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Betsie Lighthouse
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The Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse

A Summary Chronology

It is important to note that over the years there have been different spellings of "Betsie," such as Aux Bec Scies (the point was originally known by the French as "Point Aux Bec Scies," meaning "sawed beak point"), Betsey, and the present Betsie.

  • Efforts to aid navigation on the nation's coasts predate the Federal Government itself; the first American lighthouse was erected in Boston Harbor in 1716, and lighthouses became a function of the government in 1789, under the 1st Congress.

  • The first lighthouses on the Great Lakes were established at Buffalo, NY and Erie, PA between 1813-1820; the first lighthouse on Lake Michigan was placed at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1832.

  • The Lighthouse Board was created by Congress in 1852; it was responsible for U.S. lighthouses for nearly 58 years. In that same year, the superintendent of lights on the upper lakes recommended the construction of small lights, at $5000 each, at Lake Michigan's Point Betsie, and at Isle Royale and Grand Island harbor in Lake Superior. The recommendation noted that "the commerce of this rich mineral region is rapidly increasing, and is subjected to many natural obstacles;" thus, it was "deemed appropriate to recommend them to the favorable consideration of Congress."

  • In 1853-54 during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, land was reserved from the public domain for a lighthouse at Point Betsie. A ten-acre site was to be chosen by the Lighthouse Service; in 1886, unneeded land was restored to the public domain.

  • Soon thereafter (as contained in the 1853-57 volume of the Lighthouse Board's Contracts), detailed specifications were issued for a lighthouse and keeper's dwelling at Point Betsie and for comparable facilities at North Point on Milwaukee Bay and at the mouth of the Grand River, Michigan.

  • Point Betsie Light's construction was completed in 1858 and the light was lit that year.

  • In 1867, reportedly, the keeper's dwelling's roof needed replacement.

  • In 1869, measures had been taken to "prevent the displacement of the sand which rendered necessary the replacing of some of the foundation of the tower."

  • In 1875, the foreman of a surveying team advised that due to "shifting sands in summer and drifting snows in winter," a road connecting the lighthouse with the nearby highway (now M-22) "would be of little service, as communications with Frankfort, where the keeper obtains his main and supplies, would be easier along the beach, or by boat."

  • Federal involvement in life-saving stations dates from initial, largely voluntary, measures begun in 1848, along the Atlantic coast. In 1871, Congress authorized funds for the Secretary of the Treasury "to employ crews of experienced surfmen at such stations and for such period as he might deem necessary." In 1874, Congress gave authority for Treasury's Revenue-Marine, headed by the dedicated Summer I. Kimball, to establish additional stations on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast.

  • The 1874 legislation led to reorganization of life-saving services; a Lake Michigan district was formed, and a complete life-saving stations was authorized for Point aux Bec Scies and two other Lake locations; on October 10, 1874, Point Betsie was formally selected as a life-saving station site by Mr. Kimball and his colleague, J. H. Merryman. The Lighthouse Board gave approval for use of land for this purpose on April 25, 1875, and a $3000 construction contract was granted to W. E. Bushnell on July 24, 1875. The building was accepted by August 24, 1876; the first keeper was appointed on October 1 of that year, and the first crew was engaged on April 1, 1877.

  • Unsuccessful appeals were made in 1878-81 for a fog-signal at Point Betsie.

  • In 1880, the Lighthouse Board reported that Point Betsie is "one of the most important lights on Lake Michigan. The present light has never given satisfaction. The tower was built by contract in 1858 and the work was miserably done. A new tower with sufficient height to put the focal plane 100 feet above the lake should be built, and the fourth-order lens should be replaced by a third order." [The Board voiced similar views in 1881 and 1882, but major repairs did not come until 1890.]

  • On October 16, 1880, the schooner J.H. Hartzell, carrying 495 tons of iron-ore from L'Anse to Frankfort, was wrecked about a mile south of Frankfort harbor. The rescue of all but one of the crew (the female cook) by the Point Betsie Life-Saving is movingly detailed in the 1881 Annual Report of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

  • In 1889, the Lighthouse Board altered its call for the lighthouse's replacement, calling for repairs and a new lens and revolving apparatus. The Board noted that Point Betsie's light at its existing height overlapped with South Manitou Light's range by eight miles, and that a site 18 or 20 miles to the south would be better for a new light. Said the Board, "What this station [Point Betsie] really needs is a third-order lens flashing alternatively red and white at intervals of ten seconds, and a steam fog-signal."

  • In 1890, extensive repairs were made; the tower's foundation was strengthened with a ring of concrete 4 feet deep and 16 feet in diameter at the base. Shoreline protections were built. The Board recommended a steam fog-signal, and called for the light to flash white every ten seconds.

  • In 1891, the fog-signal building was built; the horn sounded on 12/31/1891. The circular iron oil house was built and a concrete foundation was laid in the dwelling's cellar. Platform walks were laid about the property.

  • In 1895, the dwelling was thoroughly renovated and an addition built onto it to house an assistant keeper.

  • In 1898, the steamer St. Lawrence was stranded about two miles south of Point Betsie. The rescue of all but one of its crew [a man who sought unsuccessfully to make it to shore on his own], amidst a blinding blizzard, by the Point Betsie Life-saving crew is recounted in great detail in the Service's Annual Report of 1899.

  • In 1900, Board report indicates the tower and dwelling were painted white to make the tower a better day mark. Roofs were painted red.

  • The modern U.S. Coast Guard was formed in 1915 through the merger of the Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1939, the lighthouse agency was transferred to the Coast Guard.

  • In October, 1938, the Commandant of the Coast Guard directed that all life-saving buildings and their site at Point Betsie be disposed of. The buildings were put up for sale in 1945; the station's boathouse had collapsed sometime between 1938 and 1940; only its storm-battered foundation survived.

  • The tower's clockwork mechanism was disconnected in 1944, and an electric motor installed.

  • Point Betsie Light the last manned light on Lake Michigan's eastern shore was automated in 1983.

  • In 1996, the light's turning mechanism failed, as did the heating system's boiler. The fourth-order lens was removed and stored, replaced by a modern acrylic lens from New Zealand; the station's residents (by then, Coast Guardsmen from Station Frankfort) were relocated.

  • The light station was transferred to Benzie County in 2004, but the light remains an official aid to navigation under U.S. Coast Guard control.

Point Betsie's complete history is recounted in Jonathan P. Hawley's book, Point Betsie: Lightkeeping and Lifesaving on Northeastern Lake Michigan (The University of Michigan Press and Petoskey Press, 2008) which is available at Amazon.