Lighthouses of Michigan’s Sunrise Coast

Julie Royce's picture

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The traveler to Michigan’s coastlines will be rewarded with the opportunity to visit many iconic lighthouses. As I traveled, writing and compiling information for my three-volume travel series, Exploring Michigan's Sunset Coasts, Sunrise Coasts, and Upper Peninsula Coasts, they added a bit of delight and historic perspective to the trip. Below are some of my favorites.

In his book America’s Lighthouses: An Illustrated History, Francis Ross Holland Jr. wrote, “They are called lakes, but from the lighthouse point of view they have virtually all the characteristics of the ocean.” 

Lighthouses of Michigan’s Sunrise Coast

Huron Lightship Museum

Located at 800 Prospect Place, docked in Pine Grove Park, Port Huron

The Huron Lightship was commissioned in 1921 as Lightship Number 103. She operated in southern Lake Huron at the mouth of the St. Clair River. A lightship is a floating lighthouse that is placed at a site where a regular lighthouse isn’t feasible. Sometimes a lightship is used while the permanent lighthouse is being constructed. The Huron was the third lightship placed at the Corsica Shoals where a shallow ridge of sand had grounded many ships. The light is fully automated and managed by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

When retired from active service in 1970, the Huron Lightship was the last lightship on the Great Lakes. The ship is well-preserved, with her operable light and fog horn still on board. If you are a maritime history buff, you’ll find this museum packs fascinating history on a short tour. Call to make sure the museum is open. 

Huron Lighttship Museum. From Lighthouses of Michigan’s Sunrise Coast

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse

Located at 2800 Omar Street in Port Huron, just north of the Blue Water Bridge

The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes. It was built in 1825. The tower is 86 feet above the lake level. The keeper’s cottage and the fog whistle house are painted red. The lighthouse is red brick painted white. It is a classic example of an early nineteenth century style lighthouse. The tower collapsed in 1828 due to shoddy workmanship. It was rebuilt in 1829. Additional rebuilding was required in 1861. 

It is worth the climb to the top for the view. It is one of the few operating lighthouses that allow visitors to climb the tower. However, the climb to the tower is only available as part of the tour. From that perch you can see where the St. Clair River runs into Lake Huron. You can also see the Blue Water Bridge and Canada on the other side.

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse. From Lighthouses of Michigan’s Sunrise Coast

Port Sanilac Lighthouse

Located two blocks east of the Municipal Harbor on Lake Street

Between the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse and the Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse stretched 75 miles of dark of Lake Huron shoreline. The dangerous, unlit portion of Lake Huron was made safer when Harbor Beach got a lighthouse in 1875 and Port Sanilac’s light began operating 11 years later. 

The Port Sanilac Lighthouse is 59 feet tall and is connected to a two-story, eight room keeper’s dwelling by a covered passageway. The first keeper was Richard Morris, who had been promoted to Port Sanilac from his position as assistant keeper at Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse. Morris suffered some weather-related difficulty getting to his new assignment, but on October 20, 1886, he sent the first beams out over Lake Huron. 

This lighthouse is currently a private residence and not open to the public, but you can see it from the street or the parking lot that runs along its south side. It is worth a drive down Lake Street in Port Sanilac to glimpse this architecturally relevant lighthouse.

Port Sanilac Lighthouse. From Lighthouses of Michigan’s Sunrise Coast

Charity Island Lighthouse

Located via a short boat cruise from Caseville to Big Charity Island

The largest island in the Saginaw Bay, Charity may be the dream escape of your summer with its 11-acre, spring-fed pond—a mini-lake within the greater lake. The lighthouse was built to help ships avoid dangerous shoals extending from the northern and southern shores of the island. 

The island is 322-acres of stone and mixed hardwood forest. It is home to rare and protected species of plants including trillium, Jack in the pulpit, pink lady slippers, and pitcher’s thistle. You may see a bald eagle as you walk the beach. The island was given its name by the lake mariners who believed it was “only by the charity of God” they made it through the dangerous channel midway between the city of Au Gres and the Thumb at the entrance to the Saginaw Bay. 

The lighthouse first beamed onto Lake Huron waters on May 26, 1857, the date the lighthouse keeper arrived. The lighthouse is a 39-foot-tall brick tower located on a slight rise. It provided a 13-mile range of visibility. The Charity Island light was a difficult lighthouse to maintain because of its vulnerability to the elements. Of all of the lighthouses in the Thumb, it may have been in the worst condition when the Charity Island Preservation Committee began attemp