I remember first seeing Grand Island's East Channel lighthouse more than a dozen years ago while we cruised on a glass-bottomed to see the remains of shipwrecks near this Lake Superior harbor at Munising, Michigan.
The abandoned lighthouse was long a favorite of photographers for its weathered charm and picturesque setting, but the then-decrepit lighthouse appeared as if it might tumble into the lake at any minute.
That was before local volunteers and agencies banded together to rescue the historic structure for future generations to enjoy.
In 1856, a lighthouse on the northern tip of Grand Island helped guide marine traffic in the area, which increased after the opening of the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan in 1855. However, there still wasn't enough light to guide mariners safely throughout the entire harbor and into the harbor of refuge to the south of the island.
Mariners and owners of vessels needing safe access to the harbor of refuge from the east and west requested additional beacons in the area.
In 1860, Congress responded by approving $6,000 for that purpose. That wasn't enough to get the job done, and Congress appropriated an additional $10,000 for the project in 1866 that included a lighthouse at the southeastern corner of Grand Island at the entrance to the harbor.
The lighthouse, built in 1868, was a schoolhouse-style building with a 45-foot-tall tower attached to the gable end of a one-and-a-half story keeper's dwelling standing on a stone foundation.
The lighthouse used timber-beam style construction with wooden siding to minimize costs. This proved to be a problem as the lighthouse sat on low ground near the shore and needed a serious cribbing system to protect it from erosion that began to undermine the structure's foundation.
White paint on the structure increased its visibility during the day, and a new fifth-order Fresnel lens installed in 1869 made the light visible from 13-1/4 miles away in clear weather.
Erosion continued to be a concern and, in 1891, the lighthouse experienced further damage after a lightening strike.
By the turn of the century, light keeper George Prior and his family remained dressed and awake through the night in case they had to vacate suddenly due to a building collapse.
In 1905, the Lighthouse Board ruled Grand Island's East Channel Lighthouse inadequate and requested $13,200 for a pair of range lights on the mainland to replace the old light tower.
Light keeper Prior finally packed up and left the East Channel Lighthouse as he extinguished its light after October 29, 1908, leaving the old wooden lighthouse alone to face the elements.
By 1915, twenty members of the Munising Moose Lodge bought the East Channel Lighthouse and its 44-acre site. Each member owned a piece of the lighthouse along with part of the land.
The neglected lighthouse turned to a weathered gray, and the cribs disintegrated completely, leaving the cold Lake Superior water lapping directly on to the building's stone foundation.
By 2000, the National Forest Service owned most of the island as part of the Grand Island National Recreation Area, and local groups formed the Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse Rescue Committee that year to save the structure from total collapse. The group consisted of private citizens, island landowners, Federal and local agencies, local historical society members and other community leaders. Michigan's Alger County helped coordinate fund-raising and preservation efforts.
The group decided to preserve the lighthouse's rustic look to maintain its charm as a photographic icon. A team of volunteers created a breakwater to help stabilize the light tower and protect the foundation from further erosion.
Work continued following years to shore up and replace the deteriorating cribbing protecting the beach, lift the lighthouse from its foundation one side at a time to replace rotted timber and floor joists, reinforce the exterior walls, rework the lantern room and top it with a new copper roof, and replace much of the cedar siding with carefully aged wood to replicate the building's naturally aged appearance.
The lighthouse is still on private property, accessible only by boat or visible from the shipwreck or Pictured Rocks boat cruises.
One of the highlights for me of our trip on the Pictured Rocks cruise boat last summer was getting a good look at the lighthouse, seeing the improvements and seeing that it didn't look quite as lonely and vulnerable as when I last saw it more than a decade ago.
Want to learn more about lighthouses in Michigan's Upper Peninsula? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Upper Michigan Lighthouses by Jerry Roach.
© Dominique King 2014 All rights reserved