Today is National Lighthouse Day. It’s an important day for Michigan, since we’re the state with the most lighthouses. Once, as many as 267 lights guided ships along the shores and channels of our Great Lakes. Today, about 124 remain. Some are automated and still in use. Some are crumbling ruins. And in many communities, like St. Joseph, the lighthouse has been restored and preserved through the work and funds of local citizens.
An extensive restoration of the St. Joe light, returning it to the way it looked in 1932, was completed in the spring of 2016. Then it was opened to the public for the first time. I knew I had to get a look inside this iconic lighthouse I’ve admired summer after summer during our trips to Silver Beach.
The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in St. Joe staffs the lighthouse and offers a walking tour of the light as well. I booked the walking tour, and it was well worth the extra time and money to hear the history of this maritime landmark.
If you haven’t visited St. Joe, but this lighthouse looks familiar, it’s because it became world-famous when pictures of the lighthouse encrusted in ice circulated through the media last winter.
By the time I visited this summer, the ice was long gone. The skies were cloudy and dramatic that day, but the water was calm. So we were able to safely access the light by walking out on the pier.
The St. Joe Lighthouse and the lighthouse in Grand Haven are the only lighthouses in Michigan that still have their original catwalk. St. Joe’s was saved in the 1980s. Grand Haven is currently in the process of raising funds to save and restore theirs. Keepers used the catwalk to access the lighthouse in bad weather when conditions made it dangerous to walk on the pier.
The St. Joe light is a range light. It has a front and rear light. When ships come into the harbor they know they’re headed in the right direction if they’re positioned so that the two lights appear to line up, with one on top of the other.
The rear light is in this structure that looks more like an actual house. Though the keeper never lived here. Their quarters were on shore, and they made daily visits to the light to maintain it.
This conical tower is the front light.
We didn’t go inside the front light, but we were able to tour the rear light building.
Steep steps, narrow spaces and low doorways are typical in a lighthouse. It certainly wasn’t a job for a tall person.
We were able to climb up into the rear light tower. A modern LED light takes the place of the Fresnel lens, which was placed on display at the Heritage Museum when it was removed in 2012.
We were also allowed to walk outside on the balcony around the rear light tower. I’ve been up in the towers of other Michigan lighthouses, but this was the first one that allowed visitors out on the balcony. The view of Lake Michigan was amazing.
Back inside the rear light, a porthole window provides a perfectly framed view of the front light.
It was wonderful to finally see the inside of this beautiful structure after years of wondering what it was like. I also enjoyed learning more about the St. Joe lighthouse’s history.
Know Before You Go to the St. Joe Lighthouse
- The St. Joe lighthouse is open for self-guided tours Friday and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., until Labor Day.
- It’s free to view the first floor.
- You can climb up to the tower for $10 per adult and $5 per child.
- Walking tours leave from Tiscornia Beach at 10 a.m. The cost is $12 for adults and $7 for children. Reservations for the walking tour are strongly suggested and can be made online.
- More information about visiting the lighthouse is available at this Heritage Center Website.