For the love of lighthouses

The Grand Island North Lighthouse is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

Lighthouses, once just practical structures to facilitate safe maritime transportation, have deep appeal to some people today.

Where others may consider them isolated work outposts, the people that love lighthouses see them as places of sanctuary and escape from the ordinary world.

To be alone, surrounded by waves and wind and seagulls, to maintain a vigilant beacon helping ships silently passing by, is a rare but powerful calling few can pursue but many can imagine.

Loren and Patricia Graham made that life their reality. Come meet them. This is an opportunity to see the North Light at Grand Island with the people who restored it.

With changes in navigational technology, lighthouses are redundant; no more lighthouses will be built. But many lighthouses that do exist are still used for their original function, quietly representing an earlier time in America’s maritime history, beacons of a broad-shouldered past we must always remember. Before highways, freight moved by water. Lighthouses protected the ship and workers moving that freight.

There are approximately one thousand lighthouses of various sorts left in America. More than one hundred, about 10 percent of the national total, are in Michigan, protecting over 3,200 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. Over forty lighthouses are in the Upper Peninsula today.

The Upper Peninsula’s lighthouses each command fascinating, idiosyncratic histories. They are different in so many ways, architecturally unique creations united only in purpose.

Some are situated in impossibly beautiful settings. Many have deteriorated. All have rich histories and deserve serious scholarly attention by researchers.

On a lofty cliff overlooking Superior, the North Light on Grand Island was historically the highest lighthouse in America. Built to provide a safety beacon for ships passing through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie that opened in 1855, the North Light is still in use, the beacon maintained annually by the Coast Guard.

A historical mystery surrounds the North Light. In 1908, its lighthouse keeper and his assistant went missing, their bodies later recovered. Why these government employees lost their lives is not wholly understood, but many suspect they were victims of murder.

William Mather, working for Cleveland Cliffs, established a menagerie of exotic animals after taking control of the Grand Island project in 1900. Some people speculate that the lighthouse keeper or his assistant may have killed exotic animals that wandered onto lighthouse grounds and were murdered in retaliation.

Others believe they were robbed and killed for their pay. The official cause of death, exhaustion from exposure, however, indicates that they may have died accidentally. The mystery endures.

The Grahams, professors by trade, have fixed up the North Light since the early 1970s. Loren Graham wrote “Face in the Rock” and “Death at the Lighthouse.” We’ll have signed copies when we visit.

Lovers of lighthouses and Grand Island historians should mark their calendars for Aug. 12. The tour the Grahams will give of the North Light will be something you’ll never forget.

Tickets for this expedition are $125, including ferry transportation to Grand Island and bus to the North Light. Some hiking will be required. Stop by the MRHC at 145 W. Spring St., or call 906-226-3571.

Very few tickets remain.