Digest>Archives> July 1997

Big Sable, The Queen of the Lake

By Timothy Harrison

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Big Sable Point Light during modern day ...

Soaring up 112 feet, standing tall and proud, Big Sable lighthouse commands everything in site from its throne on the shores of Michigan's Ludington State Park.

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It looks pretty cold and desolate in this winter ...
Photo by: John Peters


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Big Sable Light from an antique post card when ...

This beautiful beacon has been guiding safe passage for ships for more than a century.

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Burr Cassell, 1867, the first Keeper of Big Sable ...
Photo by: Courtesy of Big Sable Point Keepers Assoc


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View from the tower of Big Sable Light showing ...
Photo by: Kathleen Finnegan

When it was first built back in 1867, this was an isolated beach front point amid 900 acres of forest and low rolling dunes that is now part of the ever popular Ludington State Park.

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Big Sable Light in 1900 when the steel plates ...


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Dave Sauers in the middle was a keeper at ...

The tower was built of soft yellow brick which created a flaking problem. In 1900 the tower was covered with steel plates to preserve the tower. The light was at first fueled with lard oil and later kerosene. Like other lights on the Great Lakes it was only in operation during the shipping season from April to November. It was the only light on the Great Lakes with a directional fixed white light.

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Big Sable Light, Michigan.
Photo by: Timothy Harrison

The beautiful keepers house housed the families of three keepers at the same time.

Big Sable Light like so many other lighthouses around the country has always had a problem with erosion. In 1943 the Coast Guard had a seawall built to protect the tower. Without it the tower would have been lost long ago. A winter storm in 1977 brought the water within four feet of the tower. A spring storm in 1987 eroded the dunes behind the seawall. When I visited there last year there were puddles of water within a few feet of the tower.

The light station was the last of the Great Lakes Lighthouse to get electricity and the last to get indoor plumbing which came in the late 1940's.

Like all other American stations, the light was eventually automated and closed in 1968. No more were the sounds of family life heard here, the joyous laughter of children playing in the water and running on the dunes, or holiday music from around the tree at Christmas time. The beautiful Queen of the Lake fell silent.

That's when the vandals took over. What possesses people to destroy historic property is beyond the comprehension of most of us. But that's what they did to Big Sable. The valuable Fresnel lens was severely damaged, all the windows were broken, and architectural details were ripped from the house and tower. What was once a beautifully maintained station was, literally, in ruins.

Big Sable was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and some protection came in 1986 when the Foundation for Behavioral Research was granted a 25 year lease on the station. In 1987, the Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association was formed to work as an ally of the Foundation for Behavioral Research to restore the station. And restore the station they did. The only way to truly appreciate how much work this group has done is to visit the lighthouse and page through their albums of photos to see the before and after. Ed Halin, who used to be a one of the keepers at the station, returned to help with the restoration. What a difference, what a great group of volunteers.

While visiting there last year I had the opportunity to meet Dick Smith who has been associated with the Keepers Association since its inception. Smith recalled the impression the lighthouse made on him as a child and why he is so driven to maintain this station. "My fifth grade teacher took me out there in 1947, when the lighthouse was still manned, I never forgot it."

Jerry and Pat Biggs, dedicated lighthouse preservationists, were among the first modern day resident caretakers to live at the light. On their first or second week at the station, Jerry recalled the storm that swept across the lake. Jerry said they shut the TV off and watched the ever changing colors of lightning across the lake. Jerry recalled one school tour when a little girl asked him where the prisoners were kept. At first he didn't understand why she had asked such a question until he recalled he had mentioned the lens is a prism.

Big Sable Lighthouse now has resident Keepers and the positions are open to anyone that qualifies. However, you must first realize that while lighthouse living looks like a lot of fun, it is also a lot of work. Resident keepers must be in good health, and able to maintain a rigorous schedule. Duties include giving tower tours, managing the on site gift shop, and keeping the grounds cleaned daily. Money? There is no pay, only the thrill of living at the lighthouse and meeting all the neat people from all over the world that stop by to visit. Today's keeper must provide his or her own food, linens and transportation. But, if you are a lighthouse lover, it is well worth it.

If you are interested in being a caretaker at Big Sable, finding out when their tours are, or joining the group (membership is $15.00 individual, $25.00 family) which we recommend that you do you can contact them at: Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association, P.O. Box 673, Ludington, MI 49431.

This story appeared in the July 1997 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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