McGulpin Point Lighthouse & Historic Site

Emmet County owns the historic McGulpin Point Lighthouse, which protected shipping on the Straits of Mackinac against storms, fog and rocks between 1869 and 1906. It was purchased by the county in 2008, which reopened McGulpin to the public with a gala celebration on May 30, 2009.

The site is approximately 10 acres and is a half mile north of the Headlands. It includes 336 feet of shoreline on the Straits with a commanding view of the Mackinac Bridge. It was purchased for $710,000 from the Peppler family.

The following is a history of the property from the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association:

The promontory which would become known as McGulpin Point has a history which starts perhaps thousands of years ago with Native American use and continues into the 20th Century as a lighthouse location. According to the oral traditions of the Anishnaabek, Native Americans arrived and settled in the Straits of Mackinac many generations before the arrival of the first Europeans. Anishnaabek history tells of the Odawa coming to the Straits of Mackinac to expel an earlier tribe living in Northern Michigan. According to Odawa historian Andrew J. Blackbird, this tribe was called the Mus-co-desh. In Blackbird’s story, a great insult was delivered to the Odawa by the Mus-co-desh, who then occupied what is now Emmet County. This insult so infuriated the great war chief Sagemaw that he immediately went back to his villages on Manitoulin Island to gather a war party to right this wrong. The result was the near extermination of the Mus-co-desh and their expulsion from Northern Michigan. The Odawa took advantage of this vacuum and moved into Emmet County, first settling at McGulpin Point.

The parlor has been faithfully maintained, with all the original millwork still in place.

American written history tells us that John McAlpine and his Native American wife lived on McGulpin Point in the 1760s. After the turbulence of the Revolutionary War the land was surveyed for the new United States of America by Aaron Greeley and ownership was determined. John McAlpine’s son and heir, Patrick McGulpin, was given the patent on this land and holds the first recorded deed in Emmet County, Michigan in 1811.

With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Americans started to flood to the Chicago area. During the 1850s, vessel traffic through the Straits of Mackinac was increasing rapidly, and while the Waugoshance Light marked the western entry into the Straits, and the Bois Blanc Island light marked the eastern entry, the absence of a navigational aid within t he shoal-ridden Straits themselves made passage during darkness and periods of low visibility extremely dangerous. To answer that need, the Lighthouse Board petitioned Congress for the construction of a lighthouse and fog bell at McGulpin Point, approximately two miles west of Fort Michilimackinac. Congress responded favorably to the request on August 3, 1854 with the appropriation of $6,000 for the station’s construction.

However, as a result of difficulties in obtaining clear title to the land, no action was taken on the station’s construction for more than a decade. With the original appropriation unspent and expired, the Board again petitioned Congress for the construction of a station at McGulpin Point in 1864, this time receiving $20,000 for the project on July 26, 1866.

The lighthouse as it appeared circa 1900 when James Davenport was keeper

Work began at McGulpin Point early in 1869, and the station was built as a mirror image of the design used at Chambers Island and Eagle Bluff lights under construction in the Door County area that same year. This plan, which is sometimes referred to as the “Norman Gothic” style, was also later also used at Eagle Harbor in 1871, White River in 1875, and at Passage and Sand Islands in 1882.

The keepers dwelling and integrated tower were constructed of Cream City brick with the tower integrated diagonally into the northwest corner of the dwelling. The first and second stories of the tower were approximately ten feet square with buttressed corners, while the tower’s upper portion consisted of a ten-foot octagon. Similar to other stations built on this plan, the tower is double-walled with a circular inner wall approximately four inches thick and eight feet in diameter to house a set of cast iron spiral stairs. The tower was capped with a prefabricated decagonal cast-iron lantern and outfitted with a fixed white Third-and-a-half Order Fresnel lens.

The building sat on a full basement, which contained two general-purpose areas and an oil storage room. For transport of supplies into the tower, the cast iron spiral stairs connected the oil room to the tower, and they served as the only stairs between the living areas with landings and doors on the first and second floors. The first floor contained a parlor, kitchen and two bedrooms, and the second floor featured two additional bedrooms and a large closet. Almost as an afterthought, a combined wood shed & summer kitchen was built in the form of an addition to the rear of the building.

These stairs not only provide access to the lantern, but also serve as the only way of moving between the dwelling cellar and the two floors above.

Among the Station’s most notable keepers was James Davenport, who after serving at Waugoshance and Little Point Sable, was transferred to McGulpin Point in September of 1879. He held this position twenty-seven years, until the station was discontinued in 1906. The Davenport family lived the entire navigation season in the lighthouse. After the close of the navigation season every year, they moved into to their home in Mackinaw City so that the children could get to and from school, the snow making the trip from town to the lighthouse virtually impossible.

