Last Updated on July 30, 2020 by Janet Frost
Lighthouses hold a special place in my heart. My father was a lighthouse hunter and collector. By that I mean that he collected the life-like miniature figurines. But he also hunted the experiences of visiting each lighthouse. Any time he was near a big body of water he sought out the local lighthouse. There are a wide variety of lighthouses around the world and he “collected” hundreds of them. When my father passed away I inherited a portion of his Lake Michigan lighthouses collection.
Let’s Go Learn Things about Lake Michigan lighthouses
As you travel around the Great Lakes you will discover many different light structures. Some are bold red towers perched on the end of a pier, or a simple light standing strong on the crashing breakwater. Some lights are the traditional keeper’s house with an attached tower. Many of the lights guard the harbor entrances, while others cling to rocky cliffs and yet others serve as trustworthy sentinels on lonely islands.
Hunting lighthouses is actually a very popular activity among travelers. The United States Lighthouse Society Passport Program is a fun and educational way to learn about lighthouses and chronicle your lighthouse adventures. Collect unique stamps from over 600 locations throughout the country. Visit uslhs.org to learn more.
The Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers maintain a list of all the Great Lakes lighthouses. According to their numbers, Lake Michigan has 102 lighthouses along the shores of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. I will focus on the Lake Michigan lighthouses because that is where I live.
Lake Michigan lighthouses Circle Tour
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour offers a popular road trip for motorcyclists, leaf peepers and lighthouse collectors. This great site features the towns, parks and nearby attractions along the route. It also organizes details about shopping, camping, fishing and lighthouses hunting.
Unfortunately, I am not quite as thorough a lighthouse hunter as my father. Therefore, I have not visited or photographed every lighthouse along the Lake Michigan coastline. I like to add a lighthouse to the overall exploration of a region. I don’t actually go through every museum available either. If you follow me closely you will know that means I frequently trade out a lighthouse hunt for a craft beer chaser.
Below is my collection of lighthouse visits and images. They are arranged from south to north along the Wisconsin and Michigan shorelines.
Kenosha, like several of the towns along Lake Michigan showcase an historic lighthouse along with the modern day pierhead light. This is due in part, to the process of erosion along the shores, bluffs and dunes of Lake Michigan. Also in part to modern, more sturdy building materials and the elimination of live-in lightkeepers. So the picturesque stone or brick dwellings with a tower attached have often been moved and restored as museums. Long concrete piers and breakwaters sport steel tower replacements.
Southport Lighthouse is constructed of Milwaukee Cream City brick. The lighthouse tower and keepers quarters were built on a knoll overlooking the Kenosha harbor, on Simmons Island. The height of the light with the tower and the hill is 74 feet above the lake level. From 2001 until 2010 restoration took place on the structures and in 2010 the Southport Light Station Museum was opened.
In addition to the Southport historical buildings, the Kenosha pierhead light and breakwater light guard over the modern day Kenosha harbor. This 37 foot tall red skeletal steel tower is actually similar in design to the one on the Muskegon south breakwater.
As we progress to the north Racine has a reef light, pierhead light and breakwater light signalling their harbor entrance. They also have the historic Wind Point lighthouse that is open for visitors during the summer.
Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin and a very active port also has a pierhead light, a breakwater light and the historic North Point lighthouse. North Point lighthouse has had a serious struggle with erosion and buildup of the city over the centuries. The lightkeepers structure and the tower have been moved up the bluff and inland several times. Today it is ensconced in Lake Park and with its tower of 74 ft and the bluff height, it is 154 feet above the lake level. Lake Park is quite a gem along this bluff, the lighthouse is a museum and special events venue. Want your wedding in a lighthouse…?
There are a several lights and one lighthouse between Milwaukee and Algoma, but we are going to skip up to Kewaunee and Algoma.
Kewaunee, Wisconsin held high hopes to compete with Chicago as a shipping port. They took on many harbor improvements including a Range Light out on the pier. As fate would have it, Manitowoc to the south won the railroad line and left Kewaunee in the woods. This lighthouse is an interesting style and the drone shots give quite an unusual perspective.
