South Manitou Island Light

South Manitou Island Lighthouse is located on South Manitou Island in Lake Michigan, 16 miles (26 km) west of Leland, Michigan. It is in Leelanau County in western Northern Michigan.


This is the third lighthouse built on the island. Construction of the first began in 1839 and the 1-1/2-story lighthouse with a lens in the cupola first went on in 1840, under the care of Lighthouse keeper William N. Burton, who had a thriving lumbering business. It had a Lewis lamp, which was upgraded to a fourth order Fresnel lens (pronounced /freɪˈnɛl/). Deterioration of the building led to the lighthouse being completely rebuilt in 1858. Over time this light was found to be deficient, and the current lighthouse was built in 1872. With a third order Fresnel lens sitting 91 feet (28 m) above the foundation, this light boasted a focal plane of 104 feet. The site is currently under the control of the National Park Service, in conjunction with the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1958, and is presently a museum. It is not operational.

“The lighthouse on South Manitou Island is, or was while it was still in operation, perhaps the most beautiful on the Great Lakes,”

Guide Emily McKinney stated: “You’re not only looking at Lake Michigan out there, you’re looking at the Manitou Passage,” she said. “It’s a big stretch of water between the Straits of Mackinac in Chicago, 300 miles (480 km). If you use you imagination, take yourselves back 150 years ago.” The passage was preferred as safer than being on the open lake—so much so that 1,000 ships passed each day, carrying people and commerce—the passageway nonetheless was treacherous.

Congress appropriated $5,000 for a South Manitou Island light in 1838. A report to the Secretary of the Treasury noted that the island offered shelter from storms and fuel for steamships. The report opined that it was the only all weather harbor admitting large vessels in the 300-mile (480 km) direct route from the Straits of Mackinac to Chicago. For those in storms, the sight of the beacon would have been a magnificent one, McKinney says. "Before the light went on, a man who had been in a boat on a storm-tossed lake in the area of South Manitou recounted the sense of terror he felt. It might have been different after the light’s construction, McKinney summed up: “All these people on the boat, scared and frightened, look up and see a 100-foot-tall whitewashed tower with that white light, shining on the lake. It would have looked just like an angel.”

The light has been the sight of a number of accidents and fatalities. Keeper Aaron Sheridan, his wife and their infant on March 15, 1878 died in a boating accident near the light. The Three Brothers shipwreck is within sight of the light.

The Manitou Island Memorial Society has been formed to preserve, protect, restore and "relight the light" on South Manitou Island and elsewhere. The dwelling's inside is closed and covered with graffiti. Fundraising efforts are on directed to removing the graffiti and repairing the lighthouse buildings. In the 1980s the towers foundation was reinforced to protect it from erosion at a time of high lake levels which threatened to topple the structure. Today, the tower is open and guides offer tours.

The Park Service restored the lantern room and the tower's spiral staircase in the summer of 2008, and a replica of the light’s original third-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern late that fall. The light was reactivated in May 2009 and is lit from May to November.

Specialized Further reading

Taylor, Paul (October 2009) Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer (Kent State University Press) ISBN 1606350404; ISBN 978-1606350409.