Turning the lights off
Written by Detroit News   
Saturday, 20 January 2007 06:44

Like candles blown out by an ill wind, the lighthouses of Michigan are going dark, one by one. The blinking beacons, rendered obsolete by technology, are slowly crumbling into the Great Lakes, say preservationists and government officials.

Politicians and residents are trying to save the lights, passing another law last month, but their efforts are being hamstrung by a lack of money.

The number of lighthouses in the nation has dropped from 2,300 in the late 1800s to 950 in 1995 to 600 today. Michigan, with 116, has more than any other state.

"Money is everything," said Kirk Lindquist, president of the Michigan Lighthouse Fund, a Lansing group that raises money for lighthouse owners.

"Some are doing well but others go month to month, year to year."

Lighthouses provide a rich link to Michigan's history, especially its maritime past, supporters said.

The lighthouses have been part of Michigan, some since about statehood, guiding ships by flame before the invention of electricity.

The brick and stone structures also provide much of the identity for the lakefront communities that house them, supporters said.

"It's part of our past," said Doug McCormick, 92, a retired Coast Guard chief boatswain who, until recently, was the volunteer caretaker of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.

Like many of the people rallying behind lighthouses, McCormick is closer to the end of his life than the beginning.

The son of a lighthouse keeper, he was born in another lighthouse and had hoped to die in one. But his work at Grand Traverse, run by a historical group, ended when he suffered a stroke four years ago.

The 148-year-old lighthouse, where McCormick spent his childhood, remains as a museum but its function has been replaced by a light tower erected beside it.

Technology replaces lights

In the early 1900s, Michigan's 3,300 miles of coast were covered with lighthouses to guide the heavy commercial traffic to safe harbor and away from crippling shoals.

The Coast Guard began automating the lights in the late 1960s, making lighthouse keepers unnecessary. By the 1990s, global positioning systems and other modern navigation equipment left the lights similarly unneeded.

The Coast Guard stopped staffing the lighthouses after they went automatic, then began giving them away in the mid-1990s.

Neglected for a decade and sometimes longer, the lonely sentinels have been left to the ravages of raw weather and relentless surf.

Some are listing or looted. They have missing roofs and windows, peeling asbestos and paint, rotting stairs and floorboards. Some are simply forgotten.

The Waugoshance Lighthouse, built in 1851 in the Straits of Mackinac, was used for target practice by U.S. fighter aircraft training for World War II.

"It's like the ruins in Rome," said Dick Moehl, president of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association. "No one did anything. No one cared."

The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, located in Port Huron at the entrance to the St. Clair River, doesn't look like a bomb hit it, but it still needs help.

The oldest lighthouse in Michigan, the 177-year-old structure needs numerous bricks replaced after they were shattered when water trapped inside them froze.

"It's falling apart," said Bob Hanford, 81, a retired Detroit cop who has voluntarily cared for the lighthouse for 17 years. "It seems to get worst in the winter time."

Port Huron plans to repair the 86-foot white tower, which is shown on the city seal, after assuming ownership sometime this year. The bill could exceed $1 million.

Boaters rally for lighthouses

Despite being dismissed as government surplus, lighthouses continue to have a strong hold on Michigan residents, especially boaters.

When the Coast Guard turned off the light at the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse above the Michigan thumb, a local group collected 1,000 signatures in 10 days on a petition to reverse the action. It was turned back on.

The group, the Alcona Historical Society, has turned the 70-foot tower, built in 1869, into a museum.

"It has such a strong history," said group president Gordon Bennett. "It's a strong drawing card for the county."

In shedding the lighthouses, the Coast Guard has found no shortage of groups willing to take them: communities, businesses, historical groups, citizens, even a school district.

More than half of the state's lighthouses have been transferred to new owners.

State politicians and those in Washington also have rallied to the causes, enacting laws to make it easier for the Coast Guard to pass ownership to others.

Last month, President Bush signed a bill directing the National Park Service to undertake a three-year study to find funding to preserve Michigan lighthouses.

The bill didn't include any money for the study, however, so it's unclear when the park service will begin the project.

Restoration costs are high

While lighthouses enjoy strong support from residents and elected officials, there's still one more thing it needs: money.

A tower that cost $19,000 to build in the 1800s could cost up to several million dollars to restore.

"It's a constant job," said Chuck Brockman, 72, a retired newspaper designer who has been raising money for 17 years to fix two lighthouses on Lake St. Clair. "It's very expensive, especially over open water."

A handful of lighthouses has even raised money by allowing overnight guests.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse hosts people for $220 per week, $195 if they're a member of the museum group.

While they're there, they greet visitors, talk about museum history, assist in the gift shop and help with maintenance.
 
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