Life as a Great Lakes shoreline lighthouse keeper

NORTHEASTERN MICHIGAN – According to the Michigan Lighthouse Guide, there are over 200 operating lighthouses lining the Great Lakes shorelines.

Research from Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library revealed Michigan’s first lighthouse was constructed in 1825 as the Fort Gratiot Light near Port Huron. The 82-foot-high light is still in operation.

Following close to this first lighthouse’s opening is Thunder Bay Island’s 63-foot-high light. It was built in 1831 but fell into disrepair and was reconstructed in 1832. This light is still in current operation.

A typical impression of a lighthouse keeper might be a single man. However, in research conducted by Sarah Surface-Evans of Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office, she revealed, “The reality is lighthouse keepers typically were married and had family or extended family living with them. This might include elderly parents and unwed sisters.”

Historians noted the preferred keeper age group was 18 to 50 years. In several instances, the lighthouse keeper were women by selection or default to an injured or ill husband or brother.


America’s first lighthouse was constructed in 1716 on Boston’s Little Brewster Island. It was destroyed during the Revolutionary War and rebuilt. Today, it still stands.

In 1789, the United States Lighthouse Establishment, structured under the Department of the Treasury, was formed. Prior to this action, lighthouses were privately built and operated.

Lighthouse Digest Magazine revealed in 1910 the Bureau of Lighthouses was created and operated as the United States Lighthouse Service. This was structured under the Department of Commerce.

During a subsequent ten-year period, lighthouses, buoys, and small lights increased from over 11,700 units to 24,000.

Technological advances provided an alarm system for oil-vapor lamps when they became dim. In addition, an automatic system for electric lamps was developed to replace burned-out bulbs.

By 1928 automatic radio beacons guided vessels with their navigation. In 1940 all Great Lakes beacons were shifted to electric power.

In July 1939, the United States Coast Guard took over the maintenance and operation of all U.S. lighthouses, lightships, and buoys.



Surface-Evans’ research stated a keeper’s lifestyle was arduous. Their duties included climbing many steps tending the light, assisting ships and crews in trouble, carrying heavy loads, and shoveling coal.

She added the position required round-the-clock attention in a military-like routine. A typical day at a lighthouse was cleaning, fixing, and writing in a detailed logbook, as well as standing watch and ensuring the beacon burned brightly.

Life as a keeper was demanding and isolated.

Research from Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library noted in 1852 the Lighthouse Board published their first written rules for keepers. In part, it stated, “A keeper could be immediately dismissed if they were discovered intoxicated or, if for any reason, the light was extinguished. Without written permission a keeper could leave his or her station for only two reasons, to draw pay or to attend Sunday religious services.”

Bringing supplies and personnel to a lighthouse was anything but simple.

A 1920 document revealed when delivery boats were headed to an offshore lighthouse, “They didn’t dare come close. They loaded everything into small boats with the crew loading it. Kerosene delivery was a big deal. It filled the oil house. An oil house was ten or twelve feet in diameter and eight feet in height. It had shelves all the way around. Kerosene in five-gallon cans was carried all the way to the top of the lighthouse.”

One keeper commented during beautiful July and August weather, “This would be the hardest time because there you were on the station and everybody is out there boating by, in their cruisers and enjoying themselves. And here you were, watch-standing.”

It was not uncommon to have children born at lighthouses. One account stated that 12 children were born at Lake Superior’s isolated Isle Royale light.

With families having school-aged children, efforts were made to have them educated at nearby schools. With island-based lighthouses, children were piloted to and from the shorelines to attend school. However, with the best of intentions, many children ended up being home-schooled.

Well before the advent of radio and television, the Lighthouse Service began to assemble and distribute portable libraries. The library consisted of about 50 books. Typically, they were a mix of history, fiction, poetry, scientific works, and always a Bible. Originally libraries were left at a lighthouse for six months. However, their popularity led the Lighthouse Service to have the libraries be moved every three months. Stations continued to receive portable libraries into the 1920s.

Along with reading, keepers and their families enjoyed crafts, games, gardening, and quilt-making. Fishing was popular which also provided fresh meals.

During the spring and summer seasons, keepers’ relatives and family members enjoyed a brief vacation at the lighthouses.

During the winter season, there was no need for many lights. Thus, the keepers of the most isolated stations extinguished their light at the close of the navigation season. In many instances, they spend the winter in nearby towns or villages.

However, leaving an offshore lighthouse at the end of the season often proved difficult and dangerous. A keeper and their family would depart in a small, open vessel and could face a sudden storm. In 1900, five keepers died on their way home for the season.

Finally, as Great Lakes lighthouses still provide a beacon of safety, author, Dianna Stampfler chronicles in her book, “Death and Lighthouses on the Great Lakes”, tales of death, murders, lost loves, restless spirits, and misfortunes.

Visitors may still sense these as they enter the circa 1840 old Presque Isle lighthouse or nearby keeper’s residence.

Jeffrey D. Brasie is a retired health care CEO. He frequently writes historic feature stories and op-eds for various Michigan newspapers. As a Vietnam-era veteran, he served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Naval Reserve. He served on the public affairs staff of the secretary of the Navy. He grew up in Alpena and resides in suburban Detroit.

Northeastern Michigan


∫ Alpena – 44 feet high; constructed 1877 and 1914 – active light

∫ 40 Mile – 66 feet high; constructed 1897 – active light

∫ Middle Island – 78 feet high; constructed 1905 – active light

∫ Presque Isle/old – 36 feet high; constructed 1840 – inactive light

∫ Presque Isle/new – 123 feet high; constructed 1871 – active light

∫ Sturgeon Point – 69 feet high; constructed 1869 – active light

∫ Thunder Bay – 63 feet high; constructed 1832 – active light

Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association


MIDDLE ISLAND, MICHIGAN – Located 2.5 miles off the shores of Rockport is 227-acre Middle Island. In good weather, it is a 20-minute boat ride.

The island is a mile long and approximately five-eighths of a mile wide. It features a fully operating United States Coast Guard 78-foot lighthouse along with a two-story; 12-room residence constructed in 1907 and a fog signal building, which has been converted into a lodge.

The west side of the island offers a 380-foot break wall. Nearby are a duck hunting blind and observation tower. The island also offers an established trail system and a large private dock.

The island is served by a five-mile underwater electrical line.

The United States Coast Guard maintains the operating lighthouse, which is annually inspected.

The island and non-government structures are offered at $3.9 million.

Interested? Details and photos can be found online at Realtor.com and Zillow.com.


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