Alcona Historical Society, lighthouse keepers

The lighthouse at Sturgeon Point steadily deteriorated while I was growing up.

It pained me to see the grand tower disused, abused, and inaccessible.

As my appreciation for Great Lakes history grew, the greater the shame seemed to me of Sturgeon Point Lighthouse’s demise.

Forty years ago, the Alcona Historical Society came to the rescue, like a lifeboat launched into the surf from the lighthouse to save a stranded crew of sailors, but in reverse.

Beginning with society President Floyd “Bing” Benghauser in 1980, it took several years to open the doors of the lighthouse to the public. After a quarter century of collective effort by a whole cast of Historical Society members, the lighthouse came back to life.

Bings’s daughter, Kristin, succeeded him as president in 2020. She gets the credit for getting the doors back open in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic crisis. The fact that the Historical Society succeeded and has survived is an example of progress, of things getting better, in our precarious world.

Visit Sturgeon Point Park on a weekend this summer, and you’ll see.

Families and lighthouse buffs predominate on a busy, sunny day when the open sign is out. “Admission free, donations accepted” is the policy that gives everyone access to the many attractions at the park: the lighthouse keeper’s house, fully appointed with period antiques, many of them original to the site; the grounds, filled with artifacts, including two old fishing boats, with interpretive markers and a free, self-guided audio tour; and the Old Bailey School, a one-room schoolhouse from Mikado built in 1905.

The Historical Society rallied to acquire, stabilize, and move the school to the point. All of the original contents of a one-room schoolhouse are there, some of them original to the site — desks, chalkboards, pot-bellied stove, water pail, textbooks, even a big roll of antiquated maps. Kids love the Old Bailey School, which is a world away from the schools of today.

The only cost of a visit to Sturgeon Point Lighthouse covers a climb up the tower, $3 each, four folks at a time, as long as they are four feet tall. The lantern room at the top of the tower is one of my favorite places in the world. Denied access for so long, I derive childlike joy from spending time there. Like my father before me, I am a proud docent of the Historical Society, specializing in long shifts at the top of the tower.

Voices are the echoing soundtrack of the conical tower, with its see-through, cast-iron spiral stairs. The voices express a mix of the visitors’ reactions, which range through anticipation, delight, anxiety, even terror. The voices get louder as their owners near the top and finally pop their heads through the hatch in the floor of the lantern room, emerging from a dim, vertical tunnel of masonry into a light-filled octagon of glass.

When their senses adjust, the panoramic view of Lake Huron and the boreal forest takes visitors aback. Some gasp a little. Many exclaim aloud. It is a privilege to witness their enjoyment.

A few individuals — poor creatures — hate every second of the experience, to the point of agonized whining, even panicky shrieks.

Going back down is the hardest part; the safest way is to descend backward, facing the steps, which is counter-intuitive and hard to do. The lighthouse buffs want to squirm through a tiny door to the outside, but they aren’t allowed.

Fifty years ago, the crumbling, vandalized shell of Sturgeon Point Lighthouse stood as a monument to myopia, to a short-sighted society too willing to forget its history, and to a government unable to grasp the value of historic preservation.

Today, the vibrant scene on a weekend at Sturgeon Point Park is proof that we as a people can do better, beginning with grassroots groups like the Alcona Historical Society, which still stands the watch like generations of lighthouse keepers before them, keeping the lighthouse open for you to visit.

Opening day at Sturgeon Point Lighthouse Park is Saturday.

It will be open each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through Labor Day.

Maybe I’ll see you there!


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