White Shoal Light

The White Shoal Light is a lighthouse located 20 miles (32 km) west of the Mackinac Bridge in Lake Michigan. It is an active aid to navigation.


The period between 1852 and the beginning of the 20th century saw great activity on the Great Lakes by the United States Lighthouse Board. Between 1852 and 1860 26 new lights were built. Even as the United States Civil War and its aftermath slowed construction, a dozen new lights were still lit in that decade. In the 1870s, 43 new lights were built on the Lakes. The 1880s saw more than one hundred lights constructed.

As the new century began, on the Great Lakes the Lighthouse Board operated 334 major lights, 67 fog horns and 563 buoys.

During the 19th century design of Great Lakes lights slowly evolved. Until 1870 the most common design was to build a keeper's dwelling with the light on the dwelling's roof or on a relatively small square tower attached to the house. In the 1870s, so as to raise lights to a higher focal plane, conical brick towers, usually between eighty to one hundred feet tall were constructed. In the 1890s steel lined towers began to replace the older generation of brick building.See Big Sable Point Light for a striking transition and transformation.

The White Shoal Light was the culmination of a forty year effort—between 1870 and 1910—where engineers began to build lights on isolated islands, reefs, and shoals that were significant navigational hazards. To that time, Light ships were the only practical way to mark the hazards, but were dangerous for the sailors who manned them, and difficult to maintain. "Worse, regardless of the type of anchors used lightships could be blown off their expected location in severe storms, making them a potential liability in the worst weather when captains would depend on the charted location of these lights to measure their own ship's distance from dangerous rocks."See, United States lightship Huron (LV-103).

Successively, using underwater crib designs, the Board built on a shoal the Waugoshance Light (1851), and demonstrated a "new level of expertise" in constructing of the Spectacle Reef Light (1874), Stannard Rock Light (1882) and Detroit River (Bar Point Shoal) (also known as the Detroit River Entrance Light) (1885). "The long and expensive process of building lights" in remote and difficult sites "ended in nationally publicized engineering projects that constructed" Rock of Ages (1908) and the White Shoal (1910) lights.

In the first three decades of the twentieth century the Lighthouse Board and the new Lighthouse Service continued to build new lights on the Great Lakes. For 1925, the Board had under its auspices around the Great Lakes: 433 major lights; ten lightships; 129 fog signals; and about 1,000 buoys. Of these 1,771 navigational aids, 160 stations had resident keepers, as most navigational aids were automated. By 1925 nearly all of the Great Lakes lighthouses that today exist—excepting e.g., Poe Reef Light and Gravelly Shoal Light and some memorial lights, namely Manning Memorial Light. Another is the William Livingtone Memorial Light, and the latest Great Lakes light, namely Tri-Centennial Light of Detroit -- had been constructed.

This is part of a larger pattern of building 14 reef lights around Michigan, which was intended to help ships navigate through and around the shoals and hazards around the Straits of Mackinac.

Building the Light

This crib style light was built in 1912 at a cost of $225,000.00. In addition to a fog signal, it also had a submersible bell that would toll the number "23" to warn off mariners. This early 20th Century technological innovation was an audible precursor to a mid Century innovation using radar, RACON, which was later installed at this location.

Because of growing freighter traffic in and through the Straits of Mackinac, this light was part of a larger plan to build lighthouses to protect ships and mariners in the area. This is one of the first three "lightship stations" of the Great Lakes. Its construction, along with Waugoshance Light, was a "major engineering feat" because of its distance and isolation from land. Until 1910, Lightship LV56 served at White Shoal. Construction for this light began in 1908: the crib pier being built in St. Ignace, and transported by ship. The keeper house was accompanied by a fog signal building that housed a diaphone, that has since been removed.


The tower was coated in gunnite after completion.

The lighthouse is unique:

The White Shoal Light is the prominent design element in the "Save Our Lights" license plate for the State of Michigan; the sale of which helps fund lighthouse preservation. Michigan is the only state that supports lighthouse preservation with a program that includes annual grants from the state to local preservation groups. Thus, there are many organizations and their volunteers working hard to save and restore lighthouses. The Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy is a state preservation society, and the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association is also based in the state.

White Shoal Light is one of over 150 past and present lighthouses in Michigan. Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state. See Lighthouses in the United States. Because of its unique form and coloration, it is often the subject of photographs, drawings, and even of needlepoint illustrations.

Popular culture

A scaled down replica of this light was built at Lake Havasu, Arizona. Located on the Lake Havasu Island Golf Course, the light is operational and was dedicated on November 2, 2008 It was sponsored by the families of John & Janet Roe & Eric & Sundin; built by Jack Hensley and Members of the Lake Havasu Lighthouse Club, dedicated "To the memory of Eric Sundin." It is located at GPS: 34º 27.16' N - 114º 21.12' W , and has a red light that flashes sixty times per minute.See also List of lighthouses in the United States. It is considered to be iconic, and has been the subject of memorabilia.

Seeing the light

A private boat is the best way to see this light close up. Short of that, Shepler's Ferry Service out of Mackinaw City offers periodic lighthouse cruises in the summer season. Its "westbound Lighthouse Tour" — three hours more or less — includes passes by various lights, including White Shoal Light, Waugoshance Light (which it replaced), Wilderness State Park, Gray's Reef Light (originally built in 1891), and St. Helena Island Light. A so-called grand lighthouse excursion is a yearly event sponsored through the Great Lakes Lightkeeper Association, and includes these and many other lights. Schedules and rates are available from Shepler's.

Another alternative is to charter a seaplane to make a tour of the Mackinac Straits and environs.

Specialized further reading
  • "A Tour of the Lights of the Straits." Michigan History 70 (Sep/Oct 1986), pp. 17–29.
  • Murphy, L.A., "Investigation of Foundation Stability at White Shoal Light Station, Lake Michigan." Coast Guard Engineers Digest No. 96 (Jan-Feb, 1956), pp. 34–38.


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Building Activity

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