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High water threatens Frankfort's Point Betsie Lighthouse

Large waves and Lake Michigan’s record high water level are breaking down the barrier that protects the historic Point Betsie Lighthouse in Frankfort.

Key parts of the structure are fractured and falling apart. Supporters of the lighthouse are trying to get repairs done. 

But Interlochen Public Radio's Taylor Wizner reports that a lengthy process may stand in the way.

On an overcast February morning, a cold wind swept inland from Lake Michigan, dusting Point Betsie Lighthouse with snow. Jed Jaworski walked along the shoreline next to it and noticed a wood board with nails sticking out of it.

“In the fall storms we had, this pathway was completely choked with debris,” he says.

Jed visits the lighthouse about twice a week, no matter the season. Usually it’s pristine.

But he says the lake’s high water continues to cause damage, and he worries about the barriers that protect the lighthouse.

“So that crack is what I’ve been monitoring, and literally in every storm event now, it’s got wider and wider and wider,” he says.

Jed says cracks in the concrete allow water to get in, and the water carries sediment out, causing the rock bed to sink. When that happens, the whole system is destabilized.

a crack in concrete covered in ice
Credit Taylor Wizner / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
A thick crack is worrisome to Jed, because it means water is washing away rocks and sediment that holds the barrier wall upright

The Point Betsie Lighthouse opened in 1858. It was one of the last staffed lighthouses on the Great Lakes, and now it’s maintained as a tourist attraction by a community nonprofit.

President of the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse Dick Taylor says the group is currently looking to do an engineering study of the cracked barrier at the lighthouse. It was installed in 1944.

“As a whole, [the shoreline protection system] is just eroded and worn and taken 80 years worth of winters and needs some attention,” he says.

Once that’s done, the group will seek out bids and begin applying for permits. They’re hoping to start construction in the summer.

In the meantime, winter storms will continue to cause damage. Water levels are expected to rise even higher in the spring, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Taylor says that pressure could mean more expensive repairs, upwards of a million dollars.

“As it gets worse, the potential for wave erosion to make the sand behind the seawall dig out and undermine the integrity of that whole structure, that’s a concern,” he says.

Taylor also worries that when they are ready to do the work, contractors won’t be available.

“As folks perhaps return North from not living here full-time and come up and find with urgency they need to get some work done, that the competition for both materials and labor to get work done this summer might become frantic,” he says.

Taylor says the one bright spot is that state agencies are responding to permits quickly.

Benzie County owns the lighthouse and gets the final say. County Commissioner Art Jeannot says the county will likely sign off on the project.

“As long as they’re able to fix the problem through those funding vehicles, we are absolutely dedicated to having it done,” Jeannot says.

Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse launched a fundraising campaign in the summer, and they’ve almost reached their goal of more than $1 million in donations.

Taylor says if things go as expected, they’ll have enough to cover the repairs this year, but they may not have enough for their other projects—including adding parking and hiring an executive director.

Still, he says, they won’t take any chances waiting on repairs.         

This feature was produced for Points North, a weekly show on Interlochen Public Radio.

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IPR's Taylor Wizner is passionate about empowering communities through solid reporting.
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