Lighthouses have been keeping people safe since ancient Egypt! Obviously, things have changed a lot over thousands of years, but the purpose of them have stayed the same. If there’s water and potential danger in or around it, there’s a lighthouse nearby to protect sailors.
Lake Superior is no exception. Its shores are full of lighthouses and many of them are filled with interesting, hard-to-believe history.
Read on to learn about some of the most amazing history Lake Superior lighthouses have to offer!
1. Au Sable Point Lighthouse
All the way back in 1622, explorers referred to Au Sable Point as one of the most dangerous places in Lake Superior. There are spots where a sandstone reef is mere feet below the surface, which would destroy an unknowing boat before they knew what they hit.
By the late 1800s, the action was taken to begin making Au Sable Point safer.
The state of Michigan sold over 300 acres to the national government for a whopping $407!
Congress had set aside $40,000 to build a Lake Superior lighthouse and in August of 1874, Au Sable Point Lighthouse was ready to shine bright on the coast of Lake Superior.
In those days, the nearest town was 12 miles away and accessible only by a narrow path. During the warm months, supplies were transported by boat to the lighthouse. In the cold months, dog sleds and snowshoes were used to traverse the path to resupply the keeper’s necessities.
After the light was swapped to a kerosene flame and magnified by mirrors, the light of this Lake Superior Lighthouse was visible 17 miles out onto the lake!
Today, this lighthouse is fully automated with a solar light and now belongs to the National Park Service. Tours are available from mid-June through September.
2. Big Bay Point Lighthouse
By 1882, people realized the gap between Granite Island and Huron Island was dangerously dark. Each respective island had its own Lake Superior lighthouse, but there was nothing in between to keep boats safe, and more and more boats were wrecking.
The Big Bay Point Lighthouse was built and a fog horn and light were installed over the next few years. It was run by a head keeper and an assistant keeper, so the building was big enough to house both of their families.
The lighthouse was automated in 1944 and by 1961 it was sold to a private owner. The private owner spent nearly 20 years trying to transform the building to be a private residence.
Finally, in 1986, the Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast opened up and welcomed guests to come stay where the keepers had lived! It’s been open and in operation ever since.
Guests can now enjoy one of five bedrooms with a private bathroom in each, as well as a guided tour through this historic Lake Superior lighthouse!
3. Crisp Point Lighthouse
Before there was a Lake Superior lighthouse at this location, Crisp Point was one of five original life-saving stations built on Lake Superior in 1875.
The life-saving crew lived on Crisp Point and always had someone looking for boats or people who needed help. If someone was spotted, they would put on their life vests made out of cork and do whatever they could to rescue anyone who needed help.
In 1903, 15 acres of land were purchased for only $30 and Crisp Point Lighthouse was finally built. It was completed and operational in May 1904.
By 1966, because of difficult maintenance issues and vandalism, the U.S. Coast Guard decided to tear down everything besides the service room and actual lighthouse. Unfortunately, even the original service building succumbed to vicious Lake Superior storms and was destroyed in 1996.
For the last 20 years, erosion has been threatening this Lake Superior lighthouse. Close to 50 truckloads of large stones were brought to Crisp Point in 1998 in an effort to slow the lake’s waves eroding the land beneath the lighthouse.
The service building was rebuilt, designed, and decorated to look like the 1903 original. The light was relit in 2013 and is still on today on a seasonal basis.
Visitors are welcome to Crisp Point Lighthouse from May through November.
4. Marquette Harbor Lighthouse
Holding the position as one of the first Lake Superior lighthouses, the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse‘s history is full of interesting facts!
The construction for this lighthouse began all the way back in 1850, only a year after Marquette’s incorporation. It was fully built, for less than $15,000, in 1853 and began operation.
A small dwelling for a keeper was built and the first keeper, Harvey Moore, was hired with $350 as his annual salary.
In 1861, Moore handed over the job of lighthouse keeper to a man named Nelson Truckey. Unfortunately, just a year after accepting the job, Truckey had to leave to go fight in the Civil War.
That left the job of keeper at this Lake Superior lighthouse to Nelson’s wife, Anastasia. Not only did Anastasia gracefully take on this job until her husband’s return in 1865, but she also did it while raising the couple’s four children!
The original lighthouse wasn’t built well enough to stand up to the rough weather it experienced, and in 1866 the entire thing was replaced with the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse you can see today.
The Coast Guard hasn’t had anyone living in the building since the 1980s, so the Marquette Maritime Museum signed a lease to open the building up for education and tours.
You can now visit this history Lake Superior lighthouse for a guided tour to learn more details of its plentiful history.
5. Ontonagon Lighthouse
The discovery of a 12,000-pound lump of copper near Ontonagon in 1847 is where the story of this Lake Superior Lighthouse begins.
The Minnesota Mine was the most productive copper mine in the entire country during its boom in the mid-1800s. As the town and population grew along with the boom, the need for a lighthouse that would bring safety to incoming boats grew as well.
Congress approved $5,000 to build the Ontonagon Lighthouse and the first lighthouse keeper was hired in 1853.
Similar to the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, this Lake Superior lighthouse couldn’t stand up to the harsh conditions brought on by being on the lakeshore. Congress approved another $14,000 for “repairs” in 1866, and essentially a brand new lighthouse was built.
By the early 1880s, lumber had passed copper as the main resource coming out of Ontonagon, which put the lighthouse in a precarious position one night in 1896.
James Corgan’s family found themselves in the fight of their lives against a fire that had started in the lumbar yard across the river.
His keeper log quotes tell the harrowing tale of his family having to run to the river, gather water, and wet down the roof and building to keep them from catching fire. They repeated it over and over again for hours, even burning their feet on the sand where they’d put out fires.
Thankfully, their hard work did save the lighthouse and it’s open to the public for guided tours today.
6. Whitefish Point Lighthouse
Whitefish Point Lighthouse was the very first Lake Superior lighthouse to be built in 1847. Its position has been critical to the safety of all boats coming in and going out of the largest of the Great Lakes.
Whitefish Point has been nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes” and the lighthouse on its edge is arguably the most important skill in operation on Lake Superior today. Almost half of the 550 shipwrecks littering the bottom of the lake are in the vicinity of Whitefish Point.
The original light tower was replaced while Abraham Lincoln was president and has been standing ever since.
After it was automated in 1971, the government transferred the ownership of the Lake Superior lighthouse and the land around it to the Shipwreck Society in 1996.
The Shipwreck Society has built up the area to be an entire campus dedicated to the history of maritime transportation on the Great Lakes. They’ve got both guided and self-guided tours of the historic lighthouse and surrounding museums open to the public.
Wrapping Up the History of Amazing Lake Superior Lighthouses
Besides the impact they make on the safety of all sailors on the water, these Lake Superior lighthouses have also made an impact with the history they’ve made and left behind.
For more Minnesota history, check out this page on the history of St Paul, one of Minnesota’s Twin Cities!