St. Helena Island Lighthouse
By Dave Wobser

This article originally appeared in Great Laker magazine

"We need to do this for the future generations to understand our maritime history, and to develop the next generation of lighthouse preservationists", says Dick Moehl, president of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA), and the driving force behind the restoration of the St. Helena Light Station.

A retired down-state Michigan investment broker, Moehl has also become an advisor to other groups interested in lighthouse preservation. "If we don’t do it, and you and I won’t be here forever, these historical structures will be lost", according to Moehl who has spoken before groups from coast to coast, and to legislative bodies in Lansing, Michigan and Washington DC.

The St. Helena Light Station is located on an uninhabited island, 2 miles off the shoreline of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and six miles west of the Mackinac Bridge. It was authorized by Congress in 1872 because of the number of ship wrecks that were caused by a shoal extending from the island into the Straits of Mackinac.

Following automation in 1922, only the light was maintained by the Coast Guard. The other buildings stood empty, neglected and deteriorating to the point of being recommended by the Coast Guard for razing in 1980. The assistant keeper’s dwelling and boathouse were razed in the early 1980’s, while vandals gutted, damaged and partially burned the keeper’s dwelling. Only a lack of Coast Guard demolition funds saved the keeper’s dwelling from demolition.

Some 60 years after automation, GLLKA took an interest in the station as a restoration project. Beginning in 1986, GLLKA has turned the station into a model for lighthouse preservationists everywhere. Today, it has been described by some as "A Miracle in the Straits".

THE STATION
At the urging of the U. S. Lighthouse Board, Congress appropriated $14,000 for the construction of the lighthouse on the island which became part of a series of lights to aid safe passage through the Straits of Mackinac. Construction started in 1872 and the light became operational on September 20, 1873. The original 3-1/2 Order Fresnel lens displayed a fixed red signal to warn vessels away from the St. Helena Shoal. The light is displayed today from a 300 mm plastic solar-powered lens, and the location of the original lens is unknown.

The two-story red/brown brick keeper’s dwelling is attached to the white-painted brick 71-foot tower by a short passageway and has a total of nine rooms, including four bedrooms on the upper level. The residence is larger than most similar stations, although duplicate structures were built on Poverty Island in northern Lake Michigan, and at Tawas Point and Sturgeon Point on Lake Huron. The conical tower is fifteen feet in diameter at the base. The brick walls are hollow and the inner cylindrical walls support a circular iron stairway.

As vessel traffic increased in the area, the station was expanded in 1895 with the addition of a frame boat house, landing crib, and boat tramway. The following year saw the construction of a brick oil house.

The first assistant keeper was assigned in 1909, and required the building of an assistant keepers dwelling. The assistant keeper’s dwelling was located adjacent to the station privy and did not prove to be satisfactory. In 1915 the dwelling was replaced by a larger house located closer to the boat house. Only seven years later the station was automated and left to deteriorate.

RESTORATION
Seeking to expand the goals of the organization, GLLKA obtained a license from the Coast Guard to begin restoring the facility in 1985. The first effort was to get the station listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This makes the project eligible for grant funding, including the Bicentennial Lighthouse Fund.

Today the main dwelling has been furnished with 1900 era furniture and is able to sleep 15 people at a time. The only concession to modern life is a propane stove and refrigerator. There still is no electricity or running water on the island. The assistant keepers dwelling has been rebuilt, the boat dock restored and during 2002 a replica boat house is under construction. Restorers have been working from original pictures to insure authenticity.

The greatest part of the restoration work has to be attributed to the many people involved in donating their time, money and personal efforts. GLLKA, under the direction of its long-term president Moehl, has developed a number of programs whereby interested persons can live at the station, in 1900’s style, and contribute to the on-going restoration.

Groups of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from Ann Arbor and Plymouth, enlisted by Moehl, have spent weeks living in tents on the island helping with the restoration. Thirteen Boy Scout Eagle Awards and two Girl Scout Gold Awards have been earned on St. Helena. Persons who wish to help with the project are invited to spend a weekend or longer, at their own expense, living and working on the island. Volunteer keepers spend up to a month during the summer living on the island and coordinating the restoration. "Creating a new generation of preservations" is the GLLKA motto, and the St. Helena experience is truly doing just that.

Equally as important as the physical restoration of the St. Helena structures, GLLKA members have collected a record of the island history. A thorough search of government records, local newspaper archives and other historical sources has provided a detailed look at the keepers, legends and life surrounding the fifty years that St. Helena served the maritime community.

The St. Helena restoration has won numerous national and state awards in historic preservation. These include The Take Pride in America Award, The Keep Michigan Beautiful Award, The Mid-West Living Hometown Pride Award and President Bush’s 630th Point of Light.

Sandy Planisek, a former teacher and retired Mackinaw City newspaper publisher, is part of the GLLKA effort and is a major player working along side Moehl. She has a Ph.D. degree in finance and has become very adept at grant writing. In addition, she has earned her captain’s license and assists in ferrying passengers and freight to the island.

Most recently, Sandy has been instrumental in GLLKA receiving a $175,000 25% matching grant for restoration of the tower masonry and the dwelling’s chimney. Another $30,000 matching grant project will restore lightning rod protection and replace the tower windows. A third recent grant project resulted in GLLKA receiving a lease on seven acres of Moran Township land located on the mainland directly north of the island. The area will be used as a staging area to bring supplies, workers and visitors to the island. It will drastically cut the travel time to reach the island. Supplies and visitors are now ferried from Mackinaw City.

"Lighthouse grant money has been available the past few years, yet lighthouse preservation groups are struggling to find the match money needed to qualify for the grants", said Planisek. "This is the best time for people, interested in contributing to their favorite lighthouse, to make a donation. Preservation groups can multiply that donation three or four times with grant funds".

In addition to persons and groups wishing to spend time living on the island and aiding in the restoration, St. Helena is the site of an annual Maritime Heritage Education Workshop. Under the direction of several Great Lakes educators, twelve to fifteen participants experience the life on a light station in 1912. Educators enrolled in this pilot program have touched the lives of more than 100,000 students in grades K-12 since 1989.

To learn more about the many opportunities available at St. Helena Island, contact GLLKA on the net at www.gllka.com, or write to GLLKA, PO Box 219, Mackinaw City, MI 49701-0219 or call (231)436-5580.

Click on image to enlarge

Photograph by Dave Wobser

2008 Photos by Dan Vernier

View from the east
  
View from the south

Location: On St. Helena Island, six miles west of the Mackinaw Bridge
Date Built: 1872
Active: No.

Open to
public:

Yes

Contact the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association for tours.

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