Living in a lighthouse
The first keepers were ready to assist and rescue. Now, volunteers are returning the favor.
© Beth Gauper
Larry Gorsh spent two weeks as one of the keepers of Big Sable Point near Ludington, Mich.
Around the Great Lakes, love for lighthouses is unlimited. Often called "America's castles,'' lighthouses are symbols of a more adventurous era, and tourists find them irresistible.
"They work their way up the coast seeing all the lighthouses,'' says Ronda Werner of Michigan's Tawas Point Light.
"They bring their lighthouse book and want stamps in their passports, and they're all decked out in their lighthouse shirts and their little lighthouse earrings. It's wonderful so many people have this much passion for our lighthouses.''
Now, the state parks and friends associations who care for them have found a way to harness all this passion: They're turning
tourists into volunteer keepers.
Every year, the 1869 Tawas Point Light on Michigan's Lake Huron coast takes applications for keepers to live on a sandy spit often called "the Cape Cod of the Midwest.''
For one or two weeks, volunteers live at the newly restored lighthouse amid period furnishings, some of them original. They
work six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, interpreting the history for visitors, helping in the gift shop and performing
For this, they happily pay $250 a week, $275 with a membership in Friends of Tawas Point Lighthouse.
Tawas Point State Park modeled its volunteer-keeper program on the one in Leelanau State Park on Michigan's west coast, home
of Grand Traverse Light.
That program was modeled on the one developed by the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association, a friends society that
cares for Big Sable and Little Sable Point and the Ludington North Breakwater Light in Ludington, Mich.
Volunteers at those lights don't pay, though.
"If people are paying $220, they might think they're on vacation, and they are, but it's a working vacation,'' says association director Craig Renny.
When we visited the 1867 Big Sable Point lighthouse in Ludington State Park, on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, we met
Larry Gorsh and Sandy Silver of Sibley, Mo., who were sharing lighthouse-keeping duties for two weeks with three other
couples from three other states.
Larry was stationed at the top of the 112-foot tower, which visitors can climb for $2. We chatted about the oddity of a lighthouse on a lake — "I've caught myself saying to visitors, 'Look out at the ocean,' '' he admitted — and the long hours.
The first week, the couple got half a day off and visited nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The second week, they got a whole day off and went to Mackinac Island. Gorsh said he loves the job.
"Where Sandy and I work, we say, 'We're going to work at a lighthouse for two weeks,' and people say, 'You're going to work on vacation?' And I say, 'You don't understand.'
© Beth Gauper
At the tip of Rock Island, volunteer keepers staff Pottawatomie Light, Wisconsin's oldest lighthouse.
"Last week, we had people from Germany, Switzerland and Norway; it's incredible,'' he says.
I asked what lighthouse he wanted to volunteer at next.
"We've decided we want to come back here, with the same four couples,'' he said. "The camaraderie grows pretty quickly out
Citizens groups have shouldered responsibility for many lighthouses since passage of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2000. But they've been coming to the rescue long before that, as lighthouses began to succumb to the elements.
"In 1987, Lake Michigan was lapping at the base of Big Sable's tower, and a local plumber who'd been out there as a kid saw the situation and was able to motivate local construction companies and the Corps of Engineers to put in a new breakwall,'' Craig Renny says.
Volunteer keepers also staff the DeTour Reef Light, in open water east of the Mackinac Bridge, and the Pottawatomie Light in
Rock Island State Park, off the tip of Wisconsin's Door Peninsula.
In 2007, a couple was chosen from 159 applicants to permanently staff the Wind Point Lighthouse in Racine, Wis., a 108-foot tower designed by Orlando Poe, whose style was emulated around the Great Lakes.
In the Apostle Islands off Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula, the National Park Service appoints volunteers to staff the
lighthouses at Sand, Devils and Michigan islands during the summer tourist season.
The parks look for people who can spend a week or more working, and the application process is rigorous, generally requiring a letter of intent, a resume, two letters of recommendation, a phone interview and orientation.
People who don't have time to spend a whole week, however, can spend a day or two on Minnesota's North Shore, where the Lake County Historical Society operates the 1892 Two Harbors Light as a bed-and-breakfast, allowing guests to perform such chores as monitoring beacon rotation and putting up and taking down the flag.
On Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast near Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society runs an inn
that's in the middle of the Whitefish Point Light Station and next to the Shipwreck Museum.
