Point Betsie is the northernmost of Michigan’s three major points along Lake Michigan. It is also the entrance to the Manitou Passage, a narrow strip of treacherous water between North and South Manitou Islands and the mainland shore. Thus, building a lighthouse on Point Betsie was critical to ensuring the safety of mariners in the 1800s.
The lighthouse opened in 1858, and still stands today, making it one of the oldest continually serving lighthouses in Michigan. Point Betsie Lighthouse is unique among area lighthouses because it has an attached residence and a separate life-saving station next door. The life-saving station was built in 1876, replaced in 1917, and closed in 1937. It is now painted bright red and is as attratcive of a structure as the lighthouse itself.
The shoreline around the lighthouse consists of unspoiled sand and dunes. The lighthouse and shoreline are easily accessible via a parking lot. The lighthouse is visible and accessible from 360 degrees. These traits make Point Betsie one of the most visited and photographed lighthouses in the United States. The lighthouse features a cylindrical tower connected to the keeper’s quarters. The roof is painted red, trim, soffits, and gutters painted green, and walls painted birhgt white. The tower is thirty-seven feet high. Since the lighthouse is built atop an elevated concrete foundation, the light sits fifty-seven feet above the lake. The exterior consists of painted brick.
While many other lighthouses of the era were made of wood and burned and deteriorated as a result, Point Betsie’s brick structure has withstood the test of time. From a political standpoint, however, it is somewhat surprising that the original structure has endured. In 1880, the Lighthouse Board reported that the original work on the structure was “miserably done” and that the light itself “has never given satisfaction.” The board recommended an appropriation of $40,000 to build a new 100 foot tower, persistently repeated the request for many years. After numerous rejections, the board relented, choosing instead to build a fog station and improve the lighthouse’s lens and foundation.
Point Betsie stands out historically because it was not automated until 1983. It was the last lighthouse on the Great Lakes to rely on a lighthouse keeper. Coast Guard staff lived in the quarters following automation until 1996, when the heating system failed.
In 2004, Benzie County acquired the lighthouse and immediately leased it to the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse. This conservancy has done an outstanding job renovating he structure and restoring it to its original color scheme.