South Fox Island Lights (2)
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Probably one of the prettiest islands of the Great Lakes, South Fox Island, lies about 16 1/2 miles north-northwest of Cathead Point in Leelanau County, Michigan, making it the most isolated island in Lake Michigan. This is one of the very few places in N. America where two lighthouse are at one location.

The island is crescent shaped and has 11 1/2 miles of shoreline and twenty-one hundred acres of nearly unspoiled wilderness. There is some evidence that French explorers visited North and South Fox Islands in the early 1600s. South Fox has no natural harbor. Even today, when visiting the state land on the island, dockage can be risky! But sometimes a ship could hide behind the island from approaching storms. A lighthouse was erected in 1867 on the southern tip of the island.

During the summer of 1991, Doug McCormick, past caretaker of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, filmed South Fox and her light. His father, James McCormick, was keeper there between 1916 and 1921. Mr. McCormick reflected sadly that the once grand light is in "horrible condition, overgrown with trees, one even growing through the roof, vandalized, but still solid." Mr. McCormick fondly recollects his happy boyhood memories of life on South Fox Island. On a personal visit in 1997, we inspected the light and adjacent keepers quarters with DNR approval. They are restorable we believe. Much support has already begun being partnered.

Help is needed to restore this light. The biggest obstacle, the island's remote location, has become less intimidating since we recently learned that our group will be given a boat way beyond our wildest dreams. However, ideas are needed along with a way to raise financial support and willing volunteer workers.

Until early May 2005, the last sentence here read, "We are in the beginning stages of hoping to rescue the light - if indeed it is even feasible." Now, having the very generous donation of a great boat in prospect and having received promising response from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), we feel more encouraged than ever before.


