Growing up in the desert, I didn’t pay much attention to lighthouses. I’d only seen them in pictures and assumed they existed solely to guide ocean-going ships. Sure, I remember studying the growth of industry in the United States, but it never occurred to me that any major shipping on inland waters took place outside of this thing called the Erie Canal or up and down the Mississippi on paddlewheel boats that made me think of Mark Twain and the freshman English teacher who forced me to read Huckleberry Finn.
Fast forward several years to my move to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I quickly learned that three things built this place: iron, copper, and wood. In its heyday, mining and logging drove the economy of this fascinating region. Of course, any raw materials require processing before they become useful. This means wood had to get to sawmills and from there to purchasers, and ores had to get to smelting facilities, many of which were located in an area that stretched from Chicago down into Indiana. The easiest route? Via the Great Lakes.
Now, that’s not to say there wasn’t already plenty of shipping going on in the region, but the availability of raw materials along the Great Lakes meant that things picked up quite a bit as the US slowly grew into a modern nation. Naturally, you need additional assistance with navigation when you’re carrying large and potentially lucrative cargoes, and you definitely want to avoid hazards. Voila lighthouses.
I see Sand Point lighthouse on a regular basis as a I stroll along the shores of Little Bay de Noc in Escanaba where I still pick up a nice piece of slag rock from time to time. It was built in 1867 and helped guide ships into docks where they picked up ore and lumber. Like many harbors along the Great Lakes, Escanaba has a deep shipping channel. Very deep, actually, formed by an ancient river. But the harbor also has a sand reef ships need to avoid. The lighthouse served that purpose until ship traffic, dredging, etc. shifted things around in the harbor, leading to the installation of a crib light farther out in the bay and the eventual decommissioning of the lighthouse itself.
Even while still fully functioning, Sand Point lighthouse underwent several renovations. For a while after its decommissioning, it continued to house the officer in charge of the area station. These days, the lighthouse is a white, brick building with a light that still glows red at night and serves as a kind of museum open for tours during part of the year. The lighthouse is especially noteworthy for having employed one of the first female lighthouse keepers, Mary Terry. Her husband was supposed to serve as keeper, but he died before the lighthouse was finished. His wife was then appointed in his place. Unfortunately, she perished in a fire at the lighthouse in 1886.
Here’s another bit of lore I didn’t know about until I moved here. The Great Lakes had pirates. Among these was Dan Seavey, who relocated to Escanaba after a failed venture as a gold miner and carried out his illicit business in a boat called the Wanderer. He was quite the character, supposedly involved in poaching, pirating lumber, transporting prostitutes, and perhaps even smuggling alcohol during Prohibition. He once sunk a competitor’s boat with a cannon shot, killing everyone on board, then stole a schooner full of lumber, sailed it to Chicago, and sold the cargo. In an odd twist of fate, his last stint before retirement was with the U.S. Marshals Service.
There’s still plenty of shipping on the Great Lakes. We still see the occasional large ship come into Escanaba, too, but not often. (For some reason, there’s a naval littoral combat ship parked here right now.) But most traffic consists of pleasure craft. During summer, sailboats ply the waters and anglers zip around in search of the walleye that inhabit the bay in good number. As for me, I think an old, restored lighthouse adds a certain charm, a beautiful reminder of bygone days when the United States was in a phase of massive growth and required the use of every resource at hand.
Location: Sand Point Lighthouse, Escanaba