In this second part about exploring the Michigan Thumb, Kara and I traveled to the very tip, to visit a historic lighthouse.
On to the tip of the Thumb
After a wet and dreary morning of exploring the outback of Michigan’s Thumb area (see previous post), we moved north towards the tip of the peninsula for some historic lighthouse architecture. We soon arrived at one of the oldest lighthouses on the Great Lakes and were greeted with bright sunshine and blue skies.
Origin of Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse
Located southeast of Port Austin, Michigan, Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse marks the point between lower Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay. The desired location for the building was on the very tip of the Thumb, the point that bears it’s name. However, due to building issues, the lighthouse was eventually sited 4.5 miles to the east and overlooks Lake Huron.
Before the lighthouse’s construction, ships navigated unaided 150 miles from Fort Gratiot at the southern end of Lake Huron, to Thunder Bay on the north. The Great Lakes are enormous and can be very dangerous. At anytime of the year, hurricane force winds can sweep across the water and there is always the threat of unpredictable thunderstorms. These storms wrecked many a sailing ship, dashing them on the wild shores of the lake.
The lighthouse was built to warn ships of a particularly dangerous reef, covered by a mere two feet of water, that juts out two miles into the lake. This makes the name of the point, that translates to “Point of Little Boats”, make a little more sense as larger ships would be smashed on the rocks. The lighthouse also serves as a turning point for ships heading into Saginaw Bay, an important mid-Michigan agricultural port.
The original light was built in 1848 and used low quality materials. That lighthouse only lasted 10 years before it had to be replaced with a new structure due to the harsh winters and bitter weather. It was rebuilt in 1857 with stronger materials designed to stand up to the storms and weather of the lake. The new light, built as a conical 89 foot tall brick tower, still stands to this day.
Beyond it’s importance to shipping on the Great Lake, the light station also has historic significance. This station is the first lighthouse in Michigan to be operated by a woman, Catharine Shook. She was in charge of keeping the light (and her children) operating from 1849 to 1851 after her husband, the original lighthouse keeper, drowned while traveling for supplies.
On the grounds you can see the light keeper’s house, the oil house and other support buildings that kept the lighthouse in operation far away from civilization.
Climbing the Tower
If you’re up for a climb, you can ascend the 103 spiral steps to the top of the tower. Looking out over the waters of Lake Huron to the horizon it’s easy to imagine the fierce storms that rolled through here and the lives this light has saved.
The original oil light used a 1,400 pound fresnel lens that produced an impressive 16,000 candlepower light. The lens cast it’s light up to 16 miles out into the lake. Since this lighthouse is so key to navigation on the lake, it was upgraded many times over the years. The current light was installed in the 1950’s. It produces an awesome 1,000,000 candlepower pushing the range to 26 miles, well past the horizon.
For those that don’t want to climb all those steps, you can see the original lens on display in the lighthouse museum at the base of the tower. It’s an incredible work of industry. This set of lenses was the height of technology when the tower was built.
This is a very cool place and we had a great time wandering and photographing the grounds. If you’re out exploring the Thumb, it’s a place you shouldn’t miss.
The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse is one of the few lighthouses that is still operating on the Great Lakes. The light is operated by the US Coast Guard and the surrounding buildings are open to the public with tours available from May to September.