Now Available from Mikel B. Classen and History Press, Lake Superior’s Au Sable Point: A Beacon On Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast, a history book about the lighthouse and shipwrecks of Au Sable Point. It is now available: Click Here!
Au Sable Point Lighthouse – Missing the Point
A Point North
Mikel B. Classen
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore located on the north coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is well known for its scenic beauty, but its only man-made attraction is often overlooked. Au Sable Point Lighthouse is the most missed sight in the park. Nearly unmarked within the park, most visitors driving through pass by without ever realizing that this fully intact, historically significant, still functioning lighthouse is even there.
The scene of several shipwrecks, this graphic example of life along Lake Superior’s shipwreck coast is located 12 miles west of Grand Marais. The remains of the Mary Jarecki, Sitka, and Gale Staples can still be seen along the shore. Even now Au Sable Point Light stands isolated on a battered spit of sandstone that endures the fiercest wrath that Superior can muster. To the east stands the majesty of Grand Sable Dunes. To the west, forest and miles of beach which merges into the cliffs of Pictured Rocks. Continuing under the surface of the Lake, the point becomes a mile long sandstone reef, a dangerous trap for sailors.
It must have been terrifying, sailing hard towards Grand Marais, a harbor of refuge, the screaming winds and the massive waves pounding against the ship, and then the sickening crunch as the hull is destroyed by the Au Sable sandstone. Plunging into the angry ice cold surf would be your only option for survival. Then it was in god’s hands.
In 1871 it was deemed that “in all navigation of Lake Superior, there is none more dreaded by the mariner than that from Whitefish Point to Grand Island.” 215 sailors had lost their lives that year. And “that a light was more a necessity at Au Sable Point than at any other unprotected location in the district.”
Consequently, a light was constructed there and went into operation in August 1874. The same light still stands over 130 years later, a monument to a by-gone era. Its light still shines though it is automated now.
The light tower is 85 feet high. The base of it extends 23 feet underground and there are written accounts where the wind has blown so hard that the light keepers feared it would topple because the tower shook so much. Picture it, you’re tending the light in the top of the tower. The winds of Superior are shaking and battering everything around. The fear grows in your belly that it all can come down around you. The fear that dying in the teeth of Superior can bring.
Walking about the property, it is not hard to envision the harshness of life that must have permeated even the most mundane of daily chores. Isolation and loneliness was a constant companion and if you couldn’t handle it, you didn’t last long. Originally it was planned that only one keeper would run the light, but within a year an assistant was assigned and then a third was put on. But even then the isolation was nearly unbearable. One lighthouse keeper wrote that Au Sable “was just as isolated as if it were 30 miles from land.”
When the lighthouse was first built there were no roads (the first access road was built in1939). The only access to Au Sable Point (originally called Big Sable) was by boat, usually from Grand Marais, though they came from Munising as well. This means that most years the residents were isolated for 8 months without seeing another soul other than those aboard the Lighthouse Tender ships.
The buildings of the main complex included the main Lighthouse Keeper’s building, the assistant’s building with the light tower, the fog signal building, the boat house and the oil houses.
Of course there were daily routines to go through which would stave off the boredom a bit. Keeping the steam up in the fog signal and oil filled in the lighthouse were full time jobs. They were also necessary jobs. A shipwreck on Lake Superior meant death. The Lighthouse Keeper’s dedication to routine saved lives. Quiet and no emergencies meant they were doing their jobs. Their dedication was their heroism.
When a wreck did happen, after the lighthouse was built the instances dropped, the keepers had to battle the deadliest of waters to try and save the lives of the sailors. They used boats that were a fraction of the size of the ships that the angry waters had just destroyed. It took a very special individual to deal with life at Au Sable Point.
Au Sable Point is located 1.5 miles northeast of the Lower Hurricane River campground in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The Hurricane is 12 miles west of Grand Marais on County Road H-58. Vehicles park in the day use area and then visitors hike out to the Lighthouse along the North Country Trail. If you go off the trail and walk the shoreline, remnants of shipwrecks can be seen, the old ribs leaving an eerie feeling of disasters past.
The Au Sable Lighthouse complex has been fully restored. The last building was finished in 2002. A new visitor’s center and bookstore will be opening in the building that used to be the main lighthouse keeper’s building. They have interpretive programs daily during the summer months along with lighthouse tours. On your next trip to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore area, don’t miss the point. Nowhere will you have the opportunity for a Lake Superior experience like this.
One of the best ways to enjoy Au Sable point is to camp there. On the North Country Trail, about a short half-mile past the lighthouse complex are several tent sites for camping. The view here is breathtaking and the sites are well sheltered. This is a great way to spend some quality time on the shore of Lake Superior. It’s my personal favorite.
If you don’t want to get quite so remote, the Hurricane River is also a wonderful place to camp. There is a lovely beach and the Hurricane supports excellent fishing.
For more information on the Au Sable Point Lighthouse contact Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore at 906-387-3700 or check out their website at www.nps.gov/piro
Now Available from Mikel B. Classen and History Press, Lake Superior’s Au Sable Point: A Beacon On Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast, a history book about the lighthouse and shipwrecks of Au Sable Point. Now available: Click Here to Get Your Copy.
Content copyright . Mikel Classen. All rights reserved.