Santa is a busy fellow on Christmas Eve, but rumor has it that he makes a time for a special stop near the shore of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where a Hiawatha National Forest ranger leaves a hot cup of cocoa for him at the Christmas Lighthouse.
This lighthouse earned its nickname in 1938 when a man from nearby Munising established a holiday novelty factory in an area we now know as Christmas, Michigan, although the lighthouse's history predates that time.
This area about five miles west of Munising once served as a natural harbor of refuge along the Lake Superior shore line.
A lighthouse started operating on nearby Grand Island in 1856, but mariners needed additional navigational aids to help them reach safe harbors south of the island.
In 1860, Congress allotted $6,000 for one or two lights at the entrance to Grand Island Bay and harbor, raising the allotment by another $10,000 in 1866 after the Lighthouse Board determined that the area needed additional range lights.
Workers finished and lit the Grand Island Range lights near the present-day village of Christmas in 1868.
The lighthouse commonly called the Christmas Lighthouse, or The End of the Road Lighthouse for its location at the end of a short gravel road off of Highway M-28, is the Grand Island Harbor Rear Range light.
The original rear range light was a wooden structure similar to others built at the time in the region, with a cupola or short tower atop a light keepers' dwelling. The 37-foot-tall tower had a light visible for 12-1/2 nautical miles in clear weather.
The original front range light on the lake shore was a square timber structure with an octagonal tower atop it that rose 24-feet-tall with a light visible for 10 nautical miles in clear weather.
A plank walkway separated the range lights over 375 feet of swampy ground.
Deterioration of the original wooden structures led to demolishing them and replacing them with other structures requiring less maintenance and staff in 1914.
Workers moved the keeper's dwelling portion of the original rear range light, minus its tower and lantern, a few miles away to the corner of Oak and Superior Streets in downtown Munising where it still exists as a private residence.
A new conical tower became the rear range light. The lower half of it was new construction and the upper half of was recycled from elsewhere.
Many claim the recycled portion of the tower came from the old Vidal Shoals light that stood at the St. Mary's River near the locks at Sault Ste. Marie at the eastern end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula Others claim that the re-used portion of the tower came from the Fourteen Foot Shoal light at the entrance of the Cheboygan River in the northern portion of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Lighthouse expert Terry Pepper says there is no definitive answer as to the origin of the re-used portion of the light tower at Christmas. I find his lighthouse articles pretty authoritative, so I tend to go with his opinion on this question.
The tower at Christmas stands 64-feel-tall with light visible from 16 miles away in clear weather. The lower half of the front of the tower and the rear of the tower is painted black, and the upper front half of the tower is white. The gallery and the lantern room are black. A layer of 1/4-inch steel plating sheaths the tower.
The front range light became a much simpler structure with a 23-foot-tall iron mast topped with a light visible for 11 miles in clear weather.
Both of the range lights became electrified in 1941.
In 1969, both lights became surplus and the Coast Guard passed them on to the Hiawatha National Forest and National Forest Service.
During the 1980s, the front range light further deteriorated, was cut from its concrete base, scrapped and replaced with a simple cylindrical tower topped by a high-intensity beam about 35 feet south of the original site. The newly renamed Furnace Bay Directional Light took its name comes from a blast furnace that formerly operated there.
The rear range tower has a continuous white light and operates in conjunction with the directional light.
The Christmas light tower is a little tough to spot from M-28. Look for the short gravel road leading to the light is near the "Welcome to Christmas" sign adorned with Santa at the eastern edge of town on the land side of the highway.
The Christmas tower stands about 235 feet south of M-28 in the woods and about 730 feet south of the Furnace Bay Directional light, which is across M-28 and on the Lake Superior Shore.
The grounds are open, but the tower only opens for tours in July and August (we visited in early June).
This time of the year, the Christmas tower is usually flood-lit and adorned with Christmas lights along the guy wires supporting the structure. That should help Santa find his way to that hot cup of cocoa waiting for him!
Want to learn more about Great Lakes lighthouses? Check out Lighthouses of the Great Lakes: Your Guide to the Region's Historic Lighthouses by Todd R. Berger and Daniel E. Dempster or A Traveler's Guide to 116 Michigan Lighthouses by Laurie Penrose, Bill T. Penrose and Ruth Penrose.
© Dominique King 2013 All rights reserved