South Fox Island Lighthouse Seeing The Light

Beaver Island Archipelago, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

South Fox Island is located approximately seventeen miles off Cat's Head Point, at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. The story of this Island light began with Congress's appropriation of $18,000 for the construction of a lighthouse there on March 2, 1867.

Work on the light station began immediately, with the construction of the Cream City brick tower. With walls thirteen inches in thickness, the square tower topped-out at forty-five feet in height, and contained a forty-eight step cast iron spiral staircase leading to the lantern room.

The lantern was outfitted with a flashing red Fourth Order Fresnel lens, and the station's first keeper Henry J. Roe climbed the tower steps to exhibit the light for the first time on November 1, 1867.

Click to view enlarged imageOriginally outfitted with a steam-operated fog whistle, this system was later upgraded to a diaphone fog signal. Operated by two steam boilers located in a twenty-two foot by forty-foot wood-frame building, the walls of which were lined with iron sheathing to reflect the heat generated by the boilers.

Plagued by drifting sands and snow, which frequently piled so high as to interfere with access to the station's buildings, Keeper Warner constructed a three hundred and twenty foot long board fence, five feet high around the station in 1880. With the addition of an assistant keeper to help with the duties necessitated by operating a light station and fog signal on such a remote location, a wood frame Assistant Keepers Quarters was also built near the tower around 1898.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1892, keeper Louis Bourisseau built wooden walkways connecting the buildings and a few years later oversaw the construction of an oil storage building. Safe fuel storage became a necessity with the system-wide conversion from lard oil to kerosene as the fuel used in all lamps, and the South Fox Island storage building contained sufficient capacity to store 360 gallons of the volatile liquid.

In 1900 a steam launch replaced the open sailing skiff as the station's official craft, and in 1910 the assistant keeper's dwelling was replaced with a more permanent structure of red brick. Around this time, the yellow brick tower was also given a coat of white brick to help protect the bricks from the constant wind and storm-driven rains.

With increasing population on South Fox, a post office was built on the island in March 1906, and the frequency of mail delivery to and from the island increased significantly. However, the improvement was not long-lived, since the office was closed in November 1911, and the light station returned to monthly mal deliveries from the mail boat.

Click to view enlarged image Click to view enlarged imageAs a result of constant exposure to the elements, the station was extremely difficult to maintain. In 1933, the decision was made to replace the soft brick tower with a more permanent modern structure. At this same time, shipments in and out of the Darien Georgia area declined so significantly as to eliminate the need for the lighthouse on Sapelo Island, which guarded Darien harbor. With the decommissioning of the Sapelo Island lighthouse in 1933, the twenty-eight year old cast iron skeletal tower was carefully disassembled, each section numbered, and shipped to South Fox Island.

Click to view enlarged imageIn 1934, a crew of civilian workers from Northport arrived on the island to assist with the tower's reconstruction. Digging holes and pouring nine foot deep concrete foundations for the tower's legs, they also chipped the salt-weathered paint from the structures components, and reassembled the tower's sections in accordance with the previously applied identification numbers. Finally, a diesel engine was installed to provide electricity for the light and compressed air for the fog horn.

At a point at which we have as yet been unable to determine, the Coast Guard abandoned the station, radio beacons, LORAN, Radar and GPS rendering it obsolete.

Today, approximately two-thirds of the island is owned by David Victor Johnson, the developer of a number of upscale resort developments. As of this writing, the future ownership of the remainder of the island is a matter of considerable controversy. We only hope that through it all some arrangement can be made to ensure the long-term survival of these two historic lighthouses structures, which are currently deteriorating rapidly from a lack of much needed maintenance.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

We have not yet visited South Fox Island, but will continue to update this page until we get the opportunity, and will add photography thereafter. A big thanks to John Bourisseau, the great-grandson of Louis Bourisseau for sharing his photographs with us.

Finding this Light

As of this writing, we are not aware of any public tour boats offering trips to South Fox, and thus the island can only be reached by private vessels suitable for safe offshore cruising. 

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 

History of Leelanau Township, Leelanau Township Historical Writers, 1982
The Fox Islands, Kathleen Craker Firestone, 1996, pp 76-95
USCG Historians office, Photographic archives
Photographs courtesy of John Bourisseau.
12/4/00 email from Tom Tag re Fresnel Order installed at the station.
The South Fox Island Project, website
Sapelo Island Georgia, website
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

  Click to view South Fox Island weather conditions

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This page last modified 12/07/2003