Three other lighthouses on Lake Superior are private and open to overnight guests. For more, see Dwelling in the past.
Below are some of the volunteer-keeper opportunities on the western Great Lakes. For positions in national parks, see Volunteer vacations.
© Beth Gauper
In the Apostle Islands, volunteer keepers greet visitors to Sand Island.
Tawas Point Light near Tawas City, Mich.: Volunteer keepers pay $225 per week per person, plus a $25 application fee. Couples are preferred, since there's a lot of work. Weeks are available from March through Christmas.
To apply, contact Tawas Point State Park, 989-362-5658.
Big Sable Point, Little Sable Point and North Breakwater Light around Ludington, Mich.: The Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association accepts volunteers for one- or two-week stints. Keepers in Ludington and Little Sable stay at nearby houses once used by state-park managers.
Applicants must apply in fall, appear for a personal interview in Ludington in late October and, if they're accepted, attend an all-day orientation in late April.
Keepers don't pay for lodgings, but there's an application fee of $25, $40 for couples, and they must be members of the association, $50, $70 for couples.
Five to seven keepers can work at the 1867 Big Sable, four to five at the 1874 Little Sable and four at the small 1924 Ludington light, which is at the end of a long pierhead in town.
Little Sable is a classic red-brick Poe tower, "so beautiful it just takes your breath away,'' says Craig Renny.
Grand Traverse Light on Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula: Four volunteer keepers pay $150 per week, plus a $25 application fee and $20 Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum membership.
Volunteers stay in the former assistant's quarters, which has a modern kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms with two beds each and a bath and a half.
The season runs from April through early December. 231-386-7195.
In winter, keepers pay $100 for up to four people, plus museum membership. There's a two-night minimum.
Old Mission Point
Light on Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula: Grand Traverse takes applications for
volunteer keeper stays at this 1870 schoolhouse-style light, newly open to the public, on a narrow finger of land north of
DeTour Reef Light off Michigan's Drummond Island: This 1931 offshore light at the mouth of the St. Marys River, between Lake Huron and Lake Superior, needs four to six keepers on weekends from mid-June to August.
Cost for a three-day, two-night shift is $220, $200 with membership. Call the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society at 906-493-6609.
© Beth Gauper
The Old Mission Point lighthouse is at the tip of a narrow peninsula.
Sand, Devils and Michigan lights in the Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: The park starts filling volunteer keeper positions in January, ideally for three- or four-week stretches, but positions may be available through spring. There's a lot of work, so couples are preferred.
Keepers on Sand Island stay in a modern cabin but must walk two miles to the lighthouse and have the most campground work. On
Devils Island, they have running water but a lot of grass to cut.
Michigan, which has two lighthouses, has the most steps to climb, but the campground isn't busy and, says ranger Susan Mackreth, "it has some of the coolest stories to tell.''
Positions also are available on Oak and Manitou islands. People who are interested should call 715-779-3397, Ext. 303, to
discuss opportunities: "People hear 'lighthouses' and they have this whole romantic notion, so it takes a lot of chipping
away to get down to reality,'' she says.
For details, see Lighthouses of the Apostles.
Au Sable Light in Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: The National Park Service appoints volunteer keepers to spend up to a month in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the 1910 head-keepers quarters at this 1874 light on the edge of Lake Superior, 12 miles west of Grand Marais on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Keepers do light maintenance and help with the new museum and gift shop. After Jan. 1, apply with the National Park Service.
For more, see Michigan's Pictured Rocks.
© Beth Gauper
On Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, volunteer keepers help maintain Grand Traverse Light.
It's open daily from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Applications for summer are due by Feb. 1.
For more on Rock Island, see Wisconsin's Icelandic outpost.
Two Harbors Light in
Two Harbors, Minn.: If you don't have a week to spare, spend a night in this 1892 lighthouse on Lake Superior. It's a
bed-and-breakfast, but its owner, the Lake County Historical Society, encourages guests to consider themselves volunteer
keepers and do small chores.
The Lighthouse B&B has three spare but tasteful rooms. They share one bathroom, and there's a half-bath in the basement. The Skiff House, on the grounds adjoining the visitors center, has its own bathroom and hot tub. 888-832-5606.
For details on taking the train to the Lighthouse B&B from Duluth, see The Lighthouse Express.
For more about staying in five lighthouses around Lake Superior, see Dwelling in the past.
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