Michigan has more lighthouses along its shoreline than any other state in the country. While the U.S. Coast Guard still maintains the lights, it’s not required to take care of the lighthouses. As a result, local governments and non-profits are scrambling to find the money to restore the state’s lighthouses, before they’re beyond repair.
From the outside, the South Haven Pier Lighthouse looks like it’s in good shape. It may be old, but the bright red lighthouse looks like it just got a fresh coat of paint.
Walk inside, however, and it’s a different story. Rust is everywhere. The floor, the ceiling, the joints. The only way to get to the upper floors of the light is to climb a long, narrow ladder that’s rusted over.
“The seal’s been bad in that door for years and the handle’s been broken so you can’t latch the door tight. So when the waves are crashing over the pier, water comes in. Water rusts metal and that’s what happens on the inside," said Ed Appleyard, treasurer of the Historical Association of South Haven.
The association took over care of the light three years ago and has been raising money to restore it since February. And so far they’ve been successful. They’ve surpassed their $300,000 goal and have already made some improvements.
But the South Haven historical association is one of the lucky ones. Many non-profits around the state are struggling to make enough money to restore their lights. And when the price tag can surpass a million dollars, it’s easy to see why.
Terry Pepper is the executive director of the Great Lakes Light Keepers Association. He says there are few people willing to drop half a million dollars.
“Most of the money comes in the form of $10, $20, $25 donations,” he said.
So how did these lighthouses get so far gone? Well, the Coast Guard didn’t need them anymore - so they stopped taking care of them. Pepper says in the 1980s, the Coast Guard finished converting the lanterns in all of the lighthouses along the Great Lakes to automated lights. With an automated light, you don’t really need a building to put it in. Some lighthouses have even been torn down and replaced with a solar light on a tall metal pole.
To patch holes in its budget in the 1990s, Pepper says the Coast Guard started selling off lighthouses. This was fine, until the guard started taking lights away from non-profits.
“We at St. Helena Island lighthouse where we had been working under a license to restore the lighthouse since 1985, started to hear rumors that some local federal agencies were perhaps going to have the lighthouse transferred directly to them. We felt that was unfair, we had already put a considerable amount of money and labor into restoring into restoring the St. Helena Island Lighthouse," said Pepper.
So members of the Great Lakes Light Keepers Association talked to members of congress. Before long, the United States passed the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. This paved the way for local control of the lights. Pepper says now most lighthouses on the Great Lakes are kept up by non-profits.
The Coast Guard is still responsible for maintaining the actual lanterns, but Joe Foster of the Historical Association of South Haven says those are little more than a backup these days.
“They don’t even need that. I mean with GPS triangulation, you can put yourself within two feet of any spot on the Earth that you want to be,” he said.
Foster says the South Haven lighthouse may not be valuable to the Coast Guard, but it is to locals.
“Fishermen here still look for the light. They don’t look at their GPS’s very much. It’s a day mark from way out, you know, where you can see it in the daylight, it’s bright red. And then at night that light can help them get in,” he said.
About 36 lighthouses in Michigan are still managed by the Coast Guard. Four lights in the state are on Lighthouse Digest Magazine’s “Doomsday List” - a list of lights that are in danger of being lost forever. Most of them are either on an island or jut out into the Great Lakes. Pepper says lighthouses like these are the hardest to maintain.
“You got to have the right kind of vessels to be able go out there in the kind of weather that you might encounter when you’re going out there. So the infrastructure that you have to create, the support equipment to be able to go backwards and forwards with the people and the materials can get to be expensive also,” said Pepper.
As for lighthouses like the one in South Haven, Ed Appleyard says maintaining them shouldn’t be that hard once the restoration is complete. With financial support from the City of South Haven, the historical association has set aside an annual maintenance fund. Appleyard says that should keep the light in shape for at least another 30 years.
But Terry Pepper worries that funds like these will only sustain the lighthouses for so long.
“And I don’t see any younger people coming in who have any interest in lighthouses and preserving them. And that makes me worry about where the money is going to come from 10, 15, 20 years from now,” said Pepper.