I love making the 17-mile scenic drive up M-37 along the Old Mission Peninsula through the cherry orchards and vineyards and away from busy Traverse City, Michigan, to see the lighthouse picturesquely perched at the peninsula’s tip as it juts out into Grand Traverse Bay.
The Old Mission Point Lighthouse’s somewhat remote location is even more notable for the fact that it sits almost exactly on the 45th parallel, halfway between the earth’s equator and the North Pole.
Signs at the site denoting the light’s latitudinal location are one of a handful of locations in Michigan similarly marked and are a good place to stage one of those quintessentially cheesy tourist shots for your vacation photo album.
The Old Mission Point Lighthouse is also notable because it is a twin to the long-gone Mama Juda Lighthouse that guided mariners through a portion of the Detroit River at the north end of Grosse Ile and near the Canadian shoreline near the city of Detroit. The Mama Juda light sat on a 30-acre island, with both the island and the lighthouse named for an American Indian woman who set up a fishing camp in the area each season. The Mama Juda lighthouse, built in 1849 and rebuilt in 1866, disappeared by the mid-1900s. High water washed away the lighthouse in 1950, and water washed away the entire island by 1960.
Treacherous travel and wrecks caused by shallow waters and sandy shoals projecting a couple of miles out from the Old Missions Peninsula’s northern tip led Congress to appropriate $6,000 to build a lighthouse at the point in 1859, but the project wasn’t completed until 1870 because of delays caused by expenditures for the Civil War.
The little wooden lighthouse has a square tower atop the 1 ½-story keeper dwelling. The tower is only 30 feet tall, but the lighthouse location on top of a sand bank fourteen feet above the Lake Michigan surface gave the lens a focal plane height of 47 feet, allowing mariners to see the light from 13 miles out at sea.
The original lamp fueled by whale oil, then kerosene, featured a Fifth Order Fresnel lens. Today, however, the lighthouse lantern room stands empty, and an electric beacon a couple of miles offshore now guides traffic around the shallows and into the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay.
Old Mission Point Lighthouse remained in active service until 1933.
The State of Michigan assumed ownership of the lighthouse by the 1940s and established the site as a new park after World War II. Peninsula Township assumed responsibility and ownership of the park and buildings that included the lighthouse, the Hesler log cabin, and several other outbuildings like storage sheds, a garage, and a brick pump house in 1948.
Park visitors could always view the lighthouse from the park and the nearby beach, but the lighthouse served as a private home to the park manager until park officials finally opened the lighthouse and tower to the public for the first time in May of 2008.
Public visiting hours for the Old Mission Point Lighthouse run from May through October, when visitors can view an on-site museum, check out displays that provide a look at turn-of-the-twentieth-century lighthouse life, and climb up into the empty tower to check out the view over Lake Michigan.
Visitors with the time and desire to more fully immerse themselves into the Old Mission Lighthouse experience can apply to be a volunteer light keeper through a new program that duplicates a similar popular program at the nearby Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Volunteer keepers pay $800 to live at Old Mission Point Lighthouse for a month and perform duties like greeting visitors, giving guided tours of the lighthouse and tower, and performing general cleaning and maintenance tasks. Money generated by the volunteer light keeper program and day admission fees help fund lighthouse expenses and go towards the goal of making the park and lighthouse self-supporting.
Update: Check the comment section below for updated information about the keeper program and a link to the lighthouse site from Mission Point's manager. February 25, 2012
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved