Grand Traverse Light Seeing The Light

Northernmost tip of Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

In making their way between the Manitou Passage and the Straits of Mackinac, vessel masters made a turn off the northern tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. Also serving as a marker for vessels turning into Grand Traverse Bay, the point thus served as an important navigational marker, and 1849 saw the first recommendation to erect a light on Cat’s head point in 1849.

Congress Responded with an appropriation of $4,000 for building the new lighthouse on September 28, 1850. Construction began in the spring of 1852, and was completed late that year. Built on low ground close to the water’s edge, the station structures were likely typical of Great Lakes lighthouses during the period, consisting of a squat rubble stone tower outfitted with an array of Lewis lamps, and a simple detached keepers dwelling. David Moon was appointed as the station’s first keeper, and with his name appearing on district payroll records for the first time on September 7, it is likely that he exhibited the new light for the first time soon thereafter.

However, it would appear that Moon was ill-suited for the rigors of lighthouse keeping, as he resigned from lighthouse service before his second season at the light, to be replaced by the indomitable Philo Beers on April 15, 1853. Beer’s previous service as a US Deputy appears to have come in handy, as the lighthouse was reportedly raided on a number of occasions by Mormon Pirates. Followers of James Jesse Strang, the self-proclaimed King of Beaver Island, these pirates were reputed to consider themselves above common law, and as such felt free to avail themselves of anything they needed by raiding from area "Gentiles," as were non-believers were known. On one occasion, it is reported that Beers managed to drive off a group of Mormons who attempted to remove the station's Fresnel lens for installation on Beaver Island.

As was frequently the case with Lighthouses erected under the fiscally tight-fisted Pleasonton administration, it appears that a combination of poor construction and an ill-advised location quickly took their toll on the structure, as after only five years of service the foundation of the tower was found the be eroding. With concern that structure was close to collapse, funds were requested for complete replacement of the buildings with a more substantial structure.

Click to view enlarged imageThe old tower and dwelling were demolished in 1858, and a work on a new structure began on higher ground on the point. Over that summer a dirt-floored cellar with rubble stone walls was excavated and a two-story Cream City Brick keepers dwelling took shape. A short square wooden tower with white painted clapboard siding was integrally mounted at the center of the roof ridge, and both floors contained four rooms, with a centrally located entryway with stairs connecting the two floors. A narrower second set of stairs on the second floor led through the attic into the tower. The building featured first-class construction, with hardwood floors throughout and varnished wooden trim and wainscoting. Atop the tower, a cast iron lantern with copper sheathed roof contained a new fixed white Fifth Order Fresnel lens illuminated with a sperm oil fueled lamp. With its ventilator ball standing 48 feet above the structure’s foundation, the building’s location on high ground provided a focal plane of 103 feet, and a range of visibility of 12 miles in clear weather.

Click to view enlarged imageLife at the Grand Traverse Light station settled into a routine, with no mention of any repairs appearing in official documents until 1869, when the Eleventh District Inspector reported the station in good condition with the exception of some of the woodwork and doors, which had shrunk considerably as a result of the use of improperly seasoned lumber in their construction. A work crew arrived at the station the following year and effected the necessary repairs, and in testimonial to the increasingly important role played by the station, the District Lampist arrived to upgrade the lens to a larger fixed white lens of the Fourth Order.

1880 saw the erection of a wood shed, the pouring of a concrete floor in the cellar, and a complete repainting of the building and to provide housing for the keeper’s horse and feed, a two story barn 18 feet wide by 24 feet in length was erected.

Click to view enlarged imageIn the early days of the US lighthouse service, lard and sperm oil ware used for fueling the lamps, and being relatively non-volatile, the oil was stored in cellar of the main lighthouse. With a change to the significantly more volatile kerosene, a number of devastating dwelling fires were experienced throughout the system in the 1880’s and the Lighthouse Board began building separate oil storage buildings at all US light stations. To this end, the lighthouse tender AMARANTH arrived at Grand Traverse late in 1895 and offloaded the materials for a brick oil storage building which was erected the following spring.

Click to view enlarged imageWith increasing numbers of vessels rounding the point on their journey to and from the Straits, mariners became increasingly dependent on the Grand Traverse Light to mark the turn. With thick fogs frequently blanketing the area, the Lighthouse Board recommended that an appropriation of $5,500 be made to cover the costs of such an installation in its 1895 annual report, and Congress responded with the necessary appropriation on July 1, 1898. Plans and specifications for the structure were finalized over the winter, and contracts awarded for the construction materials and signal machinery on January 10, 1899. A work crew and materials were delivered at the station late that summer, and by November the brick building was complete and work turned to the installation of the fog signal plant. The boilers and machinery were moved into the building and plumbed to the ten-inch locomotive whistle which protruded from the lakeward end wall of the building. Work continued through the end of the year, with the signal officially placed into service on December 20.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the establishment of the fog signal, it was determined that the workload at Grand Traverse would be more than a single keeper could handle, and the decision was made to add a First Assistant Keeper at the station. However, with the main lighthouse building being designed for a single family, additional accommodations were needed. Thus, in 1901 the dwelling was significantly enlarged and remodeled to convert the dwelling into a duplex with accommodations for two families.

1904 was likely a memorable years for the Grand Traverse keepers, as they split and loaded 49 cords of wood into the boilers in order to keep the ten-inch whistle screaming for a station record 318 hours.

Click to view enlarged imageThe boilers and whistle in the fog signal were removed in 1933, and replaced by a Type "F" diaphone fog signal, its air compressor powered by diesel engines. The diesel engines were in turn replaced by a 440-volt Worthington air compressor in 1953. Coast Guard crews continued to maintain the station until 1972, when the tower light was replaced by an automated beacon mounted on a steel skeletal tower.

The Lighthouse and Fog Signal Building stood vacant after closing, until 1985 when a local group organized the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Foundation with a goal of preserving the historic buildings and creating an interesting and educational "living lighthouse" for the public to enjoy. After two years of renovation, the Lighthouse Foundation reopened the station as a museum on Memorial Day in 1987.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

Take M22 north to Northport. Take M201 out of town, Turn right onto County Road 629 and follow CR629 approximately six miles North to the entrance of Leelanau State Park. Once in the park, find a place to park among the many parking areas spread through the pine trees, and take the short walk north to the light station.

The lighthouse museum hours are as follows:
May - noon to 4.00 pm.
June through Labor Day - 10.00am to 7.00 pm.
Labor Day through October 0 noon to 4.00 pm

Contact information

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum can be reached at:
PO Box 43
Northport, MI 49670
(231) 386-7195

Reference Sources

Annual report of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury,1850 - 1853
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1856 - 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Bureau, various, 1910 - 1920
Annual reports of the Lake Carriers Association, various, 1908 - 1939
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1861 - 1958
Email from Diane Brown, Former resident at the station, 02/19/2000
Personal observation at Grand Traverse, 09/1998 and 07/2001
A History of Leeland Township, Milt Rogers & L.T.H.W.G., 1982
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 09/14/2003

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