Michigan's highway M-22 is one of my favorite drives, and it's well worth the detour off of M-22 at Northport to travel to the very tip of Michigan's "little finger"(the Leelanau Peninsula) to visit the Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
Leelanau State Park has 8 1/2 miles of hiking and cross-country skiing trails, a picnic area with a playground, and a rustic campground, but the lighthouse is the attraction that draws us to visit the park time and time again.
The Leelanau Peninsula separates Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, making it a key navigational point for ships traveling through the Manitou Passage on the way to the Straits of Mackinac or the Grand Traverse Bay.
The 1850s saw a lot of lighthouse construction in Michigan as Great Lakes traffic increased and Congress began appropriating money to build lights to help safely guide maritime traffic.
The government appropriated $4,000 to build a lighthouse at the Grand Traverse site in 1850. By 1852, a squat light tower and detached dwelling sat on low ground near the Lake Michigan shoreline.
In 1853, pirates associated with the self-proclaimed "King" James Jesse Strang, leader of a splinter group of Mormons from nearby Beaver Island, raided the lighthouse and attempted to remove its Fresnel lens. Then-light keeper and former U.S. Marshal Philo Beers chased the group away, saving the lens.
The lighthouse withstood the raid, but it began to erode within five years of its construction. Like a number of quickly and cheaply constructed Michigan lighthouses during the mid-1800s, it required replacement before the end of the 1850s.
Workers demolished the deteriorating lighthouse in 1858 and built a more substantial light tower and two-story keepers' home. They built the light tower, sitting on higher ground in order to be more visible to passing ships, integrally into the dwelling of Milwaukee Cream City brick.
Maritime traffic continued increasing in the area and Congress approved $5,500 to build a fog signal building at Grand Traverse Lighthouse in 1899. Additional work created by increased traffic and operation of the fog signal meant the light keeper needed an assistant, leading to the conversion of the lighthouse into a two-family home with the addition of an assistant light keeper at Grand Traverse by 1901.
The lighthouse continued to guide ships until 1972, when an automatic light mounted on a skeletal steel tower replaced it and the keepers moved out.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Foundation formed in 1985, reopening the light station as a museum in 1987.
The lighthouse earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places by 1984, and the state erected an historical marker at the site in 1993.
The lighthouse and tower is open daily from April through October, and on weekends during November. Visitors can see the keepers' home restored to its 1920s and 1930s appearance, visit the fog signal building to see exhibits about the area's maritime history, or climb the light tower when it is open.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse also has a keeper program where participants can sign up to stay in the assistant keepers' quarters and perform "keepers" duties like helping maintain the property, working in the gift shop, answering visitors' questions, or managing tour admissions.
You can visit the lighthouse grounds year round, although you do need to purchase a Michigan park pass to get to it as it is inside Leelanau State Park.
I love walking down to the beach, especially during colder months when the water can be low enough to allow walking a long way out on the rocky shore.
Visitors should also keep an eye out for the handmade stone bird houses, planters, and other decorations created by light keepers during the 1920s and 1930s. I especially love red-roofed birdhouse and birdbath that sits beside the lighthouse.
Want to learn more about the Grand Traverse Lighthouse and other northwestern Michigan lighthouses? Check out Grand Traverse Lighthouse by the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum or Lighthouses of Northwest Michigan by Susan Roark Hoyt.
Curious about "King" Strang? Check out Assassination of a Michigan King: The Life of James Jesse Strang by Roger Van Noord.
Vintage Views of Leelanau County by M. Christine Byron has some great images of many of the Leelanau sites like the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, and Glen Haven that I've written about in the past here at Midwest Guest.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved