Rooms with a View
Lighthouse-keeper programs a win-win for nautical fans and the historic landmarks they love
Mary Griffin has always loved lighthouses. In fact, she used to dream about building a home with a lighthouse design. “Each floor would have a different room, and it would look like a lighthouse,” says the lover of Fresnel lenses, crisp white paint, and narrow, spiral staircases.
In 2010, Griffin, a semi-retired 911 dispatch supervisor for the Auburn Hills Police Department, read about the need for volunteer lighthouse keepers at Tawas Point Lighthouse in scenic East Tawas.
She could hardly believe her eyes. “I jumped right on it,” she says.
Now, three years later, Griffin, is a regular guest keeper at the towering Lake Huron sentinel. There, she gives lighthouse tours, works in the museum, and helps maintain the grounds.
“A lot of visitors like to hear about nearby shipwrecks, too,” she says. “It’s fun to meet people and share the lighthouse history and how lighthouse keepers lived way back when.”
In operation since 1876, Tawas Point Lighthouse can be seen approximately 16 miles out into Lake Huron. Besides being a beacon for lighthouse lovers, it’s also a destination for birdwatchers, especially during the spring and fall migration seasons.
During her weeklong stints at the lighthouse, Griffin usually partners with a friend or family member. This summer she’ll share duties with her friend Meredith Till, of Royal Oak.
“We switch posts regularly,” Griffin says. “Like, I’ll be up in the tower (67-feet high), and my partner will work at the museum (part of the lighthouse).” Most of the visitors try to get to the top, but the narrow, winding staircase can make it an uphill challenge. “Some come down halfway up once they realize how narrow it is.”
Seeing the Light
Lighthouse manager Peggy Allen, who grew up on Higgins Lake, started the keeper program at Tawas Point about six years ago after she and her team were inspired by similar programs like the one at Grand Traverse. “We admired theirs and thought it [was] a good idea,” Allen says. She was hoping to raise some funds to help keep the renovations going. “Lo and behold,” she says, “we discovered there are tons of lighthouse fans out there.”
The Tawas light program, which charges guest keepers $250/week, is the only such state-run program in Michigan. “We [started] the program with approximately 26 guest keepers and have increased our numbers each year,” Allen says. These days, the program hosts 65 to 80 guest keepers a year.
The guest keeper money helps pay for upkeep of the site. Allen says that since the DNR has taken over Tawas Point, the historical lighthouse has been completely refurbished.
Tawas keepers stay from Friday to Friday. “Typically, a keeper will work from noon to 6 p.m.,” Allen says. “Tuesday is the keeper’s day off.” Participants are expected to clean the windows, sweep the walks, maintain the flower beds, help in the store, and more. “Nothing is too strenuous,” she adds.
Guest keepers stay in the lighthouse itself, with access to a cooking unit (though not a full stove), as well as a microwave for warming foods. Participants often bring their own snacks and sandwiches and typically head to town for dinner at one of the region’s many restaurants.
Upstairs, the fully renovated keeper’s quarters include a kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, and a full bath.
“You look out to both the sunrise on Lake Huron and sunset on Tawas Bay,” Allen says. “The views are stunning.” You can also spot the nearby Charity Island Lighthouse, which keepers can easily access by boat.
As for the program’s following, Allen says it’s typical for keepers to come in pairs. “Although we do get single folks signing up; we match them. Couples also like to come. We’ve even had as many as [two couples] at once, and sometimes a group of family members.”
With more than 12,000 visitors touring the lighthouse each year, Allen says the DNR continues to maintain the facility to help educate the public and stress the significance of Michigan’s rich lighthouse history.
Being a keeper is a special experience, Allen says. She especially enjoys the wildlife. “It’s so peaceful … you’ll be sipping coffee, and outside the window is a bald eagle sitting in a tree.”
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
The Tawas Point Lighthouse keeper program runs April-December. You have to be 18 years or older to participate. A junior keeper program is currently under consideration. For more information and to fill out an application for the Tawas Point keeper program, visit michigan.gov/tawaslighthouse.
Other keeper programs include those at Mission Point and Grand Traverse lighthouses in northwest Michigan. The stately 1850 Grand Traverse Lighthouse has long been a landmark at the tip of Michigan’s scenic Leelanau Peninsula. Now a historical museum, the Grand Traverse Lighthouse has been restored by volunteers — many of whom donated items that had once belonged to family members who lived and worked at the lighthouse. The tiny, 1870 lighthouse at Old Mission Point guards a wide and rocky shoal in the middle of Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay.
The Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, a nonprofit organization that helps protect area lighthouses, offers similar programs in the straits of Mackinac, including at the St. Helena Island light station and the Cheboygan River Front Range light. Call 231-436-5580 or visit gllka.com.
If you’d rather not work, but instead play — and stay — in a lighthouse, there’s Big Bay Point Lighthouse in the Upper Peninsula (bigbaylighthouse.com). Visitors can actually stay overnight in the seven-guestroom lighthouse/bed-and-breakfast and bask in the intrigue of maritime history.