Digest>Archives> March 2003

Active Volunteer Group Spearheads Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum

By Jim Merkel

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Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
Photo by: Donald L. Kingsbury

Spread throughout America, members of about 60 different families have wide differences, but a common link. All are related to someone who lived and worked at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, at the entrance to Grand Traverse Bay on the east side of Lake Michigan.

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The gardens at the lighthouse were built by the ...
Photo by: Jim Merkel

The families were well represented among about 2,000 people at the Sesquicentennial Celebration of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum on July 20, 2002. Storytellers and singers, a new exhibit in the old fog signal building and music from an 1899 pump organ returned visitors to the days when captains and sailors on stormy nights on Lake Michigan prayed to see the beacon at the far north end of the Leelanau Peninsula.

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One of the displays inside the lighthouse.
Photo by: Jim Merkel

Although there isn’t quite as much to do other days at the lighthouse, there is enough to cause about 150,000 people each year to make the jaunt to the museum in the buildings of the old Grand Traverse Light Station. About 25,000 each year pay admission to the museum daily from May through October and weekends in November. Nine miles north of the town of Northport, inside the Leelanau State Park, they find one of a handful of easily-accessible lighthouses on the east side of Lake Michigan that a visitor can tour and climb all the way to the top.

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The modern optic.
Photo by: Jim Merkel

Awaiting visitors are brightly-painted buildings and a yard graced with ornate old stone planters replete with gardens, along with stone steps and a stone bird feeder built by keepers in the 1920s and 1930s.

The gift shop bustles and guides lead visitors through a museum arranged as a keeper’s family would furnish it in the 1920s and 1930s. Before climbing the tower, lighthouse enthusiasts view a living room, bedrooms, a kitchen complete with a wood stove, displays on lighthouse life and a fourth order Fresnel lens.

“It’s like you’re walking in someone’s house 70 or 80 years ago,” said Stefanie Staley, museum curator. “That gives you a sense of a whole new world, a sense of not a museum, it’s somebody’s home.”

Could there have been a moment when the Grand Traverse Lighthouse was in danger of destruction? Alas, there was. From the time the Coast Guard left the station in 1972 until the mid-1980s, the structure was empty. Then local preservationists decided they didn’t want to lose a local treasure. They started to restore the building and site, formed the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Foundation in 1986 and reopened the lighthouse in 1987. After numerous other improvements, the organization goes by the name of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum.

“One of the unique aspects of this group was that it had children of lighthouse keepers,” Staley said. “They had firsthand accounts of what the lighthouse looked like during that time period and what items were where and where everything’s located. By taking those oral histories and those memories, they created this museum.”

A mainstay for the organization is its caretaker, David Douglas McCormick, known by all as “Doug.” When a school group comes by, McCormick will be up in the tower, explaining the workings of the light. He should know. His father, James McCormick, was keeper at Grand Traverse from 1922 to 1938. After a career in the Coast Guard and as a ferry boat captain, Doug McCormick returned to the area and was asked to be the fledgling museum’s live-in caretaker.

Living at Grand Traverse brought back memories. “You just had to have things up to snuff just so when there was an inspector coming. Usually the inspector wore some white gloves and he would go above the doors and the windows and all that stuff,” McCormick said. “The light was really polished and the fog signal you could have on standby. That was always ready to go.”

McCormick’s father paid the same heed to shipwrecks that Keeper David Moon did when he first shone a light at Grand Traverse in 1852. The danger was well known for those headed into the Manitou Passage, Straits of Mackinac and Grand Traverse Bay. Five miles southwest of the future location for the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, the schooner Tribune sunk in Cathead Bay in April 1848, on the way from Chicago to Oswego, N.Y. with a shipment of wheat.

Two years later, Congress appropriated $4,000 for a light station to be built at the entrance of Grand Traverse Bay. When Moon first arrived for duty, he found a single-floor dwelling and a separate 30-foot circular tower with six oil lamps and six 14-inch silver reflectors. The light was seen in ships headed north and south, but not those going east and west. In 1857, work started on a new and bigger light visible to all. The next year, the two-story brick lighthouse seen by visitors to Grand Travers went into service.

“Half or three quarters of an hour after lighting, I go into the tower and closely inspect the light to see that we have a maximum flame without any smoke,” Keeper Dr. Henry R. Shetterly wrote in 1868. “At midnight I trim the wick whatever its condition may be, staying eight or ten minutes in the lantern to see that the light is at a maximum.”

Two years after Shetterly wrote those words, a fourth order Fresnel lens replaced a smaller fifth order Fresnel lens. Forty-seven feet about the lake’s level, the light was visible to travelers on ships 12 to 17 miles out.

The installation of a fog whistle in 1899 was the first of a series of changes made over the next century. With that feature, one keeper was no longer enough. The house was split into two apartments, one for the keeper and the other for the new assistant. In the 1930s, an air diaphone fog horn went into service, powered by a gasoline-powered air compressor. The Coast Guard took over the station in 1941, electrified it in 1953, installed a new fog signal in the mid-1960s and pulled out in 1972.

Doubtless, the automated beacon on a steel structure the Guard left behind does the job better. But in the heart of summertime workers like Sue Lee, the preferred means of illumination may always be the old lighthouse. “I’m helping keep history alive by being in here, by helping to educate people about the lights and how important they were and how important they are to keep them going, to keep them preserved,” she said, at the counter of the gift shop. “It’s a way of life that doesn’t exist any more.”

This story appeared in the March 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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