On to the Tip of the Thumb
After a wet and dreary morning of exploring the outback of Michigan’s Thumb area (see the 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 to the east and Saginaw Bay to the west. The desired location for the building was on the point that bears its name at the tip of the Thumb. But practicality prevailed and instead, it was eventually sited 4.5 miles to the east overlooking Lake Huron.
Before the lighthouse’s construction, ships had to navigate unaided from Fort Gratiot at the southern end of the lake, to Thunder Bay 150 miles to the north. The lakes can be very dangerous, with hurricane force winds sweeping across them in the winter months and unpredictable thunderstorms in the summer.
The lighthouse was built to warn ship of a dangerous rocky reef, covered by a mere two feet of water, that juts out from the point almost two miles into the lake. This makes the name of the point, which translates to “Point of Little Boats”, make a little more sense because larger ships would be smashed on the rocks. In addition to marking the reef, the lighthouse also acts as a turning point for ships heading into Saginaw Bay, an important mid-Michigan agricultural port.
The original light was built in 1848 with low-quality materials and only lasted for about 10 years before it has to be replaced with a new structure. The current lighthouse, rebuilt with better materials in 1857, has a conical white brick tower that is 89-feet tall and stands to this day.
Beyond it’s importance to shipping on the Great Lake, the light station also has historic significance in that it was the first lighthouse in Michigan to be run by a woman. Catharine Shook was in charge of keeping the light from 1849 to 1851 after her husband, the original lighthouse keeper, drown 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 steps to the top of the 89 foot (27 m) tower and look out on the waters of Lake Huron. From the top, it’s easy to imagine the storms that rolled through here and the ferocity of the weather. For someone who’s never seen them, the Great Lakes are huge and from the top of the tower, there’s no land to be seen to from the northwest to the southeast.
The original oil light was installed with a 1,400-pound fresnel lens which produced a then-impressive 16,000 candlepower light that could be seen 16 miles offshore. The light was upgraded many times over the years until the current light was installed in the 1950’s. That light produces an awesome 1,000,000 candlepower that extended the light’s range to 26 miles.
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
The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse is one of the few lighthouses that is still in operation today on the Great Lakes. Even though the lighthouse is operated by the Coast Guard, the surrounding buildings are open to the public and tours are available from May to September.
It’s 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 should not miss.
If you want to see some more images from the lighthouse trip or get one for your wall, you can take a look at my gallery