Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Whiskey Point, St. James Harbor, Beaver Island, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

It is hard to imagine digging into the history of the Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse without coming across the name of Elizabeth Whitney Williams. Little did the four-year-old child, who arrived on the island with her family in 1846, know that she would become so much a part of Beaver Island history. For Elizabeth would eventually carve herself a position of immortality some fifty-nine years later with the publication of her autobiography "A child of the sea - Life among the Mormons."

Two years after the Whitney family took up residence in the Irish fishing community, James Jesse Strang and his group of Mormon followers arrived, inexorably changing the complexion of life on the bucolic island. As a carpenter, Elizabeth's father Walter was employed at various times by Strang. While not of the Mormon faith, Walter somehow earned Strang's trust, as it was Walter that Strang chose to build his new residence on the his new island kingdom.

As Strang's control of the island widened, life became increasingly uncomfortable for the island's "gentiles," as those of non-Mormon faith came to be known. Fearing for the lives of his wife and daughter, Walter moved his wife and daughter off the island to Charlevoix in1852. Whitney's two sons stayed behind, having invested too much in their fishing business to abandon.

Strang's hold on the community ended abruptly in 1856, when mortally wounded by a band of followers, he left the island to die some weeks later in Wisconsin. Without the strength of their leader, most of the remaining Mormons were easily driven from the island by the remaining fishermen with help from a band from Mackinac Island who were committed to ridding the area of the "Strangite influence" once and for all.

Click to view enlarged image1856 was also the year in which the Lighthouse Board constructed the first lighthouse on Whiskey Point. The need for a light on Beaver Island had long been realized, having been mentioned as early as 1838 by Lieutenant James T Homans in his report on Great Lakes lights to Stephen Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. In that report, Homans indicated that "The loss of property from shipwrecks on the Beaver Island has been considerable this season alone, and in value to exceed the cost of building many light-houses and maintaining them." However, under The Fifth Auditors tight-fisted financial control of the department, no action was taken on Homan's recommendation. With the appointment of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, the nation's aids to navigation were looked upon in a new light, with consideration of maritime interests taking a higher priority than least-cost operation.

We have been as yet unable to find definite information as to the appearance of this first structure. However it would appear that it was both small and ill-constructed, and as a result was not likely considered to be a particularly enjoyable assignment by Lyman Granger, the station's first keeper.

Click to view enlarged imageWith Strang's departure, life on the island finally returned to a sense of normalcy, and many of the exiled settlers began returning to the island the following year. Among them the Whitney's who took up residence in the abandoned "Strang house," which Walter had helped build a few years previous.

Lyman Granger left the Service on December 7, 1859, and Peter McKindley took over as the station's second keeper. 

In 1860, at the age of 18, Elizabeth married Clement Van Riper, and the newlyweds took up residence in a house on Whiskey Point near the lighthouse, where Elizabeth established a close relationship with McKindley's daughters. Clement established a successful cooper shop on the Point, which he operated during the summer months, he and Elizabeth preferring to spend the winters off the island in various locations around Lake Michigan.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the increase in lumber shipments making the Manitou Passage bound from the ports of Western Michigan, the Lighthouse Board recommended in its 1867 annual report that a new and larger light be constructed on Whiskey Point to better guide traffic into the harbor, thereby increasing its effectiveness as both a port and a harbor of refuge. With considerable pressure applied by Michigan's Lumber Barons, Congress responded favorably the following July with an appropriation of $5,000 for construction of the station.

Unfortunately for Keeper McKinley, was unable to enjoy the planned station as failing health forced him to resign his position in August 1869. Clement applied for, and was appointed to the keeper's position. Closing his cooperage, he and Elizabeth took over the full-time duties at the lighthouse. Elizabeth evidently took to the lighthouse life, as she was soon involved in cleaning and tending the station's illuminating apparatus..

Click to view enlarged imageIn the spring of 1870 a lighthouse tender arrived at the island and unloaded a work party along with the necessary supplies for the construction of the new light station. Built of Cream City brick, the story and a half keepers dwelling with matching summer kitchen was attached to a forty-one feet tall cylindrical tower capped with a decagonal prefabricated iron lantern, housing a new red Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier Fenestre of Paris.

