Point Aux Barques Light
Two Museums in One Place
By Dave Wobser

This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2004 issue of Great Laker magazine.

The Pointe aux Barques Light Station offers two historical museums in the same place, plus a collection of historical buildings less than a mile away. Located southeast of Port Austin, Michigan on Lake Huron, Pointe aux Barques is a great place to spend a day learning more about lighthouses, shipwrecks, and local area history, including the United States Life Saving Service (USLSS).

Why a Lighthouse Here?
To understand why there is a light along this relatively sparsely populated shoreline, one must step back in time. In the mid-1800’s most travel was by sailing vessel. There were few or no roads, and only a few steamships were operating on the Great Lakes. Navigation was still primitive by today’s standards. Vessels followed the coastline of the lakes until there was a need to cross a large body of water, and then a compass and sextant were the major navigation tools.

Sailing schooners were towed by steam tugs up the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers to Port Huron. Vessels then left the sight of the 1825 Fort Gratiot Light and began the hazardous trip north along the Lake Huron shore.

The next light to the north was located at Thunder Bay Island (1832), over 150 miles north of Fort Gratiot. Any vessel sailing up the Lake Huron coast stood a good chance of going aground on the reef extending out from Pointe aux Barques. The reef is only covered by some two feet of water and protrudes nearly two miles into Lake Huron. Early explorers in the area recognized the reef and gave it the name which translates to “Point of Little Boats”. The message is clear – don’t take a big boat too close to shore.

Pointe aux Barques was also used as a turning point for vessels destined to the Saginaw River. Range lights had been established at the mouth of the Saginaw River as early as 1841, but the trip to Saginaw Bay required steering clear of Pointe aux Barques reef. If fact, more than 100 vessels have met their fate on these rocks.

The first light tower was built on this location in 1847, at a cost of $5,000. It was first lighted for the 1848 shipping season. However, as was often the case, the first tower was poorly constructed and needed to be replaced after only 10 years. The present 1857 light is a conical white brick tower, 89-feet tall, with a focal plane of 93-feet above Lake Huron. A rotating Third Order Fresnel lens provided a flash every two minutes visible as far 16 miles out on the lake. The tower is attached to a 2-story brick keeper’s dwelling by a matching brick passageway.

While the new taller light tower helped guide vessels away from the hazardous reef, wrecks continued to occur. In 1875 a United States Life Saving Service station was erected just south of the lighthouse. As you will learn when you visit the lighthouse, the life savers were not bored by lack of “customers”, as vessels still managed to end up on the rocky point.

An assistant keeper's house was added in 1908, and the light was upgraded to an incandescent vapor lamp in 1914. The change increased the lights range to 18 miles over the lake, and further protection was added in 1918 with the addition of a lighted bell buoy some two and a quarter miles off shore at the end of the point.

Electricity came to Point aux Barques in 1932, and the incandescent light bulb in the Third Order lens provided an output of 120,000 candlepower. The signal was further improved in around 1950 with the removal of the Fresnel lens and the installation of rotating airport-type beacons rated at 1,000,000 candlepower.

Pointe aux Barques Today
The 1857 tower and attached keepers dwelling remain intact, along with the 1908 assistant keeper’s dwelling and a round iron oil house. The keeper’s dwelling is home to two related museums. One room contains memorabilia of the lighthouse, its history and keepers. Many original documents and pictures are on display.

Another room interprets the many ship wrecks that lie under the local waters. Much of the shipwreck collection has been accumulated by Capt. Ronald Burkhard, who along with his wife Judy, were some of the founders of the Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse Society. Capt. Burkhard operates a wreck diving business and has identified many ships that ended their careers on the reef. A large wall map, pinpointing known wrecks, is located in the museum.

PaB Lighthouse Society
Following automation, the lighthouse grounds were turned over to Huron County, but the tower is an active aid to navigation and is not open to the public. A camp ground was established near the light station in the area where an 1876 United States Life Saving Service (USLSS) station had been located. Transfer of light station ownership to Huron County was completed in June, 2003.

Prior to the transfer of ownership, the Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse Society (PaBLS) was founded in 2002. The organization is dedicated to preserving and restoring the light station and museums located inside. The society is also looking forward to celebrating the station’s 150th anniversary in 2007.

Mystery Solved
For many years local folks have wondered about the actual location of the original 1847 light tower. A circle, where grass is hard to grow, located less than 100 feet from the present tower, has been under suspicion. The PaBLS were able to get help from Prof. Michael S. Nassaney, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Western Michigan.

A 3-day geophysical survey was completed in May of 2003 by Prof. Nassaney and three associates. The survey identified a both circular and rectangular foundation. The circular foundation is believed to be the base of the 1847 tower and the rectangular shape may be the original keeper’s dwelling which was reputed to have been burned down. The PaBLS has been entrusted with a number of artifacts which were recovered from the survey and are on display in the museum.

A Third Local Museum
The 1876 USLSS station that was located adjacent to the lighthouse has been moved a few miles northwest to Huron City. Huron City was established in 1861 with a saw mill and lumber shipping port. Forest fires destroyed the town in 1871 and again ten years later. Both times the town was rebuilt.

The present Huron City is a collection of historically significant structures all dating from the early 1880’s, and is listed as a historic district in the National Register. The original Third Order Fresnel lens, from Pointe aux Barques, is on display at the Grice Museum in Huron City.

The light station museums and gift shop are located in the keeper’s dwelling at the light station. The building is open seven days a week, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, Memorial weekend through October 1. Visits are free, but donations are encouraged.

The station is located on Lighthouse Road, off M-25, seven miles north of Port Hope and eleven miles south of Port Austin. It is a Huron County park. A campground is located adjacent to the base of the light. Visitors can easily spend the better part of a day  touring the lighthouse museums and Huron City, or just enjoying the beauty of the Lake Huron shore.

More information about Pointe aux Barques can be found on the web at www.pointeauxbarqueslighthouse.org, via e-mail at President@pointeauxbarqueslighthouse.org, or by mail at 7320 Lighthouse Road, Port Hope, MI 48468-9759.

The Huron city museum is located on Lighthouse Road, a little over 2 miles north of Pointe aux Barques. Huron City information and open hours is available at http://huroncitymuseums.com.

Click on images to enlarge

2010 photos by Dave Wobser




Photo by Ron Texter

Photo by Galen & Kelly Witham

2009 views from the water
by Eric Slough

Location: Port Hope, Michigan
Date Built: 1847
Active: Yes

Open to

Yes, including a museum
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