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Celebrate National Lighthouse Day in the Straits of Mackinac

By Dianna Stampfler

Michigan has more lighthouse than any other state (at nearly 120) and the Straits area is home to more than a dozen of these historic navigational aids. You’re invited to celebrate National Lighthouse Day (August 7) in the heart of the Great Lakes.

I first started researching Michigan’s lighthouses in 1997 when I worked at the West Michigan Tourist Association and was working on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour & Lighthouse Guide. While I had a casual knowledge of lights, I wasn’t aware of how significant these historic beacons are to Michigan’s history—not only the maritime industry, but agricultural, recreational and industrial industries which relied on the Great Lakes for shipping products throughout American and beyond!

The Straits of Mackinac is known as the “Crossroads of the Great Lakes” where the bulk of this water traffic traveled going from Chicago to Detroit or up to Lake Superior, and points beyond. With shoals, rocky shoreline and shallow waters, this area was often treacherous for boats making the lighthouse vital to their safety (although that wasn’t always the case as many ships sank in this area…for more on that subject, read this blog post from the Straits Area Shipwreck Dive Preserve).

When visiting the Straits of Mackinac, you have the opportunity to tour several of the lighthouses for yourself—including Old Mackinac Point McGulpin Point, St. Helena Island and DeTour Reef Light (which also has a popular overnight keeper program at its northern Lake Huron light). And, starting in 2019, you’ll be able to actually spend the night at the White Shoal Light out in the waters of northern Lake Michigan.

Those who want to get out to see the water-based lighthouses can make reservations for boat tours offered in the Straits area. Shepler’s Ferry offers several ferry cruises out to the offshore lights, including an “Eastbound Lighthouse Cruise,” “Westbound Lighthouse Cruise,” “Extended Eastbound Lighthouse Cruise,” “Extended Westbound Lighthouse Cruise,” “Evening Lighthouse Cruise” and “Les Cheneaux Lighthouse Experience.” Or, head further up the St. Mary’s River toward Sault Ste. Marie for even more lighthouse viewing aboard the Soo Locks Upper Lighthouse Cruise.

If you’d like to hear more stories about Michigan’s lighthouses, their keepers and even their ghosts, please join me at the Mackinaw Area Public Library (528 W. Central Avenue) on Wednesday, October 24 from 6-7:30pm for a free presentation of “Michigan’s Ghostly Beacons”—which includes some interesting tales from nearby Waugoshance Shoal Lighthouse and St. Helena Island Lighthouse.

For more information about all the lighthouses within the Midwest region, visit the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association or


  • Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse: Constructed in 1892, this light was decommissioned in 1957 when the Mackinac Bridge was complete. Today, it operates as part of the Mackinac State Historic Parks and is open for tours. The Keepers’ Quarters contains three rooms restored to their 1910 appearance and a gallery exhibit on the history of the lighthouse featuring hands-on displays and original artifacts. Tours of the tower are given throughout the day, on a first-come, first served basis. Tours are provided at no additional charge and are not guaranteed with admission.
  • McGulpin Point Lighthouse: Located two miles down the Lake Michigan shoreline toward Wilderness State Park, this light operated from 1869 until 1906, when it became privately owned. Emmet County purchased the light, its acreage and frontage on the lake in 2008 and operates it as a museum and historic site. It is open through mid-October, as well as the first Saturday of December during a special “Christmas at the Lighthouse” celebration.
  • Helena Island Lighthouse: Once home to more than 200 residents and an active fishing industry, St. Helena Island is now a natural site and the St. Helena Lighthouse. Built in 1872-1873, the light went into operation in September 1873. It became one of a series of lighthouses that guided vessels through the Straits of Mackinac, past a dangerous shoal that extends from the island. Over time, the population left the island and the light fell into a state of disrepair until the Great Lake Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA) obtained a license to restore the light station from the Coast Guard in 1986. On a few dates during the summer, excursions aboard the Ugly Anne take visitors (who must be members of GLLKA) to St. Helena Island for lunch at the lighthouse. Organized in 1983, GLLKA also calls Mackinaw City home. This membership-volunteer organization is one of the nation’s longest-lived lighthouse preservation groups. This is an active aid to navigation.
  • Waugoshance Shoal Light: Constructed in 1850 and first lit in 1851, this “birdcage” style lighthouse is unique in style and story. When the White Shoal Light was constructed in 1910, Waugoshance became excess property and was decommissioned. During World War II, it found a new purpose—it was used for bombing practice. Today, the ruins remain a constant reminder of this light’s longstanding history. It is on the “Doomsday” list of lights beyond repair and is also rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a former keeper, John Herman. The light is NOT open to the public but is visible from the water and from near Wilderness State Park.
  • Gray’s Reef Lighthouse: Replacing a series of light ships place to guard the shallow, rocky shoal area, Gray’s Reef was completed in the mid-1930s just 3.8 miles west of Waugoshance Island. Visible only from the water, this 65-foot-tall octagonal light was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. This is an active aid to navigation.
  • White Shoal Lighthouse: Built in 1910, this towering 124-foot tall red-and-white “candy cane” striped light is located about 20 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge and is only visible from the water. The White Shoal Light is the prominent design element in the “Save Our Lights” license plate for the State of Michigan; the sale of which helps fund lighthouse preservation. Michigan is the only state that supports lighthouse preservation with a program that includes annual grants from the state to local preservation groups. This light is visible only from the water and is an active aid to navigation.
  • Round Island Lighthouse: As you ferry from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island, the red and white Round Island Lighthouse stands guard at the tip of the wilderness island. It was constructed in 1895 at a cost of $15,000 by Frank Rounds, a carpenter from Detroit who had previously worked on Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. The lighthouse was first lit on May 15, 1896. It was commissioned under the U.S. Lighthouse Board, which became the United States Lighthouse Service in 1910. When it was first completed, the lighthouse was brick red. This would remain so until it was painted red and white in 1924. Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in 2009 as a non-profit organization to help aid the preservation and restoration efforts at historic Round Island Lighthouse. In year’s past, there has been an “Open House” at the light – held one day a year. However, no tour was held in 2017. This is an active aid to navigation.
  • Round Island Passage Light: As you enter the harbor into Mackinac Island, this 1948 lighthouse welcomes visitors from near and far. This was one of the last lights to be constructed on the Great Lakes, built at the same time the 1895 lighthouse was deactivated. The light was sold at auction in 2014 for $65,500. It is not open to the public but is visible from the water and the island. This is an active aid to navigation.
  • Poe Reef Lighthouse: Marking the north side of the South Channel of the Straits of Mackinac, between Bois Blanc Island and the mainland of the Lower Peninsula, Poe Reef sits about six miles east of Cheboygan. Completed in 1928, Poe Reef Light is part of what became a complex of 14 reef lights in Michigan waters, which was intended to help ships navigate through and around the shoals and hazards of the Great Lakes. It is also part of a series of a significant offshore light construction projects being undertaken in the Straits area in the late 1920s. Poe Reef, with its black and white striped daymark, is only visible from the water and remains an active aid to navigation.
  • Fourteen Foot Shoal Lighthouse: Named to denote that the lake is only 14 feet deep at this point—which is a hazard to navigation, ships and mariners—this offshore beacon marks the southern side of the South Channel. First lit in 1930, this automated light is only visible from the water and is an active aid to navigation.
  • Martin Reef Lighthouse: Sitting on a 65-foot square concrete-filled crib, this light was constructed in northern Lake Huron, 4.3 miles south of Cadogan Point in Clark Township in 1927. The lighthouse itself is a 25-foot square, white, three-story structure made of a skeletal steel frame covered with reinforced concrete and iron and sheathed with steel. The lighthouse is centered on the crib. The first floor of the lighthouse was designed as an engine room, the second floor as an office, kitchen, and living area, while the third floor contained sleeping rooms. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. It is only visible from the water and is an active aid to navigation.
  • Spectacle Reef Lighthouse: Designed and built by Colonel Orlando Metcalfe Poe and Major Godfrey Weitzel in 1874, this is the most expensive lighthouse ever built on the Great Lakes (at a cost of $406,000). It stands 11 miles east of the Straits of Mackinac at the northern end of Lake Huron. Because of the challenges of building on a shoal, including laying an underwater crib, it is said to be the “most spectacular engineering achievement” in lighthouse construction on Lake Huron. It took four years to build because weather limited work to mostly the summer season. Workers lived in a structure at the site; one of the limiting conditions. Automated in 1972 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, this light is only visible from the water and is an active aid to navigation.
  • Detour Reef Lighthouse: Built in 1931, the 83-foot tall lighthouse is a strategic and historic landmark that marks a dangerous reef to help guide ship traffic from and to Lake Huron and Lake Superior via the strategic St. Mary’s River. This light is located one mile offshore in northern Lake Huron, at the far eastern end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula between DeTour Village and Drummond Island. The Detour Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society completed major restoration of the structure in 2004 and the following year began offering public tours and a popular overnight keeper program. Viewable only from the water, this light is an active aid to navigation.
  • Wawatam Lighthouse: This 52-foot-tall beacon started life in 1998 as a travel icon at the Michigan Welcome Center in Monroe. In 2004, the City of St. Ignace became the lucky recipient and the structure was trucked north in five pieces. Two years later, a crane reassembled the tower on its new site and it was lit on August 20, 2006. Wawatam Lighthouse takes its name from the late railroad ferry Chief Wawatam, which used this same dock from 1911 through the mid-1980s. When you visit the lighthouse, you will pass right by the Chief’s old lift gate. This is an active aid to navigation.

Dianna Stampfler is the president of Promote Michigan and the author of the upcoming book “Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses” from History Press, coming out in the spring of 2019.

Photo Source (White Shoal and Gray’s Reef):