Lights of Northern Lake Huron

Charity Island Lightkeepers Home Trip on Roadtrippers

In the days before ship-to-shore radios and global positioning systems, lighthouses were the only signposts guiding travelers on the Great Lakes. If you couldn't see them, or the stars and the sun, you were driving blind. This tour visits the Lights of Northern Lake Huron that disappeared from view during the great storm of 1913.

The Storm

The storm began on Friday, November 7, 1913, over Minnesota. At first, it traveled northwest towards Canada, with 40 mph winds. Then, Saturday night, it suddenly turned south. By Sunday, it was a hurricane with 90 mph winds-and snow.

Captain James B. Watts of the Durston was headed north. He saw the "Thunder Bay" light around 1:30 Sunday afternoon and then, nothing. "The sea was coming over us from both sides. It was terrible-higher than the cabins." Finally, around 8:00 Monday morning the Spectacle Reef Light pierced the storm, and Watts knew where he was. A man of wry humor, he noted, "The one mercy the storm showed us was to seal our hatches and for'd cabins and windows with a thick armor-plating of ice."

Most boats on the lake that day were not so fortunate. Some ran aground. Eight on Lake Huron went down with all hands.

Charity Island and Tawas Point 

Captain Watts still had decent visibility when he passed the lights that guarded Saginaw and Tawas Bays. Today visitors can have dinner on the porch of the Charity Island Light Keepers House and desert on the boat making the return trip to Au Gres at sunset. The full experience takes about 312 hours. The 1876 Tawas Point Lighthouse, in Tawas State Park, was erected to guide vessels past Ottawa Point and into Tawas Bay.. 

Harrisville/Sturgeon Point

Just north of Harrisville the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse marks a rocky reef that extends a mile into the lake. Perley Silverhorn donated the land for the light-and became its first keeper. Modern visitors can explore both the lighthouse exhibits and the point, where an occasional Petoskey stone is found.


The last lighthouse Captain Watts saw was on Thunder Bay Island. Land-based travelers are more likely to see the Alpena Light, which marks the mouth of the Thunder Bay River. Called "Sputnik" and "Little Red" by locals, the steel tower built in 1914 is sometimes dismissed as "Long on duty, short on beauty."

Alpena was at the heart of the 1913 storm.  Today the Thunder Bay Scuba Snorkel tour gives non-divers a close up look at some of the boats that make Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary the only fresh-water sanctuary in the nation. The sanctuary's Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center lets landlubbers experience the shipwrecks and their history. There are more maritime exhibits and the Katherine V, a fishing tug, at the Besser Museum.

Middle Island

The Durston never saw the Middle Island Light Station that terrifying Sunday afternoon. But visitors can see it-and even spend the night in its converted foghorn building-on summer weekends. Tours on Saturdays take three to four hours and include a short boat ride, a nature walk, and up-close views of the lighthouse and its restoration.

Presque Isle

The new Presque Isle Lighthouse was completed in 1871; the old one, about a mile south, was built in 1840. You can still visit both of them and climb to the top of their towers. Presque Isle also has range lights-two lights that sailors lined up to enter a harbor safely. Anna Garraty maintained the rear light for years, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch for her all-night watches. For lunch, try the Portage Restaurant or the Portage General Store.

Rogers City

You can learn about the lives of Great Lakes Mariners like Captain Watts and crew at the Great Lakes Lore Museum in Rogers City. There are other maritime treasures in the Presque Isle County Historical Museum, and Lakeside Park includes a maritime memorial.

At the time of the great storm, it took 36 hours for workers with shovels and wheelbarrows to load 2,000 tons of limestone into a small freighter. At Harbor View you can see how 25,000 tons are loaded in 8 hours at the world's largest limestone quarry.

40 Mile Point

The 40 Mile Point Lighthouse has a two-story brick duplex. On the beach in Lighthouse Park is the wooden hull of the Joseph S. Fay, which ran aground in 1905. The park also displays the pilothouse of the S.S. Calcite.


Cheboygan also has a set of range lights-they mark the entrance to the Cheboygan River. The Great Lakes Lightkeepers Association is restoring the Front Range Light. To sense the courage of those who tried to rescue stranded sailors on the lakes, visit the self-bailing lifeboat at the Historical Society of Cheboygan County or the modern US Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw. 

Mackinaw City

Shepler's Lighthouse Cruises take visitors past some of the lights Captain Watts followed through the Straits of Mackinac to Mackinaw City, where the Mackinaw Point Lighthouse must have been a welcomed sight. The cruises are splendid on a clear, sunny day, but it's the gray, foggy days that fill the imagination as lights and their fog signals suddenly appear out of nowhere