Lake Superior, located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is the world’s largest freshwater lake, and home to more than 30 lighthouses. The lake is actually relatively young for a geological phenomenon, dating back roughly 10,000 years to the dawn of the Holocene period.
The Great Lakes of Michigan (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario) draw millions of tourists a year, renowned for their serene natural beauty and fantastic fishing. If you’re thinking about planning a trip to Michigan, you’ll want to take a look at our list! Read on to help plan your trip to some of Lake Superior’s most beautiful lighthouses.
Point Iroquois Lighthouse
The 65 feet tall Point Iroquois Lighthouse stands at the intersection of St. Mary’s River and Whitefish Bay, where Lake Superior flows into its neighboring Great Lakes. It was originally built in the mid-1800s, in Brimley Michigan, at the behest of the Michigan state legislature.
It was commissioned, along with twelve other lighthouses, in January of 1853 and the United States Congress appropriated $5000 for its construction. The forty-five-foot tower was built with stone and completed by 1855, along with a one-and-a-half-story building for the lighthouse keeper. The Point Iroquois Lighthouse was also fitted with a Fresnel lens that allowed its beam to project sixty-five feet across the waters of Lake Superior.
The lighthouse and the point that it shares its name with comes from the Ojibwa tribe (also known as Anishinaabeg or Chippewa) word for “Place of Iroquois Bones.” This term is meant to commemorate a clash between the Ojibwa and invading Iroquois in 1662.
By 1844 a booming iron ore and copper trade compelled Michigan to create the St. Mary’s Falls Canal to help ships transport these necessary goods across the southern Great Lakes. The canal began operating in 1865 and since its opening has become the most used canal by commercial shipping vessels in the world.
As the number of shipments across the lakes increased, the Point Iroquois Lighthouse became worn down by time and constant use. Both the tower and the lighthouse keepers’ quarters were torn down and rebuilt with sturdier materials, namely brick, in 1870, and this is the version of the lighthouse that stands today.
Eventually, after 107 years of manual operation, the lighthouse was replaced by an automated light in Gros Cap, Ontario. In 1975 the lighthouse was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Today there is a volunteer-run museum that educates tourists about the history of the lighthouse and Lake Superior, complete with a bookshop and a family photo album that details the lives of lighthouse keepers come and gone. The lighthouse keeper’s lodging has also been rebuilt to resemble its 1950’s conditions. You can still climb the 72 steps to the top of the lighthouse for an amazing view of the lake, as well as the shores of Michigan and Canada.
Whitefish Point Lighthouse
The Whitefish Point Lighthouse is the longest-running lighthouse on Lake Superior and one of the first to be built on its shores, finished in 1848 and in operation since 1849. Whitefish Point itself is an infamous 80-mile span of coastline referred to as “Shipwreck Coast” or the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes” for the considerable number of vessels that have sunken between the Point and Munising, Michigan.
Nearly half of the 550 recorded shipwrecks off this stretch occurred at Whitefish Point, which prompted the United States Congress to commission the Whitefish Point Lighthouse in 1849. The most famous of these shipwrecks is the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which was carrying hefty deposits of iron ore at the time. All twenty-nine members of the crew sank along with the vessel and its cargo.
The Whitefish Point Lighthouse was run by the United States Lighthouse service from the time it was first lit until 1923. The United States Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the lighthouse after building a Lifeboat Rescue Station at the point, and in 1939 the two merged to mutually control the premises from there.
In 1857 the lighthouse replaced its outdated Winslow and Lewis reflector/lamp system with a Third Order Fresnel Lens but by 1861 the Whitefish Point Lighthouse had to be rebuilt. Years of battering from the intense weather conditions of Lake Superior had decimated the structural support of the building, so it was reconstructed with steel to ensure proper support even under harsh affront by wind and water.
In 1973, the Whitefish Point Lighthouse was entered into the National Register of Historic Places but unfortunately, the organization did not yet have the proper funds for any restoration work to begin. The Whitefish Township, in conjunction with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, came together in 1980 to begin the necessary work of preserving the lighthouse.
The Coast Guard granted a license to the GLSHS for the creation of a museum, and in 1985 the Shipwreck Museum Building and its exhibits were opened to the public. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the lighthouse in October 1996, after United States Congress passed an act releasing control of the premises.
Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse
The Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse (also known as the Grand Island Harbor Lighthouse) is one of the more unique lighthouses on Lake Superior. Built on the southern shore of Grand Island in 1868 just north of Munising, Michigan, the tower’s stone base and church-like wooden exterior give it a singular look that makes it one of the most photographed lighthouses in the state.
