Tuesday Tour: Strait lights of hope

We’ve been drifting out here in a sea of gloom for many months now. Some might even be in the grips of despair. Turmoil, uncertainty, chaos, and fear swirl around us.

It’s hard not to lose hope that at some point life will resume some normalcy. But we cannot surrender to the negative. Instead we must hang on with hope and cling to the light it provides.

In my own small way, by highlighting the lighthouses Papa and I have visited during our empty nest travels, my desire is to provide a spark of light in a dark world, to transport us to places where light  prevailed to guide those in the darkness.

A year ago, Papa and I journeyed to Michigan with specific places to see in mind – one of those being Mackinac Island. On our ferry ride from the mainland into one of the Great Lakes – Lake Huron – we caught a glimpse of two lighthouses.

Located in the Round Island Channel of the Straits of Mackinac, one is named the Round Island Passage Light and the other is simply called Round Island Light. Both are distinctly different.

Because it was a direct shipping route between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, the narrow (less than a mile) passage between Round Island and Mackinac Island marking that hazardous area containing dangerous reefs became necessary.

Construction on the Round Island Light, also known as the Old Round Island Point Lighthouse, began in 1894. An interesting fact about this two-and-a-half story structure resembling an old-fashioned schoolhouse, is that a man named Frank Rounds was hired to build it. He had worked on Mackinac Island’s famous Grand Hotel, a luxurious resort that is still a popular site today.

The light emitted its first signal in May 1896 as a fixed white light, interrupted by a red flash every 20 seconds. A fog signal was added in October of that year which sounded a five-second blast each minute when needed.

By 1948 though, Round Island Light became unattended when a new tower, Round Island Passage, located just off Mackinac Island began operating. Decommissioned in the mid 1950’s, the Round Island Light became property of the Hiawatha National Forest.

A storm damaged the structure significantly in 1972 and one Mackinac Island summer resident spearheaded a campaign to save it with assistance from the Mackinac Island Historical Society, the U.S. Coast Guard, and others. Repairs were accomplished and the Round Island Lighthouse was named on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Almost 20 years later, restoration was once again needed. This time a Michigan Boy Scout troop, along with the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, stepped up to make repairs. The scouts continued to take care of the lighthouse.

In celebration of its 100th centennial in 1996, Round Island Light once again began operating as a private navigational aid, emitting two white flashes every 10 seconds. Currently, the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society works to provide restoration work for this historic landmark.

Just 1000 feet off Mackinac Island, construction commenced on a distinctly different beacon called Round Island Passage Light after World War 2 and it began operating in 1948. Instead of resident keepers, however, U.S. Coast Guard personnel manning the station on Mackinac Island remotely controlled the lighthouse by using a submarine channel from onshore.

A distinguishing feature of the 120 foot tower is ornamental – bronze Native American heads, commemorating the Great Lakes regional tribes who lived in that area and considered Mackinac Island a sacred place.

This automated and unmanned lighthouse was deemed unnecessary by 2013 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places the same year.

After touring Mackinac Island and the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (more of those lighthouses to come in future posts), we crossed the famous Mackinac Bridge into Mackinaw City and managed to visit two more area lighthouses.

Just off the south side of the huge suspension bridge we stopped at Mackinaw Point which marks the junction of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

There we found the Old Mackinac Point Light Station, completed in 1889 to mark the narrowest section of the Straits of Mackinac, and operated from 1890 until 1957.

The station consisted of a cylindrical brick tower and lighthouse keeper’s two-story dwelling, which actually was two separate houses under one roof joined by an access lobby. The keeper’s dwelling was also constructed of brick with limestone trim and a bright red, tin roof.

By 1957, the Mackinac Bridge was completed and since lights on the suspension structure were very adequate to mark the straits in this area, Old Mackinac Point Light Station was no longer needed as an active navigational aid.

Purchased by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 1960, the station became a part of Michilmackinac State Park, was restored and opened 12 years later as a point of interest in Michilmackinac Maritime Park.  But time, money, and dwindling public attendance caused the light station to close in 1990.

Again fundraisers came to a lighthouse’s rescue when enough money was raised to restore and reopen Old Mackinac Point to the public just six years later. Interestingly enough, one of the key leaders in the fundraising campaign was a gentleman named Jim Belisle and he was the great-grandson of the man who built the station.

When we visited there, the grounds were open, but the light station itself was closed. However, it remains quite the sightseeing spot since climbing the tower provides a spectacular view of the Straits of Mackinac. Currently the lighthouse is closed and according to its website, a tentative reopening is scheduled for the 2021 season in May.

Using our trusty lighthouse map and guide, we located another nearby lighthouse that was constructed to serve as a navigational aid through the Straits of Mackinac. Located about three miles west of Fort Michilimackinac, another historic spot worthy of visiting, McGulpin Point Light is noted for being the oldest surviving lighthouse in the Straits of Mackinac.

Operation at this light house began in 1869 but only continued until 1906 in McGulpin Point. The point itself was named for a British army officer named John McGulpin who once served at nearby Fort Michilmackinac.

Standing over 700 feet from the shore of Lake Michigan, one might wonder how this light truly served as a navigational aid for sailors passing between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan because this lighthouse is now surrounded by dense trees.

But if you climb to the top of the tower which is situated on a hill, you’ll see a sprawling view of the straits. The tower, which is only 40 feet tall, is set diagonally into a corner of a one-and-a-half-story keeper’s dwelling, which now houses a gift shop.

McGulpin Point was almost decommissioned as an aid to navigation in 1889 because construction had begun on Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and confusing discussion ensued about having two lighthouses so near to one another. However, it was determined that both lights would “best serve” lake navigation in that area.

But by 1906, McGulpin Point’s operation was terminated and the property sold. Nearly 100 years later, the property owners at the time placed the lighthouse and adjoining land for sale. It didn’t sell until 2009 when Emmet County Commissioners purchased it and prepared it for public view.

In May of that year, McGulpin Point Lighthouse was re-lit in a ceremony that included Native American drummers and an invocation by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians tribal chairman, Frank Ettawageshik, according to Lighthousefriends.com.

Navigating in the darkness through treacherous waters, whether it be along the coasts of a Great Lake or a great ocean, is dangerous. That’s why lighthouses existed – to offer a beacon of hope for safety.

Perhaps envisioning or simply viewing photos of lighthouses offers us a symbol of hope during this challenging time in our world. I can only hope.

“At some time, often when we least expect it, we all have to face overwhelming challenges. When the unthinkable happens, the lighthouse is hope. Once we find it, we must cling to it with absolute determination. When we have hope, we discover powers within ourselves we may have never known- the power to make sacrifices, to endure, to heal, and to love. Once we choose hope, everything is possible.” ~ Christopher Reeve

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