Algoma has always been a fishing harbor. Their pierhead light is a cast iron cylindrical tower standing at 42 feet.
Door County Peninsula
After Algoma the “thumb” of Wisconsin starts to jut up into the Green Bay. Sturgeon Bay at the base serves as a channel from Lake Michigan into the Bay. There are several industrial style signal lights along here. The truly picturesque lighthouses and settings are further along the Door County Peninsula. Door County is a haven for leaf peepers and romantic getaways.
Cana Island is an 8.7-acre island that faces the brunt of the wild and wooly Lake Michigan on the east shore of Door County Peninsula. The only access to the island is wading across a rocky causeway. Even during the summer this is a chilly adventure. In recent years a local farmer has provided hayrack rides across the water. The only thing on the island is the lighthouse. It is open as a museum and its 89-foot-tall light tower provides amazing views.
Fish Creek is packed with quaint shops, B&Bs, dining and watersports. Just to the north of town is Peninsula State Park. The park is beautiful year round with forested bluffs overlooking Green Bay. Perched on a bluff 76 feet above Green Bay sits Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. Eagle Bluff lighthouse was built in 1868 in the “Norman Gothic” architecture style. There are several sister lighthouses built in this same design around Lake Michigan. The lighthouse is open for tours during the summer season.
Upper Peninsula of Michigan
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a unique area. It is physically attached to Wisconsin, but belongs to Michigan. Like Northern Michigan, it has a strong hold on its French Canadian heritage. The region is strewn with islands, harbors and rough waters that require navigational lights and lighthouses. Many of these require a ferry or boat to observe. The infamous Mackinac Straits connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. There is much to explore up here and a spectacular part of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour.
For this article we are starting in the south again and proceeding north along Western Michigan. Let’s skip up to Grand Haven, Michigan.
Many lighthouses on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan guard the point at which a man-made channel has been created between a landlocked lake and Lake Michigan itself. Therefore the towns along this shoreline have grown around the protective harbors. They are quintessential beach towns with soft sand beaches, dunes, water sports and shopping.
Grand Haven had a lighthouse on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, but the sand dunes perpetually eroded the foundation. Eventually the light was moved out to the Pierhead and the lightkeepers dwelling forgotten.
Muskegon was a vital component in the lumbar industry of 19th century Michigan. The Muskegon River runs from the heart of the Michigan forest 150 miles to Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan. The US Coast Guard abandoned their 1905 US Life-Saving Station in 1990 when the Coast Guard built a new facility and turned over the old building to NOAA. Today there is a pair of pierhead lights directing boats to safe harbor. The building on shore was a US Coast Guard Life-Saving Station until 1990. Today it houses the Great Lakes Research Lab run by NOAA.
Whitehall is a short and scenic drive from Muskegon. The homey town sits on the shores of White Lake and the White River light station protects the channel out to Lake Michigan. We saw this“Norman Gothic” design at the Eagle Bluff lighthouse over in Door County Wisconsin. A museum is open during the summer and maintained by the Sable Point Light Keepers Association. An additional pierhead stands out on the breakwater.
Frankfort has grown up around the safe harbor provided by Betsie Lake, and the Lake Michigan shoreline. Incredible sand beaches stretch North and South. The town has done a wonderful job of installing boardwalks along the beaches, one of which leads down to the pier. Stately Victorian summer homes line the boardwalk. Follow M22 Scenic Drive into the town of Frankfort. Take the short walk across the sandy beach to the pier and enjoy the 72 feet pierhead tower at sunset.
A little further along M22 Scenic Drive you find Point Betsie Lighthouse. This iconic lighthouse was built with Cream City Brick and its spot on the dunes puts the lighthouse at 52 feet above lake level. Museum and gift shop hours only during the summer months.
12 down just 90 to go…
I have only highlighted 12 of the 102 Lake Michigan lighthouses. We didn’t touch the states of Illinois, Indiana or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (it seems like a state to itself). Visiting Great Lakes lighthouses could be a lifetime endeavor. As I stated before, I like to add them as part of my itinerary. However they can be the entire itinerary. My father and thousands of others have discovered the history, architecture, geography and scenery that lighthouse hunting entails.