1867: $18,000 are granted by Congress for the construction of the lighthouse on South Fox Island. Nov. 1 the light, equipped with a flashing red 4th order Fresnel lens, is lit by first lighthouse keeper Henry J. Roe. The keeper's salary is $150.00 per quarter.
The height of the tower from the base to the focal plane of the lantern is 39 feet. The flashing red light is 68 feet above lake level.
1880: To keep drifting sand and snow out, Keeper Willis Warner builds a board fence around the light station, 320 ft long and 5 ft high.
1889: New landing docks are built, consisting of sunk cribs. The boat house is moved closer to the docks.
1892: Keeper Louis Bourisseau builds wooden walkways connecting the buildings.
1895: After five years of delaying the project, a fog signal building, consisting of wooden frames covered with planks and corrugated iron outside and smooth sheet iron inside, is erected and a 10 inch steam whistle fog signal is put in operation. A brick oil house is built with a capacity of 360 gallons of kerosene for the new lantern that replaces the old lard oil lantern.
1897: A well for supplying the fog signal is dug and a pump house is built over it.
1898: A wood frame assistant keepers dwelling is built next to the lighthouse.
This must have been a foggy year: According to the annual report of the Lighthouse Board, the fog signal was in operation some 581 hours (in normal years 250 - 350 hours) and consumed about 42 cords of wood and 43 tons of coal.
1900: A steam launch replaces the open sailing skiff that had served as the station's official craft.
1906: A post office is built on the island.
1907: The annual report of the Lighthouse Board states that the light is fixed red, varied by red flash every two minutes.
1910: The wooden assistant keepers dwelling is replaced with a red brick building. Its design is very similar to the one of the keepers dwelling on North Manitou Island. It has indoor plumbing, quite a luxury in those days. Roughly the same time the yellow bricks of the tower are coated with white bricks as an additional protection from the elements.
1911: The island's post office is closed. Mail is delivered only once or twice a month.
1915: Deer are introduced on the island.
1916: The intensity of the light is increased.
1920s: Farming on the island is abandoned. It is not quite clear in which year the steam whistle fog signal was replaced with an air diaphone signal. Sources cite either 1921 or 1929.
1921: The light is changed from oil vapor to electricity, provided by generators.
1933: The light tower on Sapelo Island, Georgia, a square pyramidal cast iron skeletal tower of the 'Sanibel' class, erected in 1905, is disassembled and the components are shipped to South Fox Island.
1934: Workers from Northport reassemble the skeletal tower from Sapelo Island on the southern tip of South Fox Island, southwest of the old lighthouse, closer to the shoreline.
1959: The last crew leaves the light station. The equipment of the lantern room including the 4th order Fresnel lens of the old (1867) tower is moved to Old Presque Ile Light on Lake Huron to replace the vandalized lantern of that light station.
1962: The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) introduces more deer to island.
1971: The U.S. Department of Interior transfers the southernmost 115 acres to the DNR for public park and recreation "in perpetuity."
1978: A report by the DNR Waterways Division states the agency's goals for the site:
"Waterways Division acquired this property with the idea of developing it in the future as a harbor of refuge. Such a facility would accommodate the boater with a rustic and historical surrounding. The historical significance of the island could be used to advantage with tours through the buildings and area... The deed of the property charged us with certain responsibilities. One is to protect an ancient gravesite from desecration... The property was obtained from the U.S. Government for public purposes... Our biggest problem at this time is to provide minimum maintenance to the property in order to preserve and protect it until a harbor is developed."
The harbor of refuge project was later dropped, but the rest of the goals actually still apply.
1980: The U.S. Department of Interior transfers the lighthouse and grounds to the State of Michigan.
1984: A first clean-up of the light station site, initiated by the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) Youth Employment and organized and supervised by Bradley Boese, is done by 10 members of the Michigan Youth Corp.
1994: David V. Johnson purchases North Fox Island after another party proposed building a $100 million, 642-unit luxury housing project on the island. "I couldn't stand by and watch North Fox Island be destroyed," Johnson told the TC Record-Eagle.
1995: The Natural Resources Commission announces it is considering the acquisition of North Fox in a trade with Johnson, who also owns two thirds of South Fox. Johnson has proposed trading the entire 832 acres on North Fox to the state in exchange for the remaining third of South Fox, which the state owns. Total land in public ownership is 1,140 acres.
1996: The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians opposes the proposal, citing ancestral ties to the island, a tribal cemetery, and treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather vegetation on public land in areas its ancestors ceded to the U.S. governments in an 1836 treaty. DNR's district office opposes the swap, saying South Fox is more important than North Fox for ecological reasons, public recreation and accessibility.
1997: Maybe in view of much public opposition, the DNR rejects Johnson's swap proposal. Instead, DNR director K.L. Cool says the state wants to buy North Fox. In December, the state's Natural Resources Trust Fund approves purchase of North Fox for $2 million to use it as a natural area open with public access and for ecological research.
2000: The Grand Traverse Band offers to take ownership of the south tip of South Fox Island, including the former light station. The federal government rejects the proposal, citing the 1949 Federal Lands to Parks law, which does not mention tribes as possible recipients.
A request filed by the DNR to allow a road to be built through critical dune land on South Fox. As the state says, the road is needed to make repairs to the light station. The state doesn't plan to do the repairs, though. According to the land swap draft, Johnson will have to restore and maintain the lighthouse. Opponents fear that the road would just be used to link Johnson's house to the lighthouse and the southern beach area.
2001: Despite strong opposition from a standing-room-only crowd at a meeting, the Leelanau Township Planning Commission recommends that the Leelanau Township Board not oppose the special exception permit for the construction of the road on the island. The DEQ can't issue the permit unless the township approves.
The Michigan United Conservation Club Region 1V board adopts a resolution opposing the land swap. The swap also is opposed by various associations. In March, the Leelanau Township Board votes to oppose the road permit, which leaves the whole swap up in the air.
In December, the DNR and Johnson eventually reach a swap agreement that does not include the 115 acres transferred to the state in the 1970s. The Grand Traverse Band files a lawsuit against David Johnson opposing the deal, citing the tribe's treaty land claims on the island.
2002: The Fox Island Education Association (FIEA) is founded by Cathy Allchin, Bradley Boese and friends. Its goal is the preservation of the light station.
The Michigan Land Use Institute joins the Grand Traverse Band's lawsuit, saying the DNR did not follow its own policies for transferring state lands.
State Attorney General Jennifer Granholm rules that she cannot approve the swap because of Indian land claims that "cloud" the title on 200 of the 219 acres to be traded.
David Johnson files a counter-suit against the Grand Traverse Band and the Michigan Land Use Institute.
In November, Leelanau Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power rules against some of the tribal claims. This clears the "cloud" over the title and allows the swap to proceed.
2003: The Michigan Land Use Institute holds a forum in Traverse City in an attempt to drum up opposition to the land swap. However, on March 7, Attorney General Mike Cox certifies the transfer.
2004: Board members of the FIEA launch the South Fox Island Lighthouse Restoration Project. In October, a meeting is held with somewhat poor public attendance, but very important connections can be made. At the same time, a new Web site is published, soon reaching fairly good attention.
2005: In January, just after having "inherited" all the relevant documents from the FIEA, the lighthouse project group holds another meeting at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum. Stephanie Staley, director of the museum, president of the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance and board member of the Michigan Lighthouse Project, has set up a public awareness campaign with a whole series of activities involving school classes. Public presentations are held at the Maritime Academy in Traverse City in March and in Northport in April.
In view of the application for non-profit status, the group is named Fox Island Lighthouse Association (FILA). Around the end of April the group learned that a great boat will be donated to the FILA as soon as non-profit status is obtained. That will solve many problems caused by the isolated location of the light station.
The volunteer non-profit doing the work is the Fox Island Lighthouse Association (FILA) located in Traverse City, MI

Click on images to enlarge

2012 photos by Karen & John Wells

1867 Lighthouse and dwelling

Fog Signal building and
1934 skeletal tower

View from 1934 tower looking NNE

View from 1934 tower looking NNW

Photos by Cathy Allchin, John Bourisseau,
Zane Bourisseau and Steve Belko

Aerial View
1867 Lighthouse and Boat House

1867 Lighthouse and dwelling

Damaged 1867 Lantern

Front view 1867 Light

Bannister in Keepers Dwelling

1934 Light Tower

Photos by Cathy Allchin, John Bourisseau,
Zane Bourisseau and Steve Belko

Location: South end of South Fox Island
Date Built: 1869 and 1934
Active: No

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