There are 124 Michigan lighthouses across the state. They are unique, functional and draw many visitors to explore their grounds or climb the towers. Of the four lighthouses in the Upper Thumb, only one is accessible directly from the land. All the others need a boat to access.
Port Austin Reef Lighthouse
The light was first lit in 1878, and its pier was modified in 1899. It is still operational and is automated. The foundation materials are a pier, and the tower is constructed of yellow brick, with buff markings. It is an octagonal, 60-foot tall tower, with an attached keeper house. However, the focal plane is 76 feet (23 m). It originally had a fourth-order Fresnel lens by Henry Lepaute of Paris and was installed in 1899. In 1985 the lens was replaced by a 12-volt solar-powered Tideland Signal 300 mm acrylic optic, which eliminated the need to maintain the submarine cable.
Charity Island Light
The octagonal cast iron lantern displayed a fixed white Fourth Order Fresnel lens light which was constructed in 1857 with a 39-foot tower that provided a 13-nautical-mile range of visibility. The Lightkeepers home and tower were split in 1917 to automate the light using acetylene gas. It was the first automated light in the entire Great Lakes. The Charity Island Preservation Committee of the Arenac County Historical Society is restoring the tower. The original keeper’s house was razed, and a newly restored private residence has been built in its place and on its foundation. It is being operated as a restaurant and a bed and breakfast.
Each summer Explorer Charters offers tours to Charity Island. In 2019 we were invited along to experience a Charity Island Dinner Cruise. We learned a lot about the history of the mysterious Charity Island and had a fun time exploring the island and meeting new people. Here is what I learned about Charity Island.
Port Aux Barques Light
The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse ranks among the ten oldest lighthouses in Michigan. Amazingly, despite its age, the light is still an active lighthouse maintained by the US Coast Guard. The structure is remote, located in Lighthouse County Park on Lake Huron near Port Hope, Michigan in Huron County. “Pointe aux Barques” means ‘Point of Little Boats’, a descriptor of the shallow shoals and reefs that lurk beneath these waves, presenting a hazard to boats as they round Michigan’s Thumb. Amazingly this iconic lighthouse has the reputation of having paranormal activity.
Harbor Beach Lighthouse
Harbor Beach is located on the eastern edge of the Thumb of Huron County, in the state of Michigan. The Harbor Beach Lighthouse is a “spark-plug lighthouse” located at the end of the north break-wall entrance to the harbor of refuge on Lake Huron. The United States Army Corps of Engineers built the huge break wall and light. This pier protects the harbor of Harbor Beach, Michigan, which is the largest man-made freshwater harbor in the world.
Port Sanilac Lighthouse
The Port Sanilac Lighthouse was one of the last built on the eastern shore of Michigan’s Thumb. It filled the gap of the 60-mile stretch between Fort Gratiot and Harbor Beach Light. The tower, house, and oil house were built on October 13, 1886. The light utilizes a fixed white light, produced by a fourth-order, Barbier & Fenestre Fresnel lens. The lighthouse is privately owned yet still operational as an aid to navigation.
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- Noted as a strategic chokepoint, the mouth St. Clair River was the gateway to the northern lakes and the rich fur and lumber trade. Shipping on the Great Lakes increased in the 1820s and Congress recognized the need for a navigational aid at the mouth of the St. Clair River. Fort Gratiot Light Station
- At the extreme southern end of Michigan’s Thumb lays the town of Port Huron. This lakeside town has close ties to the boating and shipping industry. It’s the starting point of the famous Port Huron to Mackinac sailboat race and was the location of the first large-scale boatyards in the Great Lakes. One interesting little site, located in a county park, is The Lightship Huron
- The lumbering era in Michigan’s Upper Thumb from 1860-1880 resulted in booming towns all along the shoreline. Sebewaing was no exception. While it did not benefit from proximity of being on Lake Huron like Sand Beach, (later named Harbor Beach), or having a deep river outflow like Caseville, it’s historical spot as a rich hunting area by native Americans and natural outflow to Saginaw Bay by the Sebewaing River predestined it as a natural gathering spot. Sebewaing History – A Busy Ship Building Harbor
- The First Woman Lighthouse Keeper in Michigan – Ran The Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse after the tragic drowning of her husband for almost a year. A fire and sickness shortened her tenure, but she broke new ground.