Michigan Part 5: Keepers of the Light—Tawas Point Lighthouse

Where: Tawas Point State Park, Michigan

Trip Date: 6/28-7/11/17

Michigan Map

Still exploring Michigan.

This is the fifth installment in my Michigan road trip series. If you would like to check out the previous posts, you can find them here: PART 1, PART2, PART 3, PART 4.

 

Why are we here?

After almost a month we finally reached Tawas Point. Our visit here was the instigator for this entire adventure in Michigan. Sometime last year—after falling through the rabbit-hole that is the internet—my girlfriend found a program run by the Michigan History Center and Tawas Point State Park that calls for volunteers to live at Tawas Point Lighthouse rent-free for two weeks at a time and give tours to park visitors. Of course that sounded awesome, so I bribed my family into applying with me, and somehow the background checks cleared and we were chosen.

As we began planning our trip we initially thought we might be gone only for about three weeks or so. But the list of things we just had to see kept growing…and growing. And that is why I am five posts in to an (possibly) eight part blog series about Michigan.

The Arrival

But I digress. As I was saying, on a Wednesday afternoon we drove through East Tawas and pulled into the State Park. The sky was somewhat cloudy, and threatened to rain, but as we drove down the point and the lighthouse suddenly appeared above the trees it was still very impressive.

Tawas Point rain

Tawas Point Lighthouse in the rain.

The park interpreter, Matt, met us at the door with our keys and gave us a run-through of our duties and tour talking points. For the next two weeks we would have complete access to the keeper’s quarters and tower of Tawas Point.

The first floor of the keeper’s quarters was beautifully restored to reflect several key periods in the lighthouse’s history (the second floor had been modernized into a nice apartment space for volunteer keepers—us—to live). Our job as keepers, aside from keeping the place tidy and presentable, was to lead visitors through this space explaining the history and importance of the lighthouse, before sending them up the eighty-five spiraling steps to the top of the tower. I was saddled with the enormous responsibility of awaiting the guests in the lantern room to enlighten them (pun absolutely intended) on the function of the Fresnel lens. You can’t even imagine the torture of having to sit at the top of a tower five days a week for two weeks doing nothing but reading a book and enjoying a breathtaking view—if it is not already obvious, that statement was dripping with sarcasm.

From the top of the tower I was able to see the whole of Tawas Bay, most of Tawas Point State Park, and on a clear day all the way across Saginaw Bay to Michigan’s thumb some twenty-six miles away (I feel it is important to note that Michigan’s lower peninsula is shaped more or less like a hand—a detail my father didn’t realize until we had been here for a month).

Tawas Point Detail

Tawas Point in relation to Saginaw Bay.

A History of Tawas Point

But enough about how amazing the stay was (for now), the history is far more interesting.

Tawas Point is a little hooked protrusion of land on Michigan’s Lake Huron side at the northern end of Saginaw bay that shelters the small Tawas Bay from the rest of the lake. By the mid-1800s growing settlements and two separate lumber mills made Tawas Bay a very busy place. So in 1853 a lighthouse was constructed on the point in an effort to aid the increased shipping traffic in navigating the bay.

Tawas Point map 1

The point as it appeared around 1853. Forgive my crude map drawing.

Over the next twenty years the point continued to grow through a process known as accretion. The winds from Lake Huron pushed sand along the point causing it to extend farther into the bay. By the 1870s the lighthouse was nearly a mile away from the new point. Since the light’s main duty was to guide passing ships around this point, this was kind of a problem. After a ship grounded on the extended point a new tower was authorized.

Tawas Point map 2

The Point as it appeared in 1876.

In 1876 the current 67-foot Tawas Point Lighthouse was built. At the time of construction, the tower was actually sitting in about four feet of water off the end of the point. Wooden cribbing filled with bricks and stones served as the foundation for this new tower, and a series of boardwalks and docks allowed access to the building. The original cribbing can still be seen peaking through the grass at certain points around the keeper’s cottage and tower.

Tawas Point Lighthouse

Tawas Point Lighthouse.

The Fresnel Lens

In 1891 the tower’s fifth order Fresnel lens was replaced with a new, more powerful fourth order lens. The Fresnel lens takes its name from the French scientist who studied the reflection and refraction of light and—with math that is entirely beyond my comprehension—created a lens system that could focus and beam the light from a single flame to the distance of many miles; in the case of Tawas Point, about 16 miles. The fourth order lens at Tawas Point weighs, I was told, about five hundred pounds; and that is one of the smaller lenses. First order lenses are large enough for several people to stand inside, or the size of the entire lantern room atop Tawas Point Lighthouse, maybe larger.

Fresnel Lens

A portion of the 1891 fourth order Fresnel lens.

Fresnel Lens color

The lens with some color.

Tawas Point is one of only a handful of lighthouses in the state of Michigan that still contains its original Fresnel lens. The Coast Guard technically owns the lenses within most lighthouses, and they are reluctant to relinquish that ownership even after the lens has been decommissioned or removed. Even when a lens is allowed to stay within a lighthouse, it is usually not in the tower itself, but in a museum space elsewhere. So the fact that you can view the original lens in its original setting makes Tawas Point a very unique lighthouse.

