This summer, a Great Lakes watchtower will celebrate its 200th birthday as any centenarian should: with cake and ice cream.
The Marblehead Lighthouse sits on Lake Erie’s temperamental shore in Ohio, about 20 miles away from Sandusky. It’s the oldest continually operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes, thanks to the state of Ohio, which, according to the Marblehead Lighthouse Historical Society, took over the maintenance in the 1990s.
“Plans were made to tear down the Marblehead Lighthouse and replace it with a steel pole topped by a light,” the group said on their website.
Now, the lighthouse and grounds are maintained by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, while the Coast Guard operates the beacon. The Marblehead Lighthouse Historical Society runs a museum and volunteers give guided tours of the light.
Unfortunately, to get a lighthouse to that state requires a lot of labor and money that many other Great Lakes lighthouses never receive.
Whose light is it anyway?
“A lot of disrepair and disarray would happen if organizations like us wouldn’t take the ball and lease from the state,” Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association executive director Peter Manting said.
Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association is a non-profit that manages four lighthouses along Lake Michigan: Big Sable Point Lighthouse, Little Sable Point Lighthouse, Ludington North Breakwater Light and White River Light Station. They acquired Big Sable Point as a group of Ludington citizens determined to rescue the light, which had been abandoned by the government for over 15 years.
“They moved sand and put rock in front of the lighthouse for a full year,” Manting said. “By 1987, they raised some money and ended up putting in about 150 feet of sea wall in front of the lighthouse.”
In 1991, the federal government turned the lease over to the newly formed non-profit at the request of the former lessees. This was the first of their four lighthouses.
Over the years, the group has negotiated extended leases with the state of Michigan and made an agreement with Ludington, where the city pays for the lease. This leaves preservation and maintenance to the association, except for the light on top of each lighthouse, which are still managed by the Coast Guard.
It’s typical for lighthouses in the region to survive on volunteers, Manting said, even ones that are privately owned.
Lighthouse keepers were originally employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Eventually, the U.S. Coast Guard became responsible for the nation’s lighthouses. Now, almost every Coast Guard owned lighthouse is automated, according to the National Park Service Historic Lighthouse Preservation handbook, making traditional lighthouses less valuable to them.
In recent years, they’ve transferred many of these lighthouses to groups like SPLKA, who show a vested interest in preserving them. Others have dilapidated beyond repair.
A labor of love
Getting in the hands of one of these preservation groups is only the first step for these lighthouses. A lot more work awaits.
“If you’re starting a lighthouse project then that’s going to take up a lot of time. Your wife’s probably going to think you’re married to the lighthouse and not her,” Spectacle Reef Preservation Society president Patrick McKinstry said. “It has to be a labor of love.”
Spectacle Reef Lighthouse was obtained by the SRPS in 2020, and the group has been working to restore it, with a goal of it being fully restored and open to the public in 2024.
“Brickwork and masonry and plaster, those are all givens, but people need to realize you need to have a team,” McKinstry said. “A team for grants, for knocking on doors to get volunteers. It takes time and money and energy, not just a bucket of paint.”
Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association has a staff of six, including a historic restoration and maintenance supervisor who assesses their lighthouses. They make a list of future projects, prioritizing the essentials first. After checking that the masonry, framing and foundation are structurally sound, they look for potential aesthetic fixes, like a new paint job.
Some lighthouse keepers use outside firms to assess their lighthouses. Earlier this month, SPLKA was awarded money from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program to pay for a preservationist architectural firm to write a report about Big Sable Point that will guide future maintenance and repair.
“We have a list of about a million dollars worth of projects that we would like to do,” Manting said. “Then our board of directors says, ‘Well, we have this much money to allocate this year.’”
Once they’ve raised enough money and had their project approved by the State Historic Preservation Office and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, it’s time to find a contractor.
One project involved refinishing 40 doors throughout the Big Sable Point Lighthouse.
“The Coast Guard loved to paint everything white, Coast Guard white,” Manting said. “So there were at least 12 to 15 coats of paint on each door that we had to strip off and we found a really nice finish underneath.”
Another project was replacing 14 portholes that had been broken and replaced with plexiglass that became discolored and opaque before being covered with paint by the Coast Guard. Four other portholes were boarded up.
“That’s what you do, you know, don’t polish the brass, just paint it white,” he joked. They found portholes made in the 1920s that matched the original bolt holes and replaced the plexiglass with glass.
“The sun sets behind the lighthouse and comes through the portholes where it wouldn’t have before,” he said. That project cost about $18,000. Refinishing the doors cost around $20,000.
The majority of the money for restorations comes from gift shop sales and tours, Manting said. The rest comes from fundraisers and grants. The Big Sable Point gift shop is run by volunteer keepers, who stay in the lighthouse as part of a two-week program. The group also offers one-week programs in their other lighthouses.
“About four to eight people come and you know, they pick up the grounds and that type of thing,” he said. “It’s like a 9 o’clock in the morning to about 6 o’clock at night job and the rest of the time they’re on their own.”
The program requires keepers to become members of the organization and pay an application fee. They encourage volunteers to come in the offseason too, early spring or late fall, to help the small staff with restoration work.
“Many keepers return over the years,” he said. “It’s like for $150, you can have a two-week vacation.”
For Manting and his volunteers, the time and money is well spent.
“These are all lighthouses that have a rich history in the maritime part of Lake Michigan history,” he said. “They have great stories.”
Catch more news at Great Lakes Now:
Visit a Lighthouse: Explore history in one of the many preserved lighthouses around the Great Lakes
Rising Waters: Great Lakes lighthouse keepers fight to preserve history in the face of climate change
Featured image: The iconic northern Great Lakes lighthouse, Spectacle Reef. (Photo Credit: GLN)