2009-06-13 / Columnists

A Look at History

As McGulpin Point Light Is Relit, Island Celebrates Another Tie With Mainland

A few days ago, Emmet County and the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association joined hands to relight the lighthouse at McGulpin Point, dark for more than a century. The lighthouse building had been preserved as a private home, and the county was recently able to purchase it. The relighting ceremony held Saturday, May 30, drew an estimated 1,000 celebrants from all over Michigan.

"McGulpin" is already a familiar name to many of us on Mackinac Island. The relit lighthouse, named after the Straits of Mackinac headland where it once again shines over the water, recalls the name of one of the oldest families with ties to the Straits of Mackinac.

The McGulpin House, which stands today on the southwest corner of Mackinac Island's Fort and Market streets, is even older than the family's presence on Mackinac Island. An examination of the house's interior timbering indicates that many of these thick pieces of wood were sawn by hand, possibly with a pitsaw. This pushes the date when the little house was first built to a period before the construction (about 1790) of the mechanical sawmill at Mill Creek near Mackinaw City.

After decades as a private residence, McGulpin's Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City has been recreated as a working lighthouse museum. (2008 photograph) After decades as a private residence, McGulpin's Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City has been recreated as a working lighthouse museum. (2008 photograph) It is believed that the timberwork in the McGulpin House can be traced back to the original construction of the village of Mackinac Island in 1780. Many houses were built around the Island's crescent-shaped harbor in that year as the British moved their fort from the mainland, but few have survived to this day.

No one knows who built the McGulpin House, or who first lived in it. The steeply pitched gable roof, and many other structural elements of the building, indicates French-Canadian influence. The Canadian province of Quebec was the home of many of the Island's early fur traders and canoe freightmen. The house is best known, however, as the home of William McGulpin and his family.

William McGulpin was the son of Patrick McGulpin, the family patriarch. Patrick, who had been living at Detroit in 1782 - his name is listed in a Detroit census taken in that year - moved up to Mackinac Island at some point between the American Revolution and 1799. It is important to note that this may well have been a homecoming for McGulpin, rather than a move. Most Mackinaw City authorities believe the McGulpin family (sometimes called the McAlpin or McAlpine family) had lived in and around Colonial Michilimackinac prior to the American Revolution. The family appears to have had longstanding ties to the McGulpin Point area, and the family believes they were granted rights to this land by French or British authorities even before the Americans took over in 1796.

The McGulpins may well have used the McGulpin Point land prior to getting an American legal title to the land. Patrick McGulpin was a leading Island citizen as early as 1805, when the fledgling American authorities organized those Islanders they considered to be loyal into two companies of Island militia. McGulpin was appointed as ensign of one of the companies, serving under Germain Pothier, captain, and Michael Dousman, lieutenant.

McGulpin's colleague Michael Dousman had already, about 1803, opened a farm at this time on the northern side of Mackinac Island, even before taking steps to get an American land title. In a parallel action, Ensign McGulpin filed a land claim with the authorities in Washington for a large plot of land, one square mile (640 acres) in size, west of the site of Fort Michilimackinac in 1808. Patrick asserted that this land had been in the possession of his father in 1796. The claim was granted in 1811. The recently relighted beacon is located on this early land grant.

Patrick's son, William Mc- Gulpin, begins at this time to appear in Mackinac Island records as a master baker, with ties to fur-trading interests. It is possible that Patrick, William, and the family used the McGulpin Point area to grow wheat for the Mackinac Island family ovens. As the McGulpin family grew, William McGulpin bought the McGulpin House in 1819. The smell of fresh bread continued to rise over Mackinac Island's harbor village. Perhaps McGulpin Point wheat, baked into bread, was eaten in the Biddle House, the Stuart House, and other surviving Market Street homes of the successful fur traders of the 1820s. Patrick McGulpin died April 16, 1831.

Shortly after the McGulpin patriarch passed from the scene, the fur trade began to follow him into Straits of Mackinac oblivion, replaced by a new economy of scheduled steamboat traffic and Great Lakes commerce. The new boat-owning interests of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan could not allow their schooners and steamboats to remain tied up at a dock for days, "waiting for weather." The new boats began to routinely go out into the Great Lakes earlier and later in each summer season, and during periods of bad weather.

Throughout the 1800s, pressures increased upon Washington to help maritime safety by constructing new lighthouses on the shores of the Great Lakes. The first beacon built at the Straits of Mackinac, an early Bois Blanc light, began to shine in 1829; a light near the same site continues to stand today on the northern shore of this island. One light was not enough, however. As shipping increased, more and more shoal areas in the busy Straits came to be seen as dangerous.

One of the largest areas of shallow water extends outward from McGulpin Point, just west of Old Point Mackinac. Westward bound vessels, eager to turn southward into Lake Michigan after passing through the Straits, were in danger of disemboweling themselves on this shoal. In 1854, Congress approved the construction of a new beacon here. The proposed McGulpin Point lighthouse took its place in a long federal queue of projects to be accomplished; after a lengthy delay caused by the Civil War and other causes, the new light tower was built in 1869.

The McGulpin Point Lighthouse, the beacon that has now been relit, enjoyed an operating life of 37 years, from 1869 until 1906. During more than half of this time, the light was the sole mark of the south side of the Straits of Mackinac for commercial navigation. In 1890, however, the federal government built an even taller lighthouse, Old Mackinac Point, only three miles east of McGulpin Point. This new lighthouse also marked the Straits of Mackinac for boats and ships.

As time passed, it became arguable that the McGulpin Point light was no longer necessary for Straits of Mackinac navigation. Most vessels were now looking at Old Mackinac Point as the point they used to fix their position as they sailed or steamed through the Straits. Furthermore, they no longer needed specific warnings about the McGulpin Point shoal, as they now carried carefully printed charts aboard their vessels that marked the danger areas of the Straits. In 1906 the federal government doused the McGulpin Point light, and, shortly thereafter, sold the building into the private sector.

For more than 100 years, the McGulpin Point Lighthouse has served several Mackinaw Cityarea families as a beloved home. It has now begun a second life as a private aid to navigation, and as a reminder of the role of the McGulpin family in the histories of the Straits of Mackinac and of Mackinac Island.

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