Soon after taking his appointment, Clement also took ill, and Elizabeth took over all keepers duties while her husband recovered. Elizabeth took great pride in maintaining the new light station, paying special attention to labors involved in keeping the lard oil fired lamp burning brightly under the harshest conditions.

Click to view enlarged imageOne dark and stormy night in 1872, Elizabeth and Clement became aware of a loud flapping of sails in the distance and could barely make out the flashing lights of a vessel n distress through the inky darkness. As they strained their eyes to make out her shape rounding the point into the harbor, the vessel sink before their eyes. While still in ill health Clement and the first mate of the schooner Thomas Howland put out to see if they could help any survivors. As Elizabeth watched her husband row out into the darkness, she could not know it would be the last time she would see him. No trace of either Clement of his companion were ever found.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile Elizabeth was heartbroken, she would later write that "though the life that was dearest to me had gone, yet there were others out in the dark and treacherous waters who needed the rays from the shining light of my tower. Nothing could rouse me but that thought, then all my life and energy was given to the work which now seemed was given me to do.

Elizabeth's stewardship of the light was quickly noticed by the authorities, and she was appointed as keeper of the Beaver Island Harbor Light a short time thereafter. Three years after Clement's tragic death, Elizabeth married Daniel Williams, who moved into Elizabeth's lighthouse, while she continued to faithfully tend the light for the following nine years.

In 1884, at the age of 42, Elizabeth requested that she be transferred to a mainland light. Responding to her request, she was transferred to the Little Traverse lighthouse in Harbor Springs.

Click to view enlarged imageThe following year, the steam barge Ruby again delivered a work party at the Beaver Island Harbor Light to undertake major repairs to the fifteen year old station. To stabilize the structure, the cellar beneath the dwelling was filled-in, the former barn was converted into a summer kitchen, and a 10 foot by 12 foot oil storage building was built for the storage of the volatile kerosene which was now being used as the primary illuminant throughout the system.

Elizabeth continued on as head keeper of the Little Traverse Lighthouse, writing her memoirs while her husband photographed the resort country around the bay, selling his images to the summer resort visitors. Elizabeth's memoirs titled "A Child of the Sea" were published in 1905, and brought her considerable admiration as people learned of her interesting and difficult story.

Click to view enlarged imageElizabeth continued to serve at Little Traverse until 1913, when she retired at the age of 71, after forty-one years of dedicated public service. The Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse was automated in 1927, and maintained by coast guardsmen working out of the old lifesaving station around the bay. With the keeper's dwelling no longer required, the structure along with all outbuildings were demolished in the 1940's, leaving the forty-one foot tower standing alone on Whiskey Point.

The lone tower still serves as an active aid to navigation, welcoming visitors arriving on the island on the daily ferries which run back and forth between the island and Charlevoix during the summer months. In June 2004, the station was transferred to St. James Township under the auspices of the the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. The township subsequently began a full restoration of the tower.

Keepers of this Light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Beaver Island Harbor Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing This Light

The Beaver Island Boat Company offers daily ferry trips from Charlevoix out to Beaver Island Harbor, with up to four trips a day scheduled during the busy summer weekends at a round-trip cost of approximately $32.00 per person. For more information, contact them at:

Beaver Island Boat Company
103 Bridge Park Drive
Charlevoix, MI 49720
Phone: 231-547-2311

Or Click here to visit the Beaver Island Boat Company website.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994.
USCG Historians office, Photographic archives.
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, Various 189-1903.
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde, 1995
02/24/01 email from Thomas A. Tag on McKindley's last day at the light.
Beaver Harbor Light, Beaver Island Net, website
A child of the sea - Life among the Mormons, Elizabeth Whitney Williams, 1905
Women Who Kept The Lights, Candace Clifford, 1993
The life of Elizabeth Whitney Williams, Michigan Educational Portal.
The lighthouses and lore of "America's Emerald Isle, Jeremy D'Entremont, 1995
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 01/29/2007

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