Sitting on the northern tip of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula is the schoolhouse style Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Its name is somewhat misleading today, as it sits in Leelanau County, its nearest town is Northport, and Grand Traverse County and Traverse City are more than thirty miles away. In the 1700s, however, French explorers recognized that the tip of the peninsula marked a gateway to the long passage to all points along both bays, so they called the area “Grand Traverse,” meaning “long passage” in French. Nonetheless, some locals call the lighthouse by its alternate nicknames of “Northport Lighthouse” or “Cat’s Head Point Light.”
In 1850, congress appropriated $4,000 for construction of a lighthouse on the site. Construction began the following year, and the lighthouse was lit in 1852. The original lighthouse was poorly built, however, and was replaced in 1858 with the present structure.
The lighthouse is schoolhouse style, with quaint keeper’s quarters leading to a square rooftop tower and nonoganl lantern room. Made of cream city brick from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the structure has stood the trest of time. A barn was added in 1891 and fog signal building added in 1899. The lighthouse was electrified in 1950. It was one of the later lighthouses in Michigan to remain staffed with a resident lightkeeper, until the lighthouse was fully automated in 1972. The buildings on the property deteriorated following automation and the departure of the last lightkeeper.
In 1984, the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum was formed with the goal of opening the lighthouse to the public. The building reopened two years later, and the organization has been one of the most successful conservancies in the state ever since. The lighthouse lies within Leelanau State Park and is easily accessible by driving north from M-22 through Northport and along the peninsula to the entrance of the park. Visitors will have to pay an entrance fee, which is well worth it to see this historic gem. The lighthouse itself is impeccably maintained. The interior has been restored to accurately reflect turn-of-the-century furnishings and tools used by the lightkeeper. The exterior of the building is in excellent structural condition and beautifully painted bright white, with a red roof, and green trim. The grounds are nicely maintained and provide access to the rocky shoreline along Lake Michigan, where vistors can hike for miles.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum also offers a unique “Lighthouse Keepers” program. The adjacent assistant keeper’s quarters have been fully renovated. Guests can stay there by the week, and assume some of the same responsibilities assumed by the traditional lightkeepers, as well as greeting guests and working in the gift shop.