Grand Traverse Lighthouse History
The lighthouse at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula has guided ships through the Manitou Passage of Lake Michigan for nearly 150 years.  This lighthouse is one of the oldest on the Great Lakes.  It marks the end of Leelanau Peninsula and the west side of Grand Traverse Bay.

Locally called Cat Head's Light, it was ordered built by President Millard Fillmore in July of 1850.  A brick tower with a separate keeper's quarters was constructed at a site south of Th. present lighthouse in the state park campground.  This house presumably burnt and the tower, threatened by erosion, was torn down.  Still visible is a portion of the foundation.  The door frame on the old Russell house west of the gas station in Northport is from the first lighthouse.

In 1858 the present residence with its roof top tower and cupola sheathed in copper was erected of yellow brick.  In 1901 the house was converted to separate quarters for two families.  A kitchen was added to one of the apartments in 1916.  The present frame back porches were built in 1953 when house and light was electrified.

A fourth order Fresnel Lens, replacing a smaller lens, was installed in the tower in 1870.  At 47 feet above lake level, its magnified light approximated 15,000 candles, and was visible for 12 to 17 miles out on the lake.  Fuel oils and kerosene powered the light until electrification in 1953.  In 1972 the coast Guard replaced the tower light with an automated beacon mounted on a steel skeletal tower.  Orange diamond shaped markers on the steel tower are aids to daytime navigation and are visible six to seven miles out on the lake.  Beginning in 1952 the lighthouse was occupied by Coast Guard personnel until it closed in 1972.

In 1899 a Fog Signal Building was added to the Light Station.  A brick building to house the equipment was constructed at a cost of $2,772.11.  The  10 inch locomotive whistled was operated by steam.  A firebox under the boiler contained pine kindling and a supply of coal.  It was designed to produce a quick, hot fire that built up a head of steam to sound the warning to shipping.

Supplies of coal and kerosene and other lighthouse needs came by ship to a small dock in front of the building.  Only a small rowing skiff was provided fro the keeper since this lighthouse was not a rescue station.

In 1931 the steam whistle was replaced by an air diaphone horn.  Power was supplied to an air compressor by diesel engines.  later, in 1953, a Worthington compressor was driven by a 440 volt electric motor.  Diesel engines supplied emergency back-up power.  Compressed air went into storage tanks and was released by an electric timing mechanism.  This caused the fog signal to start erupting its B-O's, alerting boats and ships to stay clear of lighthouse Point, its name on all charts.

The fog signal faithfully did its job whenever Cat's Head Point (approximately 45 miles west) was not visible or when a fog bank was seen around the point.  The signal could be heard the 8 miles to Northport and far out on the lake.  Lighthouse inhabitants remember the fog signal as a heart stopping sound that sent them running deep inside the house to wait for the fog to lift.

The fog signal was discontinued in 1972 when the automated beacon was installed on the steel skeleton structure and a lighthouse keeper was no linger needed.

Grand Traverse Light Station has seen many changes.  In its early days sailing ships carried cargo and passengers past the light.  Steam replaced sail and the Manitou and Fox islands became populated fueling stations in the era of wood burning boilers.  Modern lake traffic uses electronic navigation but the light remains maintained by the Coast Guard personnel as a visual aid to navigation.

From:  Grand Traverse Lighthouse Assoc.

Link to Leelanau Homepage
Link to Northport Homepage
Link to Lighthouse Operation Hours and Directions