Seul Choix Point Light
By Dave Wobser

 This article first appeared in the April-June, 2004 issue of Great Laker magazine.
Traveling along US-2 across Lake Michigan’s northern shore is a pleasant experience. The traveler is treated to views of sandy beaches, pine trees and sometimes a bluff. Such enjoyable travel was not always the case.

Hundreds of years ago, moving the across this region was a different story. Native Americans and French explorers were traveling in canoes and later small ‘Mackinac’ boats. It was readily apparent that along the 75 mile stretch, from the Straits of Mackinac to today’s Manistique, there was only one place to seek refuge from the storms that often sweep up Lake Michigan. Realizing that the bay near the present day Port Inland was their only choice, the French named the place Seul Choix, the French name for ‘Only Choice’. The French pronunciation is “Sel-Shwa”, while locally the name is spoken as “Sis-Shwa”.

Today, Seul Choix Point is a destination for lighthouse enthusiasts, tourists and vacationers interested in local history. The former light station at Seul Choix is home to a well-preserved collection of buildings, a light tower that visitors can climb, a gift shop, a local history display, a couple of rare marine navigation aid artifacts and a ghost. This is a place you will want to visit.

History
As early as the 1600’s, the place became popular with Native Americans due to the abundant stocks of whitefish and lake trout that were waiting to be caught in the local waters of Lake Michigan. By the middle of the 1800’s, a fishing village had been established. The first store or trading post was built at Seul Choix about 1850.

The logging industry followed to take advantage of the vast timber resources. Logging was soon followed by the Soo Line railroad in 1887 and around 1930 a limestone quarry was developed. This early development brought more and larger vessels to the area to transport the fish, lumber and passengers.

The early navigation aids along the northern Lake Michigan coast were the lighthouses at St. Helena Island (1872) and Peninsula Point (1866). This left a 100-mile gap of dark shoreline with Seul Choix Bay located near the middle. Efforts were soon started to have a lighthouse constructed on Seul Choix Point. The efforts were successful in 1886 when Congress appropriated $15,000 to build a light tower and fog signal on the point. Another $8,000 was added before the project was completed. Various complications and the rebuilding of the original tower delayed completion of the station.

The light was first shown in August, 1892, but the complex was not completed until 1895 with the finishing of the fog signal building. The complex consisted of the present conical 78-foot tower and attached 2-story keeper’s dwelling, a steam fog signal building, stable, boathouse, two oil storage buildings, a brick privy, and boat dock and tramway to the fog signal building.

The keeper’s dwelling was expanded in 1925 with a lean-to addition to the west side. The interior living space was divided with a wall to provide equal space for an additional family. The wall has since been removed, but the building still contains two kitchen areas. Particular attention should be paid to the unique rounded gables on the east end of the dwelling. While they are reminiscent of a sailing schooner stern, history does not provide a reason for this detail.

The 78-foot high white conical tower is the typical elaborate “Poe-Style” named after General Orlando M. Poe  who provided the original design. The Poe-style light towers are easily recognized by the ornate brackets which support the gallery around the lantern room and the four windows below the gallery which have semi-circular stone arch head pieces.

A Third Order Fresnel lens, built by LePaute of Paris, displayed a steady red light that was visible as far as 13 miles out in the lake. The lens base still bears the lens manufacturer’s nameplate. The lens was housed in a 10-sided iron lantern room.

The Fresnel lens was replaced in 1972 with a modern rotating airport-type  Aerobeacon and the station was automated and abandoned in 1973. The Fresnel lens was taken to USCG Station Soo and has since disappeared. Local historians would appreciate any information that could lead to the return of the lens.

Today
Seul Choix is a magnet for lighthouse enthusiasts and historians. The lighthouse property was purchased from the Coast Guard in 1977 by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Established in 1987, the Gulliver Historical Society (GHS) is the current keeper and restorer of the light station. Most of the original buildings remain on the site and are open to visit, and the tower is open to climbing. This is a relatively rare opportunity at an active aid to navigation.

