A Guide to Michigan’s Lighthouses

Let these historic buildings be your guide to Michigan’s maritime history.
Rock Harbor Light- house was built on Isle Royale in 1855 to light the way for copper explorers and miners boating to and from the island on Lake Superior. // Photograph by Jason O. Watson, Alamy Stock Photo

Did you know Michigan is home to more lighthouses than any other state? They are a beacon into Michigan history — with rich backstories featuring shipwrecks, ghosts, and other lakeside lore. Here are eight Michigan lighthouses worth exploring the next time you’re on the shores of the Great Lakes.

Point Betsie Lighthouse, Frankfort

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a 19th-century lighthouse keeper? Point Betsie offers insight into the solitary, often dangerous job. Walk through the keeper’s 1858 living space, the fog signal building, and the Boathouse Museum, open during select summer and fall months (guided tours are $5). For a more immersive experience, rent the Keeper’s Quarters apartment for an overnight stay.

Beaver Island Harbor Light, Beaver Island (west of Harbor Springs)

In 1856, the Harbor Light was built on Beaver Island at Whiskey Point, named after the area’s leading source of profit. During prohibition, Lake Michigan lightship crews regularly stopped by Whiskey Point to party, which gave the island a bit of a lawless reputation. Today, visitors can learn more about the lighthouse with the Beaver Island Boat Co. on a ferry tour that departs from Charlevoix.

Rock Harbor Lighthouse, Isle Royale

The Rock Harbor Lighthouse was built in 1855 to prepare for the anticipated influx of miners intending to take advantage of Isle Royale’s copper — at the time, exploration and mining were newly permitted under a treaty. Mining on the island saw booms and busts; eventually, the light was extinguished for good in 1879.

Big Bay Point Lighthouse, Big Bay

Established in the 1890s, Big Bay Point Lighthouse is now a bed-and-breakfast. But stay if you dare — you might meet the ghost of William Prior, the first keeper. According to legend, Prior hired his son George to be his assistant. Just over a year later, George fell on the steps of the landing crib and died soon after from his injuries. On June 28, 1901, the heartbroken keeper disappeared without a trace into the nearby woods with his gun and some strychnine. The possibly haunted lighthouse is located on a rocky landscape between Marquette and Portage.

Stannard Rock Lighthouse, Lake Superior (24 miles from shoreline)

Feeling lonesome? At least you don’t have to live here. Stannard Rock Lighthouse, nicknamed “the loneliest place in North America,” holds the national record for lighthouse farthest from the shore. Completed in 1882, it’s located on a hazardous reef that impacted navigation on Lake Superior. The exposed crib of the lighthouse is recognized as a top engineering feat in U.S. history.

Whitefish Point Light, Paradise

Established in 1849, the Whitefish Point Light is the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior. The nearby shoreline is dubbed “Shipwreck Coast” — more than a third of known shipwrecks in Lake Superior are here. The wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald (which inspired Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 chart-topping hit) is 15 miles northwest.

Fort Gratiot Light Station, Port Huron

Built in 1823, the Fort Gratiot Light Station is Michigan’s oldest lighthouse. The original tower collapsed in 1828 due to its location and unstable design. In 1829, a new lighthouse was built by Lucius Lyon, who went on to be one of Michigan’s first senators. The new lighthouse was much more stable, with heightened visibility as ships entered the rapids at the head of the St. Clair River.

Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse, Port Hope

The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse was built in 1848. Twenty-eight years later, the first lifesaving station on the Great Lakes was built nearby. Both were welcome additions — there are 105 known shipwrecks just offshore, and the station staged over 200 rescues in its 62 years of operation.

What Is a Crib Lighthouse?

The Great Lakes are famous for their offshore crib lighthouses. In this context, “crib” means a large wooden frame, constructed onshore. A crew tows it out by boat and fills it with stone so it sinks in place. This creates the foundation for the lighthouse.

This story is from the July 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.