Whitefish Point lighthouse is an icon of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The oldest active light station on Lake Superior, is regarded as a critical navigational beacon guiding freighters passing to and from the Soo Locks. Whitefish Bay has seen more than its share of shipwrecks over the years, including the Edmund Fitzgerald. Today, the Shipwreck Museum holds artifacts from many of those shipwrecks, the keeper’s home can be toured, and visitors can spend the night in the old Coast Guard quarters. Whitefish Point is a must visit destination for any fan of lighthouses or Michigan history.
Whitefish Point Lighthouse History
The area surrounding Whitefish Point is known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes as it has claimed ships dating as far back as the first sailing vessel on Lake Superior in 1816. The original lighthouse here at the point was built in 1848 and commenced operations in the Spring of 1849. The masonry tower was only 42 feet tall, but still provided a vital beacon. The light was upgraded to a 4th order Fresnel lens in 1857 for greater range, before the tower was completely rebuilt.
Due to the importance of the location as a navigational beacon, the Whitefish point lighthouse was rebuilt in 1861. The new design was an iron lattice frame instead of the typical masonry construction due to the persistent high winds. The new tower is 76 feet tall with the light 80 feet above the lake level (80 foot focal plane). The is connected by a hallway to the second story of the house.
In 1872 a pair of fog signal buildings were erected further out on the point. These served until a more substantial brick radio and fog signal building was constructed near the lighthouse in 1936. The lighthouse keeper’s home was expanded into a duplex for the keeper’s and assistant’s families in 1895. A smaller two-story home was built for the added second assistant keeper.
The Coast Guard established a lifesaving station at Whitefish Point in 1923, which is surprisingly late in the era. Housing was constructed near the lighthouse for the crews of the two boat launches. The surfboat launch building has been relocated to the grounds and restored recently. Another prime example of Great Lakes Coast Guard lifesaving stations can be found at the Glen Haven museum in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The Coast Guard ended service here in 1951.
An automated aero beacon replaced the original Fresnel lens in 1968. Whitefish Point lighthouse station was fully automated by 1971 and no longer required any permanent staff. 2011 saw the light once again upgraded to the current LED signal. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society began leasing site from Coast Guard in 1983 and opened a museum in 1987 and continues to renovate the buildings and provide guided tours.
Visiting the Whitefish Point Lighthouse and Shipwreck Museum
Whitefish Point lighthouse is a must visit destination on any tour of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, aka da UP. A dozen miles north of Paradise, this lonely outpost is well worth the drive. In addition to the lighthouse, there is a museum, tours of the keeper’s home and surfboat launch, and beach access on Lake Superior. Guests can also spend the night in the Coast Guard crew quarters.
The museum and lighthouse are open every day from May through October, which has been known to cover a full range of seasons this far north. The first stop for most tourists will be the Shipwreck Museum. Here you can buy tickets and watch the 20 minute video before immersing yourself in the collection. Inside are displays chronicling several famous ships lost on the Great lakes; many with items recovered from dive teams. The most famous artifact here is the bell brought up from the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1995. The Fitzgerald sank off Whitefish Point in 1975 in one of the frequent storms. The ‘gales of November’ are forever immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot’s tune detailing the tragedy. For more Fitzgerald artifacts, visit the Museum Ship Valley Camp in Sault Ste. Marie.
The lighthouse keeper’s home is fully restored and a guided tour is part of the museum admission. Walking through takes you back in time to life at this remote outpost in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The surfboat building has been recently renovated and is part of the tour.
Guests ages 8 and up can climb the lighthouse tower for an additional admission fee or a $5 donation if not visiting the museum. The tower is connected to the house, but it’s still 56 steps up. Only small groups can go in at a time, so there may be a wait during busier days.
The Lake Superior beach front provides plenty of sandy area and a shore lined with smooth stones. It is a good spot to find colored agates, especially after stormy weather. It’s almost always windy here, so relaxing on the beach may not be an option. On a clear day, you can see Canada in the distance across the water. There is an accessible boardwalk running from the parking lot and opening to a larger viewing area above the sand dunes. Beach access is by stairs at the end.
Spend the Night at Whitefish Point Light Station
Whitefish Point offers a rare opportunity to spend the night at a Great Lakes lighthouse. While not actually in the lighthouse, the 1923 Coast Guard crews quarters has been restored and is divided up into five guests rooms. Overnight visitors have exclusive access to this building and are the only remaining people in the area after closing. Read about my overnight visit to Whitefish Point, plus details on planning your own stay, in this article.
Is Whitefish Point Lighthouse Haunted?
Whether or not Whitefish point lighthouse is haunted was on our minds since we were going to spend the night at the Coast Guard quarters. There are stories online, an odd tale from a friend who had previously stayed there, plus a concerned look from one of the museum staff members when we checked in. With all of the shipwrecks in the surrounding waters and generations of lighthouse keeper families, you’d have to assume this would be a prime location for paranormal activity. We did not encounter anything ghostly, but there are paranormal investigations posted online. If you are interested in ghostly stories from Whitefish Point, I recommend Dianna Stampfler’s well-researched Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses book.
Whitefish Point Lighthouse Hours and Information
Whitefish Point is open May through October, from 10am to 6pm daily. For the most current information on admission prices, special events, and hours check the official website. The on site store offers plenty of souvenirs, books, and clothing items as well as some basic snacks. There are public restrooms available. Be sure to stop in before heading out on the road.