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Historic lighthouse awarded $60K preservation grant

St. Helena Island Light Station just west of the Mackinac Bridge is shown. It will receive repairs and restoration from the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association with the help of a $60,000 Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program grant from the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office. (Photo courtesy of Frances Czapski via Michigan Economic Development Corporation)

ST. IGNACE — The historic St. Helena Island Light Station in Northern Michigan, just west of the Mackinac Bridge, will receive repairs and restoration from the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association with the help of a $60,000 Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program grant from the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation announced.

“The lighthouses that dot Michigan’s vast coastlines and stand tall offshore are vulnerable to the elements and require upkeep,” Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Martha MacFarlane-Faes said in a press release. “SHPO’s lighthouse preservation grants help lighthouse stewards protect and preserve these beacons for all of us.”

With the 2020 Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program grant, the GLLKA will hire contractors to remove all existing paint from the lighthouse tower, replace deteriorated mortar and brick, clean all masonry and stone surfaces, replace sealant around openings, rehabilitate the lantern to be watertight, and repaint the entire tower.

“On behalf of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, we express our gratitude to the State Historic Preservation Office for the $60,000 grant for the St. Helena Light Station Light Tower – Masonry Rehabilitation Project,” Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association Co-President Mark Siegman said in the release. “The ‘Miracle in the Straits of Mackinac’ has stood for 147 years and with the investment of the grant funds, the tower will stand proudly shining its beacon for many years to come.”

Boarded up and abandoned since 1922, the St. Helena Island Light Station began undergoing extensive restoration in 1986 when the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association obtained a license from the U.S. Coast Guard to restore the light station. With the help of a group of volunteers, work began on clearing years of accumulated debris and brush and securing the station for eventual restoration.

The lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, and two years later the boys and parents of Boy Scout Troop 4 of Ann Arbor began what would become an annual pilgrimage to St. Helena to assist with the restoration. After hearing of the group’s success, numerous other youth groups, church groups, and Girl Scouts began to assist with the restoration.

Today, St. Helena has largely been restored to its turn of the 20th-century appearance, but maintenance work is ongoing, due to age and exposure to the elements.

Accessible by boat, the lighthouse offers tours, education workshops, events, and group activities, and also participates in the Volunteer Assistant Keepers program.

Funding for this program comes from the sale of specialty Save Our Lights license plates available at all Secretary of State branch offices. To date, SHPO has awarded more than $2.5 million in matching funds to help rehabilitate and preserve lighthouses for tourists and residents alike to explore and appreciate.

“Because of the generosity of people who pay a little extra for a lighthouse license plate, we are able to award grants that help preserve these iconic Michigan structures for the long term,” MacFarlane-Faes said in the release.

With more than 120 lighthouses standing sentinel along Michigan’s 3,200 miles of shoreline, Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state in the country. The Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program grants are intended to preserve and help protect the lighthouses, which in turn helps keep them open and an active part of local economies around the state as tourist destinations.

Many of Michigan’s lighthouses are open for tours, if only seasonally. Others are home to bed and breakfast lodging or museums. Many lighthouse beacons are still active aids to navigation, but the buildings themselves are owned and maintained by a nonprofit organization or local unit of government. A few are privately owned or in remote locations, inviting admiration from afar.

The Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association holds cruises and excursions throughout the Great Lakes, allowing passengers to view lighthouses that would be virtually impossible to see any other way.

Visit michigan.org to learn more about Michigan’s lighthouses and how to experience them.

This announcement comes during National Preservation Month, an annual celebration that recognizes the diverse and unique heritage of our country’s cities and states. Every year in May, local preservation groups, state historical societies, and business and civic organizations across the country celebrate Preservation Month through events and outreach that promote historic places and heritage tourism, and that demonstrate the social and economic benefits of historic preservation.

St. Helena Island is located in upper Lake Michigan just a few miles west of the Mackinac Bridge. For more information about the St. Helena Light or GLLKA, visit www.gllka.com/sthelena.html.

To learn more about the State Historic Preservation Office and the Save Our Lights license plate program, visit https://www.miplace.org/historic-preservation/.

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