Traverse City News and Events

Two Historic Sites Set To Celebrate Monumental Anniversaries

By Ross Boissoneau | Dec. 26, 2019

There’s a party, and you’re invited: In 2020, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore turns 50, while Mission Point Lighthouse celebrates 150 years.

Age before beauty: Mission Point Lighthouse (not to be confused with Grand Traverse Lighthouse at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula) will be the guest of honor as it hosts the Michigan Lighthouse Festival, Aug. 7-8. That date also coincides with National Lighthouse Day, Aug. 7.

The Michigan Lighthouse Festival is a traveling event, taking place at a different lighthouse each year. With 129 lighthouses scattered across Michigan – more than any other state – it could take a while for the festival to make it to every location. Marge Ellenberger, who runs the festival, says she and Mission Point Lighthouse Manager Ginger Schultz are still working on the details.

“The kickoff dinner Friday night at Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel will feature special guests,” says Ellenberger. University of Michigan professor Bill Lucas has produced a CD of music about lighthouses, and actor Joe Smith portrays Augustin-Jean Fresnel, inventor of the lens that bears his name. Saturday, the lighthouse will host the event, including vendors and activities.

It’s been a while coming. In the 1860s, a large ship sank just off the tip of Old Mission Peninsula. Congress responded with $6,000 designated for the construction of a lighthouse, though it wasn’t completed until 1870 due to the Civil War. It officially opened Sept. 10, when the 5th Order Fresnel lens was first lighted. It was fueled by whale oil (later kerosene), and refracted and magnified its light source into an intense beam that could be seen up to 13 miles away. 

When it was decommissioned in 1933, the lighthouse was abandoned, and became a site for partying and vandalism. The township purchased it in 1948 and began refurbishing it, though there wasn’t much left from the original. “It was trashed. There were no doors or windows, the lens was stolen. There were some historic records in Lansing, but those were destroyed in a fire. The only history remaining is the floors,” says Schultz.

Today, the lighthouse has been added to the National and State Historic Registers, and visitors can now climb the tower and tour the museum. A 5th Order Fresnel lens similar to the original is on display.

One unique feature of the lighthouse is that it serves as a working vacation home when it is open from May through September. Those volunteering for the lighthouse keeper program stay a week each, running the small gift shop and hosting tours for visitors.

Mission Point may have 100 years on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but as “The Most Beautiful Place in America,” by viewers of Good Morning America in 2011, Sleeping Bear has plenty on its side.

Its 50th anniversary activities kick off Saturday, Jan. 18 at the Dune Climb. From 10am to 4pm, park rangers and volunteers from the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Historic Sleeping Bear will team up for a variety of outdoor fun. The “Hibernation Celebration” will include sledding on the dunes (BYOS: Bring Your Own Sled), snowshoeing on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail (snowshoes provided), snowball target practice and more. It’s all free with a national park pass.

Additional activities have not yet been scheduled, but one way to keep track of them is through the new mobile app (available for download to Apple devices, with an Android version coming soon). It will offer information about popular sites, park services, historic places, and little known natural features. Commemorative 50th anniversary park passes, good for a year, are available for $45, less than the cost of two weeklong passes.

It wasn’t all fun and games getting to 50. Michigan Senator Philip A. Hart introduced legislation to the U.S. Congress in 1961 to preserve the Sleeping Bear Dunes by pronouncing it a national lakeshore. It included 77,000 acres of parkland, which would force 1,587 private parcels (including longtime family homes and businesses) to be turned over to the federal government.

The proposal faced opposition from taxpayers and local landowners. Historical records show that land acquisition personnel further fueled the fury with a high-handed approach, dismissing landowners and their concerns. EventuallyHart agreed to amend the proposal, reducing it to 51,000 acres, decreasing the number of individuals affected. 

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