Charity Island Light
Violet M. Bostwick

Charity Island Light tower was built in 1857 at a cost of $4,819.00. The lighthouse keepers dwelling was built the following year. It is located in Saginaw Bay, on Big Charity Island, two miles southeast of Little Charity Island. The shallow, two mile stretch of water between the islands is often treacherous, with a dangerous, rocky bottom.

The Charity Islands were named by the Indians, who believed the islands were placed there by their God *Kitche Manitou* as a safe shelter not only for the Indians, but for the French voyagers as well. However, the islands weren’t always called *Charity*. While the maps before 1800 show the islands, they were not named as yet. According to a 1839 map, Big Charity Island was referred to as *Shawangunk*, while Little Charity Island was known as *Ile de Traverse*. They weren’t referred to as Charity Islands until after 1845.

The brick tower itself is only 39 feet tall. It originally housed a white, Fourth Order Fresnel lens, which has long since disappeared. Generally speaking, Fourth order Fresnel lenses were 28", with a focal length of 9.8", consumed 5 ounces of oil per hour, and had a range of up to 15 nautical miles. The lens at Charity Island had a range of 13 nautical miles. In 1900, the 4th order lens was replaced with an acetylene lens. This changed the light’s signature from a steady white light to a flashing light, at 10 second intervals. Charity Island lighthouse was the first on the Great Lakes to receive such a light.

In 1939, the Gravelly Shoal lighthouse was built about one mile west of Big Charity Island, making the Charity Island lighthouse obsolete. In 1963, the lighthouse and land were sold to a private party, and changed hands several times. The years of neglect, abandonment, and vandalism, along with the harsh Michigan winters, took its toll on the lighthouse and dwelling. In 2003, the owner demolished the old structure and built a new building, turning it into a Bed & Breakfast. The old original tower still stands.

Lighthouse Keepers

Colin Graham was the first lighthouse keeper at the remote Charity Island station, serving from 1857 to 1865, when he resigned. There were only three more actual keepers after Graham. August Clarke began his stint at the lighthouse in 1865 before being transferred in 1867. William Stewart served from 1867 until being removed in 1873. Israel Palmer served two years (1880-1882) before being transferred.

Charles Howard (1874-1875) and Charles McDonald (1882-1885) were Acting Keepers. They, along with a long list of men whose titles were Acting 1st Assistant, actually did the work of the lighthouse keeper without the title.

There was only one woman who kept the light burning at Charity Island, Mrs. Harriet Howard. She was awarded a permanent position in 1877 as Act. 1st Assistant but she resigned in 1879. A man by the name of George Howard was assistant from 1875-1877 before being transferred but the records are not clear if they were husband and wife. Since women often took over the role of lighthouse keeper for their husbands due to health issues, death, etc this was most likely the case. The last lighthouse keeper to serve at Charity was Joseph Singleton, who was transferred from the light in 1916 when the lighthouse was automated.

Shipwrecks on Charity Island

There are more than 200 documented shipwrecks in Saginaw Bay alone, ranging from Pointe Aux Barques, Port Austin, Au Gres, Caseville, Gravelly Shoal and everything in between! The following are but a few of the wrecks at Charity Island:

Propeller *Cleveland* burned off Charity Island in 1880
Schooner *George L. Drew* wrecked at Charity Island in 1866
Tug *Anna Dobbins* foundered near Charity Island in 1886
Schooner *Adair* wrecked on Charity Island in 1886
Steamer *Wave* burned at Charity Island in 1874
Steamer *Rosedale* wrecked at Charity Island in 1887
Schooner *Montgomery* wrecked at Charity Island in 1901

During one blinding snowstorm in the 1880's, under Capt. McDonald’s watch as lighthouse keeper, the snow was coming down at such a fast pace that it was actually covering the light, completely blocking it out! Captain McDonald climbed the long, spiral stairway, and went out into the frigid snowstorm to wipe the snow off the lantern. Unfortunately, this gave the false impression that the light was a blinking light rather than the steady, continuous light that it was. A steamer downbound in Lake Huron mistook the *flashing light* as the blinking Tawas Point Lighthouse! The captain veered his ship to the east to avoid grounding on what he thought was Tawas Pt, and crashed on the rocks at Charity Island!

Access to Charity Island Lighthouse

Today, the historic tower is the only remaining original structure on the island. The dwelling has been replaced by a replica that serves as a bed and breakfast. The lighthouse is accessible by private boat, or by booking a dinner cruise aboard the vessels Catamaran and North Star. (Visit for more information on the dinner cruise as well as the Bed & Breakfast).

Author of article: Violet M. Bostwick
Photos from author’s collection- taken in 1992-May not be reprinted or published w/out permission. Copyright November 2008

Reference sources used with permission from:
1.)Arenac County Historical Society
2.) Terry Pepper

 Additional history available at:


Click on images to enlarge

2010 photos by Dave Wobser

View from the water   Coming from the dock


Front side facing Lake Huron

Lantern detail    Connection between the old and new


Aerial photograph by Don Coles

2009 photo by Jim Newman

1992 Photos by Violet Bostwick
Exterior views of the keepers dwelling that has since been removed.

Closer views that show years of decay and weather damage.

Tower views, including the intricate stairway detail.

Connection between dwelling and tower

Looking down the tower interior and exterior.

Old sign in front of dwelling.

Location: Big Charity Island, Saginaw Bay
Date Built: 1857
Active: No

Open to

Private, Bed & Breakfast
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