Museum and exhibit celebrate first full year
On stormy days when the rain pierces like daggers and an angry wind whips the coastline, one can look out into the darkness and imagine a ship running aground just off the shore of Point Betsie. Her crew lashes themselves to the bobbing wreckage and prays their cries for help will reach human ears.
The Point Betsie Lighthouse was the southernmost in a network of beacons that were built to guide ships through the Manitou Passage during storms. During the heyday of Great Lakes shipping, her lifesaving teams rescued most of the crews of two shipwrecks: the J. Hazard Hartzell in 1880 to the south of Frankfort and the St. Lawrence in 1898. (Read about the Hartzell’s controversial rescue in our online archives.)
Her lighthouse still beams 15 miles into Lake Michigan, but the lifesaving crews have long since left Point Betsie. A modern era of 1,000-foot ships on the Great Lakes and a technologically advanced industry has, for the most part, turned Michigan’s 270 lighthouses—more than any other state—into relics of history.
The Point Betsie Lighthouse no longer saves lives but still shines in its new role: to illuminate Great Lakes maritime history and enlighten visitors about the importance of lighthouses to trade and commerce throughout early American history. In fact, the ninth law passed by the U.S. Congress federalized existing lighthouses on the Atlantic Coast and was signed into law by our first president, George Washington. Lighthouses then gradually spread to the Great Lakes as pioneers moved westward.
This particular lighthouse was built in 1858 and added a foghorn in 1891. Electricity reached Point Betsie in 1922, relieving the lightkeeper of the need to burn kerosene. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt consolidated all lighthouses under the U.S. Coast Guard. The Point Betsie light—the last manned light on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore—was automated in 1983.
Benzie County eventually acquired Point Betsie from the federal government in 2004. The Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse, a volunteer group, formed at the time of the transfer to provide interpretation and offer historic tours to the public. And to this day, the light—beamed through a modern acrylic lens from New Zealand—remains an official aid to navigation under U.S. Coast Guard control.
Today, education is the key purpose of the Point Betsie Lighthouse.
A new exhibit room and a gift shop in the Boat House, which opened last July and celebrates its first full year in 2015, recounts in stunning detail the St. Lawrence wreck on November 25, 1898. The onshore lifesaving team used a Lyle gun and allegedly fired a line toward the sound of the ship’s whistle in a blinding gale. With pinpoint accuracy—or luck—the line became entangled in the ship’s whistle cord. When the lifesavers pulled the line from shore, it blew the ship’s whistle. And that was how the Lawrence crew, nearly blinded by the storm, knew that help was on the way. The heroic actions of the Point Betsie team saved the lives of 14 of 15 crewmembers.
Like the Hartzell 18 years earlier, the Lawrence was an incredible rescue, full of bravery, skill, and luck. But the Hartzell shipwreck has received much more media attention over the years.
“We wanted an action story,” says Jonathan Hawley, past president of Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse and author of the authoritative book Point Betsie: Lightkeeping and Lightsaving on Northeastern Lake Michigan (University of Michigan Press, 2008). “We decided, since we only had the opportunity to feature one shipwreck in the exhibit, we’d do the one that wasn’t so heavily publicized. Yet the event was absolutely vital and very unique.”
Hawley’s book, Point Betsie, is billed as “the compelling story of a key Great Lakes lighthouse whose beam has pierced night skies for 150 years. This rich history recounts the efforts of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard on Lake Michigan’s wreck-strewn northeastern coast, near the treacherous Manitou Passage.”
Point Betsie also recounts the dedicated lightkeepers and their families who served there beginning in 1858. Among them is the illustrious Alonzo Slyfield, who served as keeper from 1861 until 1882. Remarkably, Slyfield was also the doctor for this part of Michigan, according to Hawley. He traveled on foot or by horse throughout this part of the state, taking care of people for all conceivable afflictions. Slyfield the country doctor was succeeded by his son, Edwin, who manned Point Betsie for seven years.
The exhibit room in the Boat House depicts the dramatic, but also the tranquil, everyday scenes from the lighthouse community that once lived here.
One wall mural tells the story of the Lawrence rescue. The opposite wall shows a bucolic scene of lifesavers in the water on a leisurely row, with Point Betsie in the background and an American flag flapping in a blue sky.
“We wanted to show that there was a little community here in this isolated spot,” Hawley says. “There was nothing around here besides this group of people who lived at Point Betsie.”
Anchoring the exhibit room is a wooden lifesaving boat, similar to what was used here in the 1890s. This particular one was built by the Coast Guard near Baltimore, traveled to Isle Royal to deliver supplies to lighthouses on Lake Superior, was bought by a family who used it for 30 years on Lake Huron, and then was donated to the Great Lakes Boat Building School. Through a fortuitous conversation, Hawley learned about the boat, and it was ultimately given to the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse and rebuilt for the exhibit.
“Very few of these boats survived,” Hawley says. “Most were chopped up for firewood as they were being replaced by fiberglass boats.”
Somewhere To Stay
The Point Betsie Lighthouse does serve one other purpose.
Its second story apartment—where lightkeepers such as Alonzo Slyfield, the country doctor, once lived—is available for weekly rentals from spring until fall. The apartment, which was first rented out three years ago, can accommodate six people and costs approximately $2,000 per week during the summer tourism season. All proceeds help fund the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse.
“We’ve had Coast Guard descendants stay here,” Hawley says. “Some kids who were born here have come back and toured the lighthouse. They’re universally thrilled to see that the Point Betsie Lighthouse continues to inspire and educate.”
While the era of saving shipping crews in distress is long over, this lighthouse still has an important role to play.
“Tourists who come here should understand the roots of this area, its history and development,” Hawley says. “They should know about the tremendous importance of Lake Michigan and the development of its communities and settlements.”
The lighthouse is located about five miles north of Frankfort. Follow M-22 out of town and watch for signs for the Point Betsie Lighthouse on your left. For more information, visit PointBetsie.org.
Feature photo: Point Betsie Lighthouse. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.