The Forgotten Coast: A Lighthouse Tour of Michigan’s Thumb

Today on our blog, Jerry Roach, published photographer, historian, lecturer, preservationist, tour guide, and author of three books on the lighthouse of Michigan, takes us on our tour of some of Michigan’s many lighthouses. For more on lighthouses in Michigan, visit michigan.org.

When you think about all the lighthouses in Michigan, where is the first region you think of that has the most lights? Probably the Upper Peninsula, maybe the Lake Michigan shoreline comes in a close second right? The Upper Peninsula does have the most lighthouses coming in at an amazing 57, but truth be told, the sunrise side of the Lower Peninsula comes in second with 34 lights. If you remember your history this all makes sense, because most of Michigan was developed by pioneers and explorers that arrived by ship, thus they arrived at the east coast first.

We will begin our tour in Port Huron. As a matter of fact, the first lighthouse built in Michigan was the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse. With the expansion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the early 1800’s, larger ships could now begin to explore and ply the waters of the Great Lakes. That increase in ship traffic directly led to the need for navigational aids, which gave birth to hundreds of lighthouses which dot Michigan’s shoreline. The lighthouse arrived at Fort Gratiot in 1825, eleven years after construction on the Fort had concluded. There were two different towers that served this light and all of them stood at different heights. After decades of this light being closed to the public, the Port Huron Museum has assumed control of the operations and it can now be visited on a daily basis. While you are in Port Huron don’t forget to allow some time to explore the Huron Lightship just south of Fort Gratiot. Lightship 103 was built in 1920 at a cost of $147,428. This National Historic Landmark is dry docked in Pine Grove Park. The expertly restored lightship is open daily throughout the summer for tours. By the way, you may find this interesting; the Huron Lightship was the only lightship that remained on post during World War II.

Heading north on M-25 you will come to the city of Port Sanilac. The lighthouse here became operational on October 20, 1886. While the lighthouse is privately owned, there are excellent views of the light from the road. As we continue on our journey we arrive in Harbor Beach. Tours are available of the light by registering on the Harbor Beach Lighthouse website. You can also get great views from many of the parks in town. This area was developed as a harbor of refuge; an area where ships could escape the wrath from storms on Lake Huron. The Harbor Beach Lighthouse was built in 1885.

About 13 miles north of Harbor Beach, near the town of Port Hope is the Pt. Aux Barques Lighthouse. Loosely translated, Pt. Aux Barques means, point of boats. It is in this area where the lighthouse is located that the boats would begin their turns to either head south towards the St. Clair River or navigate the tip of the thumb to continue the voyage through Lake Huron. This very important lighthouse became operational in 1848. A very active preservation society has done a remarkable job restoring this light. Tours are available.

The remaining lights of the Thumb can only be viewed via public venues. The Port Austin Reef Light was built in 1878, and one of Michigan’s newest lights, the Caseville Harbor Light was constructed on July 25, 2001. Both are along M-25.

Why not plan your visit to these lighthouses during some fantastic summer celebrations? During July there is the Offshore Powerboat Races and the start of the Port Huron to Mackinac Yacht Race in the Port Huron area, and a Civil War Re-enactment near Port Austin. When August rolls around don’t forget to spend some time at the Huron County Fair near Harbor Beach, the Maritime Festival at Pt. Aux Barques, and who can forget the Cheeseburger Festival near Caseville. 

So the next time you’re looking for something to do on the weekend, or a couple of days during the week, take a nice relaxing trip along M-25 and explore Michigan’s forgotten coast and the lighthouses of the Thumb.

Jerry Roach is a published photographer, historian, lecturer, preservationist, tour guide, and the author of three books on the lighthouse of Michigan. His books called the “Ultimate Guide” series include the The Ultimate Guide To West Michigan Lighthouses, The Ultimate Guide To East Michigan Lighthouses, and The Ultimate Guide To Upper Michigan Lighthouses. You can explore lighthouses of the world and especially the Great Lakes by visiting his website, view thousands of photos at his gallery, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

  • deedee

    As a long time lover of the Thumb area it is wonderful to see this unique perspective! Thanks for the funny article.

  • Diane1459

    This was very informative Jerry. Actually sparked an inerest in taking this scenic ride once more.

  • Sandy Keeney

    OMG.  I never realized that was Tim Allen’s voice.  I love the commercials.  We live in PA but my husband is from Michigan and we go there every summer.  Love, Love, Love the state.  I’m a lighthouse fan and Love traveling around the state

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  • http://www.megmims.com/ Meg Mims

    Great post, Jerry! Love the lighthouse pix. I’ll have to get to Port Austin one day.

  • http://evergladesrides.com airboat tour

    Interesting. I just love to visit places like this. Once i had made plan with my friends to visit this place but unfortunately couldn’t get there. But now i surely make the plan and definitely visit it. Thank You for the post.:)

  • Melissa Hall

    Awesome post Jerry and it just goes to show all of the wonderful things available in the thumb that many Michigan residents don’t know are right in their own backyard. I’m a big proponent of thumb tourism and love helping my Caro bed and breakfast guests navigate the beautiful landscape of the thumb. It truly is amazing all that can be done in the area.

    If anyone does choose to go on a lighthouse tour, I would love to have you stay as a guest at my Victorian bed and breakfast in Caro, MI right in the heart of the thumb. The name is Himelhoch B&B and you can find more info at http://www.himelhochbb.com/

    Thanks again Jerry for highlighting the “forgotten” coast.