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Rising waters: Lighthouse keepers fight to preserve history in the face of climate change

Sandra Svoboda
Great Lakes Now

One evening in the late 1800s, a lighthouse keeper named John Herman was drinking, as he usually did, when he decided to play a prank on his assistant. Herman locked the assistant in the lantern room and left him there. 

When the assistant managed to get out of the room, he found himself all alone in the lighthouse. Herman was never seen again.

As the years went on, future keepers of the Waugoshance Lighthouse, where Herman was last seen, reported strange happenings there. Keepers had their chairs kicked out from under them and coal was shoveled into the boiler, seemingly all by itself. 

Or so they say. 

“When someone first enters the circle of the Great Lakes lighthouse people, one of the first stories that you hear is that of the ghost which haunts the Waugoshance Lighthouse,” wrote maritime historian Wes Oleszewski in his book Lighthouse Adventures: Heroes, Haunts and Havoc on the Great Lakes

As one of the oldest lighthouses in the Great Lakes region, much of the Waugoshance Lighthouse’s history has been lost. What remains are unsubstantiated ghost stories, a piece of World War ? history and a lighthouse left to crumble into Lake Michigan.

“With its lamproom reduced to nothing more than a skeleton, its foundation crumbling and its iron sheathing having fallen off into the lake, this lighthouse is one of the saddest places on the lakes,” Oleszewski wrote. “It is no wonder that it has been said to be haunted.”

The first Great Lakes lighthouse to be surrounded completely by water, Waugoshance was first lit in 1851, marking the western entrance to the Straits of Mackinac. By 1912, it had been decommissioned and was eventually used for tactical bombing practice in World War ?.

In 2000, the Waugoshance Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed as a non-profit with the goal of completely restoring the structure. However, this year, the non-profit was dissolved.

“Over the past two years we have been watching the record high water levels erode the base of the lighthouse at an alarming rate,” former president of the society Chris West said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it is reaching the point of crumbling into Lake Michigan sooner than later.”

In the statement, West said the decision came after receiving a quote for $300,000 for a repair that would only last them a couple of years. He also expressed his frustration with government agencies’ refusal to approve the society’s plan to recover historically significant items and donate them to a museum.

“Sadly it seems the final nail in the coffin comes down to the state and federal agencies preventing us from saving and donating pieces of Waugoshance to keep her story alive,” West wrote.

Credit Sandra Svoboda / Great Lakes Now
Great Lakes Now
Round Island Passage Light.

Lake levels on the rise

Waugoshance isn’t the only lighthouse on the Great Lakes affected by the rising lake levels.

“Last year the water was the highest it has been,” said Jim Tamlyn, director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association. “Last year you had a lot of lighthouses experiencing a lot of problems.”

In 2019 and 2020, water levels on the Great Lakes reached record-breaking highs. While lake levels have gone down this year, most remain above average.

“What’s happening in the last few years with the high water levels is largely related to a persistent time period of high precipitation, as well as events that can be considered extreme precipitation,” said Richard Rood, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan.

According to Rood, as the climate warms, the exchange of water between land, lake and the atmosphere is accelerated.

Due to the warming climate, the atmosphere can hold more moisture and more water can evaporate, resulting in heavier rain during rainy seasons and exacerbating drought conditions during dry periods.

“We’ve been in a wet period, there’s been really what we would call ‘water abundance’ coming from this precipitation,” said Rood. “It’s put more water into the Great Lakes basin than the basin can essentially get rid of.”

Last year, the water got high enough to reach the top of St. Helena Lighthouse near Mackinac Island, causing damage, said Tamlyn.

According to Rood, the Great Lakes will likely experience more ‘water abundance’ in the next few decades. 

“The most robust knowledge that we have is that the temperature is rising and will continue to rise,” Rood said. “This rising temperature is not uniformly distributed throughout the years. It’s fastest in the winter and because it’s fastest in the winter, it’s changing the seasonal water budget of the Great Lakes.”

In the winter, during events like the polar vortex in 2019, cold air outbreaks cause ice to form quickly, halting evaporation and influencing the water levels for months, said Rood. 

“What it means for things like these lighthouses is changes in erosion characteristics,” Rood said, “When you have these big changes in water levels, anything that’s transported by water will have a very large effect.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The Muskegon South Breakwater light.

Brick and mortar and stone

Jeff Shook’s grandmother was the first female lighthouse keeper in Michigan. Now, he is the founder of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy and the owner of lighthouses in Muskegon and Detroit.

“With the water levels higher, it encased the lighthouse in ice in the winter,” Shook said about one of their Muskegon lighthouses. “From this past winter, two of the upper porthole-style lights are broken. Ice gets higher up in the winter.”

On Lake St. Clair, Shook owns a former coast guard station, built in the 1930s. The station includes two houses, both of which were damaged by the recent high water levels. 

“The water was over top of the seawall, I lost all of our dock,” he said. “The water was high enough in the crawl space of the second house that it got into the walls. The trim boards are warped, and there’s mold in there because of it.”

Another Michigan lighthouse,the Round Island Light, sits on a sandspit, welcoming visitors to Mackinac Island. Built in 1895, the little red beacon is upkept by volunteers from the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society. 

In 2020, concerned about the high-water winter ahead of them, these volunteers started a fundraising campaign to build a barrier out of stones around the base of the lighthouse.

“They were afraid of what was going to happen in the winter,” said Tamlyn. “The waves would get into places it hadn’t before, the ice would get into places it hadn’t before.”

With the help of an anonymous donor who donated $250,000 to the cause, the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society was able to have the lighthouse reinforced with 1,400 tons of rock.

Established in 1858, Michigan’s historic Point Betsie Lighthouse sits on the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan.

In 2020, the high water levels caused a crack in the cement barrier protecting the beach and the lighthouse from erosion. 

“These are — I’m going to call them castles — they’re made of brick and mortar and stone and they don’t last forever,” said Tamlyn. 

Like the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse funded the repairs with a fundraising campaign that raised $1 million.

“Each one has its own unique history,” said Shook. “It’s one thing to hear the history, but it’s another thing to see the history.”

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

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