South Manitou Island Lighthouse

SMI lighthouse in morning light
South Manitou Island Lighthouse Area

With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1826, the development of commercial navigation on the Great Lakes increased rapidly. The Manitou Passage was the most important route for schooners and steamers traveling the 300 mile length of Lake Michigan. South Manitou Island provided a wood fueling stop for steamers. The island had the only deep natural harbor between the Manitou Passage and Chicago, 220 miles to the south, providing a safe and well protected haven from storms.

To guide storm-driven ships, Congress appropriated $5,000 in 1838 for the construction of a lighthouse. Construction began in 1839, but very little is known about this first lighthouse on South Manitou Island. The specifications were the same as for the Old Presque Isle lighthouse, which included a 30-foot circular tower and a stone keeper's dwelling, but written accounts describe a 1.5 story house with a light tower on one gable end. No sketches or photos exist to determine what was actually built. The location of the light was on a 30-foot sandy knoll near the shore close to the location of the present lighthouse, but the exact location is not known.

South Manitou Island Lighthouse shadow on Keeper's Dwelling

In 1858, the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment recognized the need for greater safety and replaced this house with a two-story brick residence with a 35 foot tower on top. The tower housed a Fourth Order Fresnel lens. A fog signal building was added and both structures still stand today.

The increased shipping traffic brought changes and in 1871, a 100-foot tower was built. The tower is 18 feet in diameter at the base. The walls are hollow and 5 feet thick at the base tapering to 3 feet thick at the top. A passageway was added connecting the tower to the keeper's dwelling. A Third Order Fresnel lens from Paris was installed with a 3-wick lamp that had a range of 18 miles. In 1875, the first steam fog signal on Lake Michigan was installed replacing the fog bell.

SMI Lighthouse Stairs

During the operation of the lighthouse, 17 Keepers and 32 Assistant Keepers maintained the light. Aaron Sheridan was one of the Lighthouse Keepers and the first one to be in charge of the current lighthouse. Learn about Aaron, his family, and his tragic death while he was the Keeper. For more information on the lighthouse, browse Terry Pepper's website. The U.S. Coast Guard abandoned the light station in 1958.

Take a tour of the lighthouse and climb the 117 steps of the circular staircase to the light station 104 feet above the ground and enjoy the beautiful view of the Manitou Passage and the island. You can walk all the way around the light at the top on the observation deck.

Visit Michigan Lighthouses for a listing of all lighthouses in Michigan.

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Mailing Address:

9922 Front Street
Empire, MI 49630


(231) 326-4700

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