The keeper’s dwelling has been restored and furnished to the 1920’s. Ask the docent to point out the arch between rooms that has been covered only on one side. This was done in 1925 when the building was converted to a duplex. Look for the unique copper moldings around some of the interior door frames. This decorative touch is not often found in lighthouse dwellings.

A few visitors at a time are allowed to climb to the top of the tower. The views of Lake Michigan and nearby Port Inland are excellent. You may even see a freighter making its way into the Port Inland dock.

The fog signal building is home to displays telling the history and development of the Gulliver area. The building also houses the twin fog signal horns that were originally mounted on the lake side of the building. A spiral staircase leads to the offices of the Gulliver Historical Society.

A one-story, concrete brick building added for living quarters after the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse, is now home to a nice gift shop and video viewing area. The Gulliver Historical Society library is also located here and research is available by appointment.

The former boathouse was moved in 1925 from the shore of Lake Michigan to a location near the dwelling and served at various times as a garage, temporary worker’s dormitory and horse stable. The structure now serves as a local maritime museum. Among the many artifacts is a dug-out canoe that is estimated by archeologists to be between 150 and 300 years old, and probably pre-dates the white man coming to the area. The canoe was found buried in the sand near the light station.

Near the tower, visitors should look for the interesting bird house that is a replica of the lighthouse. The house was built from an old fish box in 1934 by Willard Hanson, the 16-year old son of keeper William Ludwig Hanson. The model includes parts from an old radio tube and a glass jar. Keeper Hanson served as 2nd Assistant and 1st Assistant at Seul Choix from 1925 to 1941.

The original frame horse stable, that had been converted to an assistant keepers quarters, has been moved to a private lot on the shore of MacDonald Lake. Visitors will pass it on the way to Seul Choix. It is a small two-story building that is need of some paint.

Rare Artifacts
Located on the lighthouse grounds are two 24-foot cast iron light posts that bear the USLHE markings. These are fairly rare and not often found intact. Only nine or ten are believed to still exist. Besides the two at Seul Choix, two others are in the hands of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy, two have been preserved at Whitefish Point, there is one each at the USCG stations in Sault Ste. Marie and Grand Haven, and one is thought to be in private hands. The USLHE stands for United States Lighthouse Establishment which was the original name of the lighthouse service from 1789 to 1910, when the name was changed to United States Lighthouse Service (USLHS).

 Our best efforts to learn more about these interesting pieces of history indicates that they were unique to the St. Marys River, and were used as channel marker lights. The concept was proposed around 1907, although there is some thought that the lights may date as early as 1880-1890. There were twelve original poles mounted on small concrete cribs.  The poles were painted red or green depending on their location in relation to the channel. The towers originally used kerosene to provide light. Small tank houses that held the fuel were mounted on the cribs with the light poles. The fuel was changed from kerosene to acetylene around 1913, and the lights were converted to electric power by 1921. (Note: Since this article was published, we have learned that the light poles were used to mark the Rock Cut, or Middle Neebish Channel in the St. Marys River.)

 These navigation markers were eventually replaced by the familiar light-weight skeleton towers and floating lighted buoys, many of which are still in use today. There is some thought that the cast iron poles may have been recycled as part of the World War II need for iron. Anyone with additional information about these light poles, or pictures of them in their original location, is invited to contact Great Laker and the information will be published in future issues.

 Apparitions
Over a number of years, I have visited lighthouses from Southern California to the coast of Maine, and most of the lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Increasingly, as lighthouses are transitioned from the USCG to local historical groups or private ownership, stories are being revealed about ghosts that inhabit or visit lighthouses.

There is little recorded evidence that these spirit creatures were present during the first 250 or more years that the stations were attended by the men and women of the USLHE, USLHS or the US Coast Guard. Most of the alleged visitors from the spirit world are deceased light keepers. This then begs the question: (1) Did the USCG automate and abandon the lighthouses because it was too difficult to get personnel to serve at haunted locations, or (2) have the apparitions been created by ambitious historical societies and private owners to enhance the attractions to visitors, or (3) are the former light keepers unhappy with the present status of the light stations, or (4) are the former lighthouse keepers so happy they just don’t want to leave? We’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.

