Along the northeastern coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula rests a redemption story like no other. In this story, the main character answers the beckoning call to prevent shipwrecks for many years. Then, slowly, they fall by the wayside in the following years. Pieces of them crumble into Lake Superior’s intense waves until they are rescued by two snowmobilers from Ohio. Did we mention the main character of this story is a lighthouse? Crisp Point Lighthouse. Here’s the story of how this historic structure went from doing the saving to being saved itself.
Before there was Crisp Point Lighthouse, there was Life-Saving Station Number 10. It was one of four life-saving stations built along eastern Lake Superior in 1875, beginning operation in 1876 in an attempt to reduce the growing number of shipwreck deaths and drownings in the Great Lake. Several station keepers came along to serve over the first few years, one of which was Christopher Crisp.
In 1883, the increasing number of life-saving stations built throughout the country made numbering each of them a little overwhelming. To differentiate the stations, they took on other names. In this case, Life-Saving Station Number 10 went by the name Crisps after its keeper.
Between 1903 and 1904, Crisp Point Lighthouse was constructed to add to the life-saving station. This guiding light’s lantern room had a fourth order light from Devil’s Island with a fixed red characteristic. Over the next couple decades, it would guide ships and sailors to safety — a reassurance that there was help waiting at the rocky shore.
One of the people the Crisp Point Lighthouse helped was Lou Williams, an Ohio poet who had been lost in a large swamp near the Tahquamenon Falls area for three days. Roy Singleton was deer hunting there when he came across Williams. He immediately brought the “Buckeye Poet” to Crisp Point, where his family lived. At the time, Joseph Singleton was the lightkeeper. As a thanks and out of relief, Williams wrote the following poem by the glow of an Aladdin lamp, dedicating it to the lighthouse and keeper who saved his life.
Crisp Point Watch Is Ever Roll
Superior, cast thy strength; twisting, raging, turning.
But the Sailor knows no doubt or fear,
For through the night comes a glean of cheer - Crisp Point light is burning.
Rage Superior, spread thy fog, sleet, rain, and snowing.
But the Sailor sleeps in faith secure,
Though the stars are gone, the way is sure - Crisp Point horn is blowing.
Storm Superior, rage and roll. Spread thy vain endeavor.
Here no tale of death to tell - Crisp Point watch is ever.
In 1939, the United States Lighthouse Service disbanded, and lighthouse administration became the United States Coast Guard’s responsibility. At that point, Crisp Point had life-saving station and quarters, a two-family brick light keeper's dwelling with a basement, brick fog signal building, oilhouse, two frame barns, boathouse and landing, tramway, lighthouse tower and service room entrance. The U.S. Coastguard destroyed all but the light tower and service room in 1965.
In the years following, several shipwrecks and wandering, lost people would perish. People who could have been helped by the Crisp Point facility had it still been operating. One of these includes the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in November of 1975 about 18 miles northeast of Crisp Point.
In 1988, Don and Nellie Ross, a retired couple from Ohio, were snowmobiling in the Upper Peninsula when they discovered the lighthouse. Concerned that it would fall into the crashing waves of Lake Superior, they started the Crisp Point Light Historical Society in 1991 with hopes to change its fate. Maybe it was luck that they stumbled across it when they did, or maybe, it was a thank you from the buckeye state for saving one of their poets decades earlier.
Two years later, the property was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1996, the service room was destroyed by storm erosion, crumbling into the lake. Only the tower remained, but that was enough to keep the Historical Society trying.
Despite Lighthouse Digest marking Crisp Point Lighthouse as one of the most endangered lighthouses in the world, 1997 brought a hopeful change in tune. The lighthouse was saved from the auction block and private ownership, becoming property of Luce County who entered a 40-year lease contract with the Historical Society.
President Cameron Lovett got to work right away, developing a website to help the Ross’ get the word out and start fundraising for Crisp Point Lighthouse’s future. Through private donations and grants, the Historical Society rebuilt the service room, built a visitor center that is an architectural twin to the original fog signal building and laid a small system of wooden paths leading to the tower. The tower itself received a fresh coat or two of paint, and erosion prevention was added in the form of vegetation and boulders. In 2000, the Historical Society received the annual achievement award from Lake Superior Magazine for their work.
Even today, the Historical Society continues to make improvements. In 2013, the lighthouse became a private aid to navigation and had an operational light for the first time since 1992. CPLHS was also awarded a Michigan Lighthouse Asisstance Grant in 2015 for $25,000 of major exterior tower restorations. Extensions of that project and work on the boardwalk are planned for the near future.
Continuing a legacy is no easy feat, especially when a legacy was so close to ending. You can help make sure Crisp Point stays on the map, too, by volunteering to be a keeper for a week! All it requires is joining the Historical Society then applying on their website to keep. One family or individual will be assigned to work the lighthouse at a time. There’s no electricity, no internet and no cell service. So it’s the perfect opportunity to get away all while immersing yourself into the comeback story of Crisp Point. Study up on your Lake Superior and lighthouse history, open the tower and visitor center daily from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., keep the restrooms stocked and sweep away trailed in sand. Answer questions and interact with visitors throughout the day to continue the story, and that’s all it takes. This is the perfect, unique way to disconnect from life and reconnect with Michigan history while camping out under the stars along Lake Superior.
Don’t want to be a keeper but still want to see Crisp Point? You can! Visit the lighthouse any time from end of May to early October. It’s open depending on volunteer availability and weather. We recommend calling ahead first to make sure it will be open when you visit: 906-658-3600. Even if the lighthouse itself is closed to go inside, you can still visit the grounds of Crisp Point year round. Quiet hours are from 11 p.m. - 6 a.m. though, and only volunteers with the Historical Society program can camp there.
Follow these directions to start your trip!