I remember driving by the Welcome Center on I-75 just north of the Ohio state line at Monroe, Michigan and admiring the lighthouse in front of it for several years.
I thought it a little strange when the state erected the 52-foot-tall light tower at the Monroe Welcome Center in 1998 as the site is on an expressway and well away from any lake.
But, Michigan has many lighthouses along the Great Lakes and the state often uses iconic images of lighthouses in their advertising and chose the image as an appropriate welcome to visitors entering the state on its major north-south route.
Then this lighthouse at the state's extreme southeastern corner just disappeared one day. I didn't know what happened to it until I started researching this story about a lighthouse in St. Ignace in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, just 3 miles from Mackinac Island.
The state remodeled the travelers' center at Monroe in 2005. The state's highway department sought a new home for the lighthouse, eventually giving it to the City of St. Ignace.
The lighthouse, separated into five pieces, traveled north by truck for re-assembly at the end of an old railroad dock at St. Ignace in 2006.
This seems like a better site for the lighthouse to me, and in what I think is an even happier ending, the lighthouse now operates as an official Coast Guard-certified guide to navigation on northern Lake Huron.
The lighthouse, lit in August of 2006, visible from more than 13 miles away from the shore. The light shines year round, guiding mariners, as well as snowmobilers traveling across the frozen lake and the ice bridge from Mackinac Island during the winter.
The Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad built the dock in the late 1800s, using it to load and unload railroad cars crossing the Straits of Mackinac.
One of the most notable rail car ferries to travel this route was the 338-foot-long Chief Wawatam. The ferry, designed by Frank Kirby, launched at the Toledo Shipbuilding Co. in 1911 and carried as many as 28 rail cars per trip between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. It also occasionally served as an ice breaker to help open shipping lanes and ice-bound ports in the area.
The ferry service never made a lot of money, but things got worse throughout the years. Traffic on the route saw a 50% drop in traffic from 1950 through 1960, and the ferry line lost more revenue when new Coast Guard ice-breakers arrived at the Straits in 1943.
The St. Ignace dock collapsed in 1984, and the company abandoned the last rail link to St. Ignace in 1986, leaving no need for ferries like the Chief Wawatam.
Preservationists struggled to save the ship, but failed. A company in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan purchased the Chief Wawatam for $110,000 and cut down to a deck barge. That company finally scrapped the old ship in 2009.
You can still see a short stretch of tracks and the track elevator once used to align the railroad tracks with the ferry decks near the base of the dock.
Wawatam was an Ojibwa chief who lived in the area during the 1700s and formed a close relationship with a fur trader in the area named Alexander Henry. The chief adopted Henry as a brother after having a dream that inspired him to do so.
Ojibwa tribes overthrew a British garrison at Michilimackinac in 1763, and Wawatam negotiated with the Ojibwas to gain custody of Henry after his capture during the battle.
Henry then traveled with the chief and his family into the northern interior of Michigan's Lower Peninsula to hunt and trap for furs. They parted in 1764, and Henry returned to Sault Ste. Marie.
Henry later wrote about his travels and time with Wawatam, but historians know little about what happened to the chief after 1764.
Explorer and geologist Henry Schoolcraft tried to trace Wawatam's later history in the mid-19th century, only learning that tradition said that the chief became blind later in life and died in his lodge near present-day Cross Village, Michigan when it burned.
In 2012, the City of St. Ignace erected a six-foot-tall wooden figure of Wawatam created by local artists Tom and Sally Paquin at the dock to honor the chief and his history at the Straits.
Want to learn more about Chief Wawatam? Check out Alexander Henry's Travels and Adventures in the Years 1760-1776 ed. by Milo Milton Quaife or The Conquerors by Allan W. Eckert.
© Dominique King 2014 All rights reserved