In any case, Seul Choix has a resident spirit that is believed to be Captain Joseph Willy Townshend who served as keeper between 1901-1910. A number of persons, as early as 1960, have reported strange happenings around the keeper’s dwelling, from moving silverware and a ‘self-closing’ Bible to footsteps on the stairs and the strong smell of cigar smoke. Captain Townshend has been immortalized in a series of children’s books set at the Seul Choix Light. The books include historical facts and actual documented spirit sightings around the lighthouse and are available in the gift shop.

Update - 1/21/2005
From Joseph VanderStel - Captain John Joseph Willy Townshend was a sailing captain from Bristol, England, who was born in 1847. He came to Michigan through Norfolk, Ontario in the 1870's. Captain  Townshend was a lighthouse keeper at Skillagalee and Waugoshance Shoal before he came to Seul Choix. He married twice and had three children. His son, Ivan Townshend worked as an assistant keeper at Seul Choix and at Sheboygan. Mr. VanderStel is the great-great grandson of Captain Townshend.

Future Plans
Local resident Marilyn Fischer was instrumental in forming the GHS in 1988, and has been the group’s president ever since. When asked if she was the ‘mover and shaker’ of the organization, she added “I’m also our local historian and a professional beggar”. Like any non-profit organization, someone has to beg people to help with restoration, donations, clean up and the hundreds of other things it takes to keep a lighthouse park looking sharp.

 Ms. Fischer speaks highly of “our members, volunteer tour guides and officer/directors, who continue to treat and take care of the lighthouse as if it were their own”. She also notes that “our future plans are to collect, identify and catalog the vast amount of maritime photo collections that we have in our possession”.

 Seul Choix is located in a Michigan State Park and is operated by the GHS under a lease. The group is presently negotiating a 35-year lease that will permit GHS to continue the constant care and upkeep of the lighthouse, buildings and park area.

2006 Update
In order to serve as housing for the assistant keeper, the station's timber-framed barn was moved close to the main brick dwelling in 1907, and converted into a two-story dwelling. After construction of anew brick assistant's quarters off the main dwelling in 1925, the old structure was sold and moved off site to a nearby inland lake. In the fall of 2006, the old structure was moved back to the lighthouse site. Plans for a complete restoration of the structure to its early 20th century appearance are now underway.

 Plan to Visit
Seul Choix Lighthouse and surrounding park is a Michigan wonderful place to spend a day. You can tour the restored keeper’s dwelling, climb the light tower, visit the museum in the fog signal building. Then there is the maritime museum in the former boathouse, the gift shop, and an excellent view of Lake Michigan.

The lighthouse is located in a Michigan State Park and the site includes a public boat launch. There are picnic tables and shade trees to complete the setting. All this is free. The GHS is a non-profit organization and all donations, memorials, memberships or gifts go toward the upkeep of the park and buildings. There is a $2.00 donation requested to climb the tower.

The grounds are open year-around, and the buildings are open from Memorial Day until October 15, between the hours of 10:00 AM and 6:00PM, seven days a week. The telephone number is 906-283-3183.

Getting there is easy. Several signs help guide the traveler. Gulliver is located approximately eleven miles east of Manistique on US Route 2. From US-2 in Gulliver, follow County Road 432 south about 4 miles to County Road 431. Turn right (west) on CR-431 another 4 miles to the park. CR-431 is a good gravel road.

Note: Additional information concerning the St. Marys River channel marker lights was provided by James S. Woodward, USCG-Cleveland; Jeff Shook, Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy; and lighthouse author and photographer Wayne Sapulski.

Click on image to enlarge

Photograph by Violet Bostwick

Location: Gulliver, Michigan
Date Built: 1895
Active: Yes

Open to
public:

Yes, grounds, fog signal building and gift shop.

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