South Fox Island Lights (2)
FOX ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE ASSOCIATION
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
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
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
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
1897: A well for supplying the fog signal is dug and a pump house is built
1898: A wood frame assistant keepers dwelling is built next to the
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
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
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
"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
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 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
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,
and Steve Belko
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,
and Steve Belko
South end of South
1869 and 1934