From the parking lot, it was nearly a two-mile hike down a path through the dunes. After a half hour detour to the beach to search for a supposedly visible shipwreck (that was not, in fact, visible) we could see the tower rising over the sand, and it was quite a stunning site.

Big Sable Point Light

Big Sable Point Lighthouse from behind the dunes.

Big Sable Point is one of the tallest lighthouses on the Great Lakes at 112 feet, and fits the traditional idea of lighthouse architecture a bit more closely—a tall tower attached to a keepers cottage. It was completed in 1876 and was originally made of stone. However, as you can imagine, sand colored stone does not stand out very well against sand colored sand. So between 1900 and 1905 the stone tower—that was beginning to deteriorate as well—was encased in a series of steel cylinders and painted in a black and white striped pattern. When it was first built, the light was 500 feet away from the shoreline, but the erosion of the beach over the years has brought it much closer. A series of seawalls has been added in an effort to protect the tower.

The S.S. Badger

Back in downtown Ludington, less than a mile from the North Breakwater Light, we found the home port of the S.S. Badger. Built in 1953, she was the largest car ferry to cross Lake Michigan. In the early to mid 1900s, car ferries were the fastest way to transport materials across the lakes. Ships like the Badger would carry fully loaded rail cars from Michigan to Wisconsin, a trip of only 60 miles (compared to the several hundred miles it would otherwise take to circle the lake).

As the railroad traffic declined in the later half of the 20th century, many car ferries were scrapped or abandoned. The Badger made its last run in 1990 and was tied up in Ludington. However, only a year later, the ship was bought, restored, and put into service as a passenger transport in an effort to preserve some of the Great Lakes shipping history. To this day, she continues to ferry passengers from Ludington to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and is the only coal powered steam ship still in operation in the United States (yes, she still runs on coal).

Unfortunately, we did not have the time to take a four-hour trip to Wisconsin, but I have heard it is quite an experience. It was still amazing to see the ship pulling out of port and sailing past the North Breakwater Light and into the sunset.

S.S. Badger

The S.S. Badger steaming into the sunset.

Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse

Half an hour north of Ludington on U.S. 31 we discovered Manistee, a small lakeside town, perhaps a bit less busy than Ludington. And like most of the lakeside towns I have seen so far, this too has a lighthouse. At the mouth of the Manistee river, again standing alone at the end of a pier, is the Manistee North Pierhead Light.

North Pierhead Light

Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse from across the river.

The 38-foot tower was erected in about 1927, replacing several previous lighthouses that occupied various points around the river. The long raised metal walkway—that was once used to access the tower—is one of only a few such structures left on Lake Michigan, most having been torn down sometime after the lights were converted to electricity.

The North Pierhead Light seems much less busy than some of its neighbors; most of the people I passed on the pier were there to fish. The low amount of traffic is at least in part due to the condition of the tower. It has only been within the last decade that the light was taken over by the City of Manistee and the Manistee County Historical Museum, and since then they have been working to restore the tower. So far, the exterior has been cleaned and repainted and looks to be in good condition. But unfortunately, they have thus far been unable to restore the interior, so while the tower is certainly accessible to view, there is no climbing allowed.

The S.S. City of Milwaukee and USCGC Acacia

Just down the road we found the S.S. City of Milwaukee National Historic Landmark, a ship museum offering tours of the historic S.S. City of Milwaukee and the USCGC Acacia. So of course I had to go.

The City of Milwaukee, like the Badger was a car ferry in service on Lake Michigan from the time of her construction in 1931. She is the only ferry of that era to survive, and—if I understood correctly—the only car ferry in its original condition left in the Great Lakes (the Badger was updated to carry vehicle and passenger traffic).

City of Milwaukee

The S.S. City of Milwaukee.

Berthed next to the Milwaukee is the USCGC Acacia, a Coast Guard Cutter built in the 1940s and used for maintaining buoys, lighthouses, and other navigational aids. Though not as historic as the Milwaukee, the Acacia was still fun to explore. I was a bit disappointed I was unable to see the engine room, but—after seeing several signs announcing that the ship is still in complete operational order and that visitors should under no circumstances push buttons or pull levers—I felt that this was somewhat justified.


My onsite sketch of the USCGC Acacia.

Acacia color

I couldn’t help adding a bit of color to this one.

More Info

If you would like to know more about these lighthouses and the efforts that are being made to restore them and keep them accessible to the public you can check out the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association at www.splka.org.

Next Week:

The road trip continues farther up the shores of Lake Michigan. Expect even more lighthouses. Surprise, surprise.

By | 2017-06-22T21:50:45+00:00 June 23rd, 2017|History, Michigan, Travel|0 Comments

About the Author:

James is an artist and illustrator currently working in Georgia.

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