In 1866 the United States Congress updated its initial provision of $6,000 to $16,000, and construction of the lighthouse followed during the summer of 1868. The light atop the tower could project a full forty-nine feet across Lake Michigan and was fully operational by August 15th of that year. In 1869, a fifth-order Fresnel lens was installed to upgrade the steamers lens that had been used up until then.
The Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse helped ships navigate the canal from Lake Superior into the Munising harbor for nearly half a century, and employed six lighthouse keepers during this time.
The local Lighthouse Board decommissioned the Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse in 1905, after approving the construction of a number of long-range lights along the mainland. By 1913 it was no longer operating, and two years later the lighthouse and the land around it were purchased and turned into private property.
The new owner allowed for the lighthouse keepers’ quarters to be joint-operated by neighboring landowners, and today you can only see the tower and the quarters via boat tours offered by three local companies in Munising – Pictured Rocks tour, Grand Island Cruises, and Shipwreck tour. The East Channel Lighthouse Rescue organization was created to keep the structure intact so that tourists can still enjoy its antiquated appearance when traveling down the canal.
Au Sable Point Lighthouse
The Au Sable Point Lighthouse (originally the Big Sable Point Light Station) is another one of Lake Michigan’s earliest constructed lighthouses, along with the Whitefish Point Lighthouse. The Au Sable tower, located on the northern tip of Grand Island within the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, was built over two years on a budget of $40,000 from Congress. The state of Michigan raised an additional $407 by selling 326 acres of its land to the federal government. By August 19th, 1874 it was completed and ready to be lit, with the first lighthouse keeper Casper Kuhn placed in charge of the premises.
The Au Sable Point Lighthouse is 86 feet tall, with an extra 23 feet stretching underground into the bedrock. The premises include, in addition to the tower, a fog signal building and a brick oil building (both built in the 1890s) as well as a lighthouse keeper’s living quarters. The tower was affixed with a third-order Fresnel lens that extended its light beam more than 17 miles over the water.
The keeper’s quarters were initially an extension of the lighthouse itself, but in 1909 a new building was erected for the keeper. The original building was enlarged to have enough space for a pair of assistant lighthouse keepers and their families. A second story was added that included an independent entrance for privacy.
By 1945, in the wake of World War II, the United States Coast Guard assumed control of the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters. The Fresnel lens was removed in 1958 when the lighthouse was automated (after 84 years of manual operation!) and ten years later the Coast Guard turned the lighthouse over to the National Park Service.
The lighthouse is currently solar-powered, though the removed third-order Fresnel lens is still on the premises. Visitors can access this remote lighthouse by following a one-and-a-half-mile trail along the edge of Lake Superior. The Au Sable Point Lighthouse has been entered into the National Register of Historical Sites as well as the Michigan State Register of Historic Sites.
Big Bay Point Lighthouse
The Big Bay Point Lighthouse was originally commissioned by Congress on February 15th, 1893, and $25,000 was allotted for its assembly. The state of Michigan began construction in May of 1896, after buying a five-acre plot of land, and by October of the same year the tower was erected on a bluff overlooking Big Bay, Michigan.
The tower was fitted with a third-order Fresnel lens, a much-needed improvement as Big Bay Point was already famous for being the site of many a sunken ship. The point lay directly between the Huron Islands and Granite Island, in an 18-mile stretch of rough waters that were regularly traversed by passenger steamships. In addition to this, the area was in continual use by ships carrying goods from Buffalo, Duluth, and Chicago to every major stop on the southern edges of Lake Superior, such as Portage Lake and Marquette.
The tower itself is part of a structure that includes two stories, a duplex, eighteen rooms, and a lantern room/tower more than 60 feet tall. The light itself shone eighty-nine feet above Lake Superior thanks to its position on the bluff. In 1940 the premises received electrical power and by the following year, the lighthouse keeper had left. The tower was registered as officially unwatched.
For a brief period, the property was leased to the United States Army for training purposes. Anti-aircraft exercises were carried out by the U.S. Army and National Guard, with soldiers staying in tents nearby the lighthouse.
From 1961 – 1979 the lighthouse was a private residence, owned by a plastic surgeon from Chicago named Jon Pick. He renovated the building for two decades and turned the duplex into one bigger room before selling it in 1980 to Dan Hitchens, who only owned it for 5 years before selling it in turn to Norman Gotschall.
Despite its reputation for being haunted, Gotschall and his wife turned the Big Bay Point Lighthouse into a bed and breakfast in 1986. It was sold again in 1992 and then a final time in 2018 to Nick Korstad, who has continued to operate it as a bed and breakfast.