My front yard is covered in snow, but I’m daydreaming about summer trips to the Upper Peninsula today…
A man stands at the window trying to read the darkness. It shouldn’t be dark. It’s morning, an hour past sunrise, yet the sky is heavy gray and clouds dip and turn and roll onto themselves, caught up in winds merciless enough to shake the tower of the lighthouse in which he stands. It’s been like this all night, and he hasn’t slept. Instead, he’s peered out into the nothingness of night, not knowing but guessing the numbers of lives lost in the storm. He can’t save them. They’re too far out in Lake Michigan, and the waves are more churlish than charitable. He keeps watch, though, staring into the storm and keeping the flame lit, signaling the way home to any who survive.
One of my family’s favorite lighthouses to visit is the Little Sable Point Lighthouse in Silver Lake, Michigan. Silver Lake State Park and the surrounding area is a summer destination for many who enjoy the opportunity to camp, swim, fish, and ride the dunes. However, my family likes the area best outside of the busy season. We wait until fall when the leaves are changing colors or we visit in early spring when the sun warms the sand enough to melt the snow. It’s at these times when I find myself daydreaming about what life must have been like when the lighthouse was in service.
From the early discussions of the need for another light along the Lake Michigan shoreline (Point Betsie and Big Sable Point having been recently constructed in 1858 and 1867 respectively) to the Michigan Department of National Resources’ lease of the lighthouse to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association in 2005, Little Sable Point Lighthouse has had many historical highlights:
- 1871: The schooner Pride grounded on Little Sable Point, increasing calls for a lighthouse.
- 1872: O M Poe, the Major of Engineers of the Eleventh Lighthouse District, wrote to the Lighthouse Board to request land for a lighthouse.
- June 10, 1872: The US Congress appropriated $35,000 for the Petite Pointe Au Sable Lighthouse.
- July 1872: Forty acres of what was public land was set aside by President Ulysses S. Grant, but construction was delayed because there were no roads to the area.
- April 1873: Work on the lighthouse began with the construction of a dock to offload materials.
- 1874: James Davenport became the first head keeper at Little Sable Point Lighthouse upon the lighting of the third-order Fresnel lens atop the roughly 100-foot tower.
- 1899-1922: Joseph Arthur Hunter served as head keeper, longer than any other keeper.
- September 24, 1900: After receiving complaints that the brick tower was hard to see in daylight, the lighthouse was painted white.
- 1910: Originally named “Petite Pointe Au Sable Lighthouse,” the lighthouse was renamed the Little Sable Lighthouse.
November 11, 1940: William Krumwell served as keeper in November 1940, when the Armistice Day Storm struck the area.
- 1953: Little Sable Lighthouse was electrified and automated.
- 1954: Henry “Hank” Vavrina, the last keeper, was transferred to Big Sable Lighthouse.
- 1958: The brick dwelling and outbuildings were determined to be no longer needed and were torn down.
- 1974: The lighthouse was sandblasted in 1974 to cut the cost of annual painting.
- 2005: The Michigan Department of Natural Resources leased the lighthouse to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association (later renamed the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association).
- 2010: Paid for by a Federal Coastal Zone Management grant, the Pathways to Illumination project was completed, providing visitors with a paved pathway to visit the lighthouse.
As a writer and researcher, I love when history comes to life. One of the people I think about when visiting the Little Sable Point Light is its last keeper, Henry “Hank” Vavrina, who raised two daughters on the lighthouse property after his wife’s death (he later remarried, and his wife and stepsons also lived at the lighthouse). Vavrina saw the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard when 30-foot waves resulted in the loss of 66 lives on three freighters, the SS William B. Davock, the SS Anna C. Minch, and the SS Novadoc , along with two smaller vessels. I can only imagine what it would have been like to look out from the lighthouse at those raging waters, knowing very little could be done to help those on the lake except for keeping the light burning.
Visiting the Light
The Little Sable Point Lighthouse is located on Lake Michigan near Silver Lake, between Ludington and Muskegon (Latitude: 43.65156 and Longitude: -86.53934). The lighthouse is open to the public throughout the summer, and for a modest fee, visitors can even climb the tower for a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. For more information, contact the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association:
P.O. Box 673, Ludington, Michigan, 49431
References and Resources
http://www.splka.org/interviews/Jerry Harkenrider – Final Copy Sept 2015.pdf
Today is a special day in my household. Today’s date, November 10, has been marked on the calendar with big red letters reading “FITZ.” We started the morning by listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and my seven- and five-year-old sons are eager to get home from school this evening so they can put on the Edmund Fitzgerald play they created. At some point today, we’ll read through the countless articles written about the Fitz (especially the great series from the Toledo Blade) and watch the video footage we’ve all seen many times before.
For those who aren’t aware, today marks the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald, November 10, 1975, a tragedy in Michigan history. Around the state and throughout the Great Lakes region, commemorations are being held to honor the 29 sailors who disappeared into Lake Superior. At the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point tonight at 7,
they’ll ring the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald 30 times, once for every man killed when the great ship went down and once more for all sailors lost at sea.
My family wasn’t personally touched by the tragedy. We lost no relatives the night the Fitz disappeared beneath the waves. However, we spend our summers along Lake Superior, in particular, along a section known as Michigan’s shipwreck coast. My sons have grown up not just hearing about the great ships traveling the Great Lakes, but they’ve seen them with their own eyes. They’ve walked along the beach and touched the bones of old ships washed onto the shore. They’ve been to the museum at Whitefish Point and studied the bell retrieved in 1995 from the Fitz. My seven-year-old son has studied the museum displays and read so many books he even argues with others about his theories about what caused the Fitz to sink.
Speaking of my seven-year-old, this year, when we asked him what he wanted to be for Halloween, he took no time answering. He wanted to be the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald. I shouldn’t have been surprised because he has a fascination with Great Lakes shipwrecks like the L.R. Doty, the Iosco, the Olive Jeanette, and others. It’s the loss of the Fitz, however, that has made history come alive for him in a way no textbook ever could.
Tonight, when we finish watching the play the boys have created, we’ll sit in front of the computer at 7 pm and watch the live stream of the Shipwreck Museum’s Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial on Fox32. We’ll mourn those lost on the Great Lakes, and we’ll ensure they will be remembered by a new generation.