Surrounded by Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior, Michigan is aptly nicknamed the “Great Lakes State.” There are 3,288 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes within Michigan’s borders. Only Florida and Alaska have more total shoreline. No state or country has more freshwater shoreline. No state has even half as many lighthouses.
Numbers do not tell the story of the beauty of Michigan’s shoreline or lighthouses, however. Along those 3,288 miles are some of the most rugged, diverse, and beautiful shores in the world, with native forests, spectacular dunes, sugar white sand, and rocky cliffs meeting crystal clear blue waters. These thousands of miles of natural wonders lie between some of the largest cities and ports in the world. Cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo are home to millions of residents. These residential centers, along with port cities like Gary, Saginaw, Toledo, and Erie, support thriving shipping and recreational boating industries, sending thousands of vessels on to the Great Lakes every day. Michigan’s lighthouses stand as architectural wonders along this shoreline, towering over the Great Lakes to welcome and guide passing ships, warn of danger, and lend a unique identity to the shores, harbors, and towns on which they are perched.
In the days before GPS, sonar, and radios, there was nothing to guide boats on Michigan’s Great Lakes except for Michigan’s lighthouses. The lighthouses served three indispensible functions. They assisted in navigation, warned of danger, and provided signals of safe harbor. Lighthouses like those in Saint Joseph, Manistee, and Frankfort were built on piers leading to safe harbors. Lighthouses like those on North and South Manitou Islands were built to steer mariners clear of shallow waters and dangerous sandbars around the islands. All of the lighthouses served boaters in navigation much like roadsigns and mile markers serve drivers today.
Michigan’s lighthouses are, of course, much more significant than mere aids to navigation. Most of Michigan’s lighthouses still stand today, despite the fact that modern technology has rendered them nearly obsolete. This is a testament to the fact that they have historical, architectural, and symbolic significance that transcends their function. From a symbolic standpoint, lighthouses embody contrast between land and shore, danger and safe harbor, and man and nature. From a historical standpoint, Michigan’s lighthouses are an homage to an era when most long travel occurred by boat, and Great Lakes shipping was critical to distribute lumber, food, and other products to the world. From an architecural standpoint, Michigan’s lighthouses stand out for their variety, and as beautiful examples of balance between form and function. Lighthouses like Grand Traverse and Point Betsie feature stately turn-of-the-century lightkeeper’s houses. Those like Little Sable tower above the shore and serve as magnificent shrines to surrounding areas. Others like Holland’s “Big Red” stand out for their bright color. Still others like Ludington Light stand out for their unique shape. For these reasons, lighthouses continue to capture the imagination today.