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• 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 trasnferred
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.