Back to the History

Of course, the point continued to grow and by 1899 Tawas Point Lighthouse was once again nearly a mile from the point.

Tawas Point map 3

Tawas Point as it appears today.

So a fog signal station was added at the end of the point as another warning to ships. With the addition of this fog signal, the workload at Tawas Point became too much for one keeper to manage, so an assistant keeper was brought in. A telephone line was also strung between the lighthouse and the fog signal building to speed up communication between the keeper in the tower and the keeper at the fog signal (the previous system being to run from one to the other as quickly as possible).

Telephone

One of the telephones used at Tawas Point Lighthouse.

The lighthouse complex only had one dwelling for the keeper. The addition of an assistant keeper highlighted the need for additional housing on site. For several years the assistant keeper was housed in the barn (rank has its privileges). Finally, in 1922, a keepers dwelling from a light station south of Detroit was deemed unnecessary. The following winter, the building was raised onto sleds and pulled across the frozen river and lake up to Tawas Point—being from Georgia, I can’t even fathom a lake being frozen enough to walk on, let alone to drag a building across it. Unfortunately, the magnificent sledding house was demolished in the early 2000s after a decade of neglect and disuse.

Currently

The operation of the lighthouse was transferred from the US Lighthouse Service to the US Coast Guard around 1953, and the light was automated. The Coast Guard retained control of the station until the early 90s when it was deemed “excess property,” and at some point afterwards it was transferred to the state. Since then renovations and exhibition projects have been ongoing, some of the museum exhibits being completed as late as 2008. The light in the tower remained operational, however, until September of last year (2016) when—much to the dismay of the locals—it was extinguished.

Even with no functioning light, Tawas Point still has a lot to offer. Our two-week stint as light keepers included the Fourth of July. That evening at dusk we climbed to the top of the tower. From our vantage point nearly seventy feet up, we could see fireworks all the way around Saginaw Bay.

Tawas Point on the 4th

Fourth of July at Tawas Point.

Sturgeon Point Lighthouse

Nearly an hour north of Tawas Point stands the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse. It was constructed in 1869 to provide a reference point on the length of coastline between Thunder Bay Island Light and Tawas Point Light that had been previously un-lit. The Sturgeon Point tower was built using the same architectural plan that was used to construct the new Tawas Point Light only seven years later—although Sturgeon Point is about four feet taller.

Sturgeon Point

Sturgeon Point through the mist.

It was surreal wandering through a keeper’s cottage so similar to the one I had been living in for two weeks. The cottage at Sturgeon Point had not been as extensively renovated, but the floor plan was nearly identical.

The other major difference in the two towers is their color scheme, called a day mark. In addition to a unique light signature—a specific color or flash pattern used to identify a lighthouse at night—every lighthouse has a unique color scheme so that it can be identified during the day. Sturgeon Point has a white tower and white building with red shutters. Tawas Point has a white tower with a red building. So, even though both towers look nearly identical architecturally speaking, passing ships can still easily identify them.

Sturgeon Point day mark

Sturgeon Point Lighthouse’s day mark.

Tawas Point day mark

Tawas Point Lighthouse’s day mark.

Apparently, one of the Coast Guard officers stationed there didn’t realize this fact and one day decided that the keeper’s quarters could use a paint job. So of course he painted the building white. After realizing—or more likely being loudly informed of—his mistake, the poor man had to spend the better part of the next year stripping the paint from the building.

Farewell to Tawas Point

After two weeks of wandering through a lighthouse, relaxing on Lake Huron, and giving lectures to strangers, we reluctantly packed our bags and prepared to move on to our next location. There are plenty of lighthouses still to come, but none to which we could become quite so attached. So if you are ever in eastern Michigan go visit Tawas Point, just be nice to the tour guides, one of them could be me.

Birdhouse

A birdhouse on the shore of Lake Huron.

If you are interested in the Tawas Point Lighthouse Keeper Program—and you definitely should be—you can find more information HERE. Just don’t get your hopes up for this summer; they are all booked up. But keep it in mind for an alternative style vacation for next year.

 

Next Week:

Back to Mackinaw City and then up to the Upper Peninsula—lighthouses and ships galore.

By | 2017-07-21T00:51:25+00:00 July 21st, 2017|History, Michigan, Travel|3 Comments

About the Author:

James is an artist and illustrator currently working in Georgia.

3 Comments

  1. Margaret rahn July 21, 2017 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed

  2. Patty July 22, 2017 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    Why did they extinguish the light at Tawas? Financial purposes? Enjoyed the read AND the illustrations!

    • James McInvale July 22, 2017 at 7:20 pm - Reply

      Thanks! I imagine they did it because it was more cost-effective for the Coast Guard to put up an LED beacon at the point than to maintain an antique Fresnel lens.

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