Correspondence files in the National Archives in Washington show that Davenport made weekly trips through the snow to the lighthouse to report on its condition to the District Inspector in Milwaukee. Perhaps more importantly, these letters also show that he may have played a critical role in the opening of navigation every spring by reporting weekly, and sometimes even more frequently, on ice conditions in the Straits. Awareness of “ice-out” in the Straits was critical to mariners, since the melting of the ice opened navigation to the critical ports of Chicago and Milwaukee. Because Davenport was the only Straits keeper to submit such frequent reports, it would appear that the Inspector used these reports to gain an understanding as to when navigation would be open throughout the lakes. Most of Davenport’s weekly winter reports consisted of terse commentary as exemplified by his letter of March 28, 1890 in which he reported “Sir, Ice in the Straits between here and Mackinac Island is broke up some so that it moved a little with the heavy E. wind last night. But no water to be seen west of this station as far as can be seen with a glass. The ice is good and solid. Teams crossed the Straits yesterday. Lake Huron is clear of ice up to Mackinac Island. This station is in good order.” Davenport was absolutely meticulous in filing these reports on a weekly basis with the exception of a single week in 1891, when he missed filing his report. His sad letter of March 23rd of that same year provided the reason for his missing the report, when he wrote “Sir, I just was up in the Lt House and found all in good order. You will see by this report that I did not report to you last week. My wife and child died last week and I could not go up to the light house to report to you as required.”

December 5, 1893 was a particularly eventful one at McGulpin Point when the wooden propeller WALDO A. AVERY caught fire while passing through the Straits. By the time the vessel was off McGulpin Point, the fire was raging so badly that in order to save his crew, the captain steered the vessel toward the lighthouse at full steam. Keeper Davenport had left the station for Mackinaw City earlier in the day, and with the aforementioned passing of his wife two years prior, had left his nine children alone at the station. Accustomed to lighthouse life, the children were a resourceful group, and made preparations for the care of the survivors. Imagine the fear in the children’s hearts as they saw the crew members literally fighting for their lives on the approaching vessel. Alerted to what was going on at the lighthouse, Davenport rushed back to the station with a number of Mackinaw City residents. With the vessel’s lifeboat burned and unusable, numerous trips to the burning and beached vessel were made with the Station’s small skiff, until all seventeen crew members had been brought to safety on the shore. The AVERY’s insurance for the season had expired the previous day, and while the vessel was declared a complete loss at the time, the hull was recovered in 1894. The vessel was rebuilt, and continued to ply the lakes until she was finally abandoned in 1923.

With the construction of the Old Mackinac Point light and fog signal station in 1892, the Lighthouse Board decided that McGulpin point station no longer served its once critical role, since the new light at Old Mackinac Point was visible from throughout the Straits, whereas McGulpin Point was only effectively visible from the west. The Lighthouse Board officially authorized the discontinuance of McGulpin point on November 12, 1906, and keeper Davenport climbed the stairs to exhibit his light for the last time on the closing of the navigation season on December 15 of that year. The station was boarded-up and the lantern and lens removed, with Davenport serving as caretaker for a few weeks until his transfer to Mission Point lighthouse where he continued to serve until his retirement in 1917. On retirement, he returned to Mackinaw City, where he lived-out the remainder of his life, passing away on March 18, 1932 at the age of eighty-five.

While records show that McGulpin Point’s lens was temporarily stored at Old Mackinac Point lighthouse, the eventual disposition of both the station’s lens and lantern remain undetermined. Approval was issued by the Board to sell the lighthouse at auction on May 22, 1907, and advertisements of the sale were published in the Cheboygan, Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee newspapers with sealed bids received to be opened on July 17. The highest bid received was only for $875, and with the District Inspector feeling that it was worth at least twice that much, the bid was rejected, and the property sat unused.

Over the ensuing years, correspondence concerning the station included a possible transfer to Mackinac State Historic Parks and use of the station dock and dwelling during the construction of White Shoal lighthouse, but neither of these options reached fruition. The lighthouse finally passed into private ownership on July 30, 1913 when a Sam Smith, an early Mackinaw City president and entrepreneur, purchased the property for $1,425. The station was subsequently resold a couple of times, last being owned by the Peppler family, from whom the station was purchased by Emmet County in 2008.

Soon after purchasing the lighthouse, the County formed a Historical Commission to plan and oversee the restoration and interpretation of the lighthouse, with GLLKA’s Straits Coordinator Sandy Planisek serving as Chair of this Commission,  and GLLKA President Dick Moehl serving as one of the Commissioners.. Emmet County’s mission is to reestablish McGulpin Point Lighthouse as a private aid to navigation (PATON). The U.S. Coast Guard has approved the McGulpin Point Lighthouse PATON application, and a contract was let late in 2008 to Moran Iron Works, Inc. of Onaway, MI to construct a replica decagonal lantern. At a major A major maritime event on May 30, 2009 the McGulpin Point lighthouse was  reopened and relighted as an official  Private Aid to Navigation on May 30, 2009, 103 years after it was extinguished.