For Patrick McKinstry, his love of lighthouses began when he was 4 or 5 years old.
He was on a family trip at the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City, Michigan, and asking his mother what it was and if he could go in.
“I kept asking questions and why, and why, and eventually the response was because nobody loves it anymore and that stuck with me at that age, and I was hooked,” McKinstry told Great Lakes Now in an interview.
From there, McKinstry’s interest in lighthouses and maritime history just grew. His first experience with lighthouse restoration was a lighthouse in Bay City that was being restored when he was 11. He volunteered with the group who let him mow the lawn twice a week.
Now, McKinstry is the president of the Spectacle Reef Preservation Society and the chair of the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society, working on the restoration of two lighthouses.
Not that he gets a penny for it – he has a full-time career as a railroad engineer when he’s not working on lighthouses.
“I look at it as a second full-time job, my life’s work, if you will,” he said. “I just look at it as my life’s mission to take care of these lighthouses.”
Watch Great Lakes Now’s segment on Spectacle Reef Light Station’s restoration here:
Michigan has more than a hundred lighthouses, but a few tend to gain more attention than others. According to McKinstry, it boils down to the people.
“If you have a good group of people that have the passion for this lighthouse, that alone is hard to find, having the passion and having some skills too. You can visit lighthouse properties, and you can tell which are cared for and which aren’t very quick. And the ones that aren’t didn’t do a good job of reaching out to the public,” McKinstry said. “A good group can get that history and education in there in a way that makes sense to the public.”
The Whitefish Point and Old Mackinac Point lighthouses are good examples, he mentioned.
And while the historical aspect of lighthouses is significant – lighthouses contributed a lot to the growth of the U.S.’s economy – McKinstry sees the humanitarian side as the more important.
“These are places men and women live and raised children and died in isolated conditions away from the world for months and months on end,” he said. “They got paid the equivalent of $9,000 a year now. They got paid terribly, saw no human contact, terrible working conditions, terrible living conditions, and they never got a thank you. And it was all to keep people at sea safe and home to their families. And they got forgotten. That human aspect of lighthouses and what they mean, the fact they exist – that’s why I think they’re important, more important than as historical structures.”
Great Lakes Now asked McKinstry which the best lighthouses are to visit, and he listed seven for us (with an admitted bias for two of them). The lighthouses are not listed in any particular order.
1. Spectacle Reef Light Station
This lighthouse stands in northern Lake Huron, about 18 miles east of the city of Cheboygan, Michigan.
According to McKinstry, Spectacle Reef Light Station is worth visiting for its history. Built in 1870, it was not the first offshore lighthouse, but its structure served as the “grandmother” on which nearly all other Great Lakes offshore lighthouses were based.
Spectacle Reef Light is visible, and it’s accessible to the public by boat whenever its flag is flying.
2. Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse
You can find the Saginaw River lighthouse on Dow Chemical Co. property in Bay County, Michigan, near where the Saginaw River connects to Saginaw Bay.
The Saginaw River light is on this list because it’s where range lights started on the Great Lakes. Range lights, or leading lights, involve a pair of lights set at different distances and elevation that provide bearing for a ship when the two lights are aligned. There are two that are visible from land on Detroit’s east side, where Lake St. Clair meets the Detroit River.
The structure that sits in Saginaw now is not the original, but it is where the original was first constructed.
The Saginaw River Marine Historical Society is involved in the renovation of the lighthouse, with an anticipated opening for public visitation in 2023.
3. Whitefish Point Light Station
Quite aptly, Whitefish Point Light Station can be found in Paradise, Michigan. It stands on the northern tip of the Upper Peninsula, with a view of Lake Superior.
This lighthouse makes it on the list for its beautiful station, lightkeeper’s quarters and the all-encompassing experience it offers.
“You’ll get the full shebang at Whitefish Point, plus they have the shipwreck museum there,” McKinstry said.
Whitefish Point is seasonally open to the public to visit from May to October, along with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which features stories and relics from some of the Great Lakes’ most notable shipwrecks including the Edmund Fitzgerald.
4. Big Sable Point Lighthouse
This lighthouse faces Lake Michigan from Michigan’s Ludington State Park.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse is seasonally open to the public, who can even climb to the top of the tower. It’s also a 2-mile hike to get there, though there is a limited bus service from the building next to the park office to the lighthouse.
The Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association also operates a volunteer program that allows members to live and work in lighthouses during May to October.
5. Fort Gratiot Lighthouse
Fort Gratiot’s lighthouse is Michigan’s oldest lighthouse – even older than the state itself. It was built in 1814.
It is in Port Huron, Michigan, at the entrance of the St. Clair River opening into Lake Huron.
It remains where it was first built and the original structure is still there, though they added to the lighthouse to make it taller and updated the lights. It’s open seasonally for visitors to climb and year round for group tours by appointment.
6. Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse
The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse stands at the tip of Michigan’s thumb, just south of Port Austin.
“It was important because of Keeper Andrew Shaw, who was a keeper who saved the lives of hundreds of people and died trying to save the life of a dog,” McKinstry said.
The lighthouse is seasonally open for tours and climbing, and also offers an “Assistant Keeper Program” which allows people to stay in the assistant keeper’s house for a week and provide volunteer services.
7. Tawas Point Lighthouse
The Tawas Point Lighthouse is in Tawas Point State Park, at the edge of where Saginaw Bay connects to Lake Huron.
Though the lighthouse itself is not open for tours, its exterior and grounds are available for visitors to enjoy, along with other historic structures including an oil house and a fog signal area.
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Featured image: Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse, 1939 (Photo courtesy of Patrick McKinstry)