Ottawa Point (officially changed to Tawas Point in 1902) presents a hazard to navigation as it juts out into Lake Huron. It also shelters Tawas Bay, protecting ships from strong north or northeast winds. In 1850, the Federal government set aside $5,000 to build a lighthouse near the end of Ottawa Point (about where the state park's contact station is located). The Lighthouse Service paid Daniel S. Ellethorpe $200 for the 30 acre property. The first light was fueled by lard oil. This was changed to kerosene, most likely in 1898, when the oil house was built. Because kerosene was quite volatile, it had to be stored in a separate, well-ventilated structure. The lard oil would have been stored in the cellar of the keeper's quarters.
The lighthouse was the first permanent structure in the area. Construction was begun in 1852 and completed in 1853. The lighthouse marked the location of the point so mariners could either avoid it or seek refuge behind the point in Ottawas Bay in a storm. In 1854, the first European settlers arrived in the area. The name of Ottawas Bay was shortened to Tawas Bay and the City of Tawas City was platted there in 1855.
Between the building of the first lighthouse in 1853 and the early 1870's, due to the natural accretion of sand, Tawas Point had been steadily extending itself out into what had once been open water. By 1870 the original lighthouse (which was a short tower with a wide base) was of little realistic use for mariners. Construction on the new lighthouse began on August 12, 1876 and finished by the end of the shipping season of that year. This new lighthouse cost the U.S. government $30,000 (purchasing of land included). When the new lighthouse was constructed, it was located at the very end of what was beginning to be known as Tawas Point. As Tawas Point grew, a large dock was built to reach the deep water of Tawas Harbor, where boats known as lighthouse tenders could tie up and unload supplies. Also added through the years were an oil house, a boathouse, a fog signal building, a storage building and an assistant keepers dwelling. Of these buildings, only the oil house and storage building remain.
The lens, which magnifies the light, is known as a fourth order Fresnel. This is named for Augistin Fresnel, the French Engineer who invented it. Fourth order refers to the size of the lens. There are seven sizes of fresnel lenses: First, second, third, three-and-a-half, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Sizes range from first being the largest to sixth being the smallest. Great Lakes lighthouses generally have lenses of third order and smaller. The original lens of the 1853 lighthouse (and moved to the 1876 lighthouse) was a fifth order fresnel. The current fourth order lens, which was constructed in Paris in 1880, was installed in 1892.
The tower of the Tawas Point Lighthouse is sixty-seven feet high, placed on a three-foot high base. This gives the light a seventy-foot high focal plane, which can be seen approximately sixteen miles out into Lake Huron. The tower slopes from a sixteen-foot diameter base to 9-1/2 feet diameter at the parapet of the lantern. The tower is made up of two brick and masonry walls. The outer wall is 22 inches thick and the inner wall is eight inches thick. Between the two walls is a two-foot wide air space, which acted as a chimney to bring air up to the lantern to fuel the lamp. The fourth order fresnel lens is still in use at the lighthouse. Since 1935, it has been powered by electricity. The light is rated at 200,000 candle power.
The last full-time light house keeper left the lighthouse in 1946, but the keeper's quarters were used into the 1990s as housing for the nearby Coast Guard station. Current plans are to restore the keeper's quarters to reflect life at Tawas Point from 1900 to 1946. Each room of the first floor will be restored to reflect its appearance during a certain period. The interpretation of the Tawas Point Lighthouse will focus on how the lighthouse keepers and their families interacted with the local community and how the lighthouse played an important role in the community. Historians are using a wide variety of research to make sure that the restoration is accurate. By focusing on the Twentieth century, we can utilize the reminiscences of people who once lived at the lighthouse as children. These, along with diaries, journals, letters and photographs, will help give an accurate picture of life on Tawas Point. Records of the U. S. Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Coast Guard also allow the work at the lighthouse and its appearance to be correct. Finally, local newspapers show us what life in East Tawas and Tawas City was like at the time. The 2 story house that was adjacent to the lighthouse (shown in the first photo below) has been removed. The lighthouse and the keeper's house are now illuminated at night by an exterior lighting system.
Because of its location, the lighthouse became a part of Tawas Point State Park and is now operated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Recreation Bureau and the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries' Michigan Historical Center. With the assistance of the non-profit Friends of Tawas Point State Park, lighthouse tours are conducted during most weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day and also at other dates throughout the year. Admission fees for the lighthouse tours are going directly into an account for the restoration of the lighthouse and keeper's quarters. If you are interested in helping to restore the lighthouse, the easiest way is to join the Friends of Tawas Point State Park. Besides volunteering to give lighthouse tours, the Friends help out in a number of other ways. For more information, please call Tawas Point State Park at (989) 362-5041. The Michigan Historical Center is looking for original artifacts related to the Tawas Point Lighthouse. If you or someone you know would like to donate photographs or objects related to the lighthouse, please contact the state park or Rob Burg, Site Historian for the Tawas Point Lighthouse, at (989) 348-2537 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
An excellent description of the history of the Tawas Point Lighthouse is also available on the "Seeing the Light" website by clicking here. Books and DVD's about the history of the Tawas Area and the Northeast Shore by historian Neil Thornton can be purchased at the Booknook bookstore in East Tawas.