2018-05-19 / Top News

In the ‘Heart of Lighthouse Country’

Mackinac Island To Host First International Conference This Weekend
By Stephanie Fortino


Lighthouses on the Great Lakes have guided ships since the early 1800s. The Round Island Passage Light still functions as a navigational aid, and is shown here (right) guiding the 739-foot self-unloading bulk freighter CSL Laurentien through the shipping channel Monday, May 14. The structure was sold at auction in 2014 to a preservation group. Another group maintains Round Island Lighthouse (left), which was built in 1895 and no longer serves as a navigational aid. Such lighthouses and preservation efforts will be celebrated at the inaugural International Lighthouse Conference Sunday, May 20, through Tuesday, May 22, at Grand Hotel. Lighthouses on the Great Lakes have guided ships since the early 1800s. The Round Island Passage Light still functions as a navigational aid, and is shown here (right) guiding the 739-foot self-unloading bulk freighter CSL Laurentien through the shipping channel Monday, May 14. The structure was sold at auction in 2014 to a preservation group. Another group maintains Round Island Lighthouse (left), which was built in 1895 and no longer serves as a navigational aid. Such lighthouses and preservation efforts will be celebrated at the inaugural International Lighthouse Conference Sunday, May 20, through Tuesday, May 22, at Grand Hotel. A gathering hosted every two years by the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance has gone international and will bring preservationists from around the world to Mackinac Island Sunday, May 20, through Tuesday, May 22, for the inaugural meeting of the International Lighthouse Conference.

More than half the participants hail from Michigan organizations and agencies, but others will travel from California, New York, Florida, Canada, and even the Bahamas, to learn about lighthouse restoration efforts and share success stories. Conference participants network with other preservationists, learn about the history of navigational aids in the Great Lakes and throughout the world, and consider how to keep efforts going into the future.

The Michigan Lighthouse Alliance has hosted a conference every two years in Traverse City since the late 1990s, Alliance president Buzz Hoerr told the Town Crier. Conference attendance from preservationists outside the state increased in the last few years, he said, prompting organizers to expand it to an international conference and move it to Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

“Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state, maybe any other political unit, in the world,” making it the perfect place to host the international conference, he said.

The Island is “the heart of lighthouse country,” Mr. Hoerr said, thanks to the active commercial shipping industry on the Great Lakes.

As of Tuesday, May 15, the conference was sold out, and 120 people representing 43 lighthouse preservation groups, state and federal agencies, and lighthouse materials vendors had registered to attend.

Among attendees from the Straits of Mackinac region will be representatives from the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, the EARAE Preservation Group of the Round Island Passage Light, the White Shoal Light Preservation Society, DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society, and the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association of Mackinaw City. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and Whitefish Point Light of Paradise will be represented, as well.

The conference will open Sunday afternoon with a lighthouse tour aboard a Shepler’s ferry. Terry Pepper of Mackinaw City, president of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, will provide a narrative about Straits of Mackinac lighthouses encountered on the cruise. An evening session will conclude with a multi-media musical performance by Ric Mixter and Dan Hall called “Storm: Survivals and Rescues on the Great Lakes.” Educational and historical talks, panel discussions, and meetings will be held the next two days.

While lighthouses were built throughout the Great Lakes to guide vessels through shipping channels, the structures bear cultural and historical significance, as well. In the past two decades, grassroots efforts to save the structures have started throughout Michigan.

“Lighthouses are iconic to just about every community,” Mr. Hoerr said.

He is a founding member of the Harbor Beach Lighthouse Preservation Society, which was started more than 30 years ago. As a summer resident of Harbor Beach, in Huron County in Michigan’s Thumb area, he grew up looking at the local lighthouse and often anchored near it with friends. During the rest of the year, Mr. Hoerr lives in Vermont, where he owns a wastewater treatment technology company. He also serves as the Education and Outreach Advisory Committee chair for the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

As Mr. Hoerr grew older, he and his friends noticed the U.S. Coast Guard had stopped maintaining the Harbor Beach lighthouse as an active facility, causing it to fall into disrepair. The friends decided to form a preservation society and eventually take over ownership of the lighthouse, which now has been transferred to the City of Harbor Beach. The group continues to maintain the structure, raise funds for that, and to improve the museum and its interpretive exhibits there. A recent project was the reconstruction of an adjacent fog signal.

As part of the ownership transfer process, the National Park Service requires lighthouses that pass to nonprofit organizations be accessible to the public. That permits the groups to raise money for maintenance and preservation by charging for admission.

At the Harbor Beach Lighthouse, the preservation society hosts more than 500 visitors a year, including many local year-around residents who have become interested in the preservation efforts. More year around residents now get involved in leadership of the group, Mr. Hoerr said, and the restoration efforts have continued to grow. Sharing such stories of successful preservation and interpretation of lighthouses will be a main feature of the International Lighthouse Conference.

Mr. Hoerr noted that the efforts to save the Harbor Beach Lighthouse are similar to those of other preservation groups that protect and restore lighthouses in Michigan, including such Eastern Upper Peninsula navigational aids as the Round Island Lighthouse and DeTour Reef Light.

“There’s always those visionaries who say, ‘This cannot stand,’” when these facilities start to crumble, Mr. Hoerr said, which spurs others to join the effort.

The advocates need to partner with people who have the skills to undertake preservation and restoration projects. Conferences are the ideal place for such networking, he said, connecting activists with contractors and vendors who can save the lighthouses.

The first Michigan Lighthouse Alliance conferences, Mr. Hoerr said, were intended to help the local advocacy groups gain ownership of lighthouses and save them. The Alliance endeavored to make easier the lighthouse acquisition process, which was complicated by governmental bureaucracy.

The conference then shifted focus to help preservation organizations learn how to fix lighthouses by providing vendor networking opportunities. While many lighthouse organizations have gotten facilities in good working shape, Mr. Hoerr said, others still face pressing preservation concerns, especially at offshore facilities where repairs are more difficult.

In addition to continuing to provide that support, the conference now has an added goal of helping organizations sustain financial and volunteer support. Most of the founders of these preservation societies are aging, Mr. Hoerr said, so the groups have to learn how to get young people involved to continue their work.

“Now, culturally, we’ve got to start attracting younger people who can be around for a while (and) who are good at running a gift shop, providing tours, and researching history,” he said.

Among the workshops planned for the International Lighthouse Conference this month are two panel discussions on how to improve the sustainability of lighthouse organizations and keep the momentum for preservation going into the future.

Lighthouses are challenging to preserve, Mr. Hoerr said, because they are exposed to harsh weather and are designed to be operated by a governmental unit, not a preservation society.

“Lighthouses are like vertical ships - they take a beating all year long,” he said. “They’re like a silo, and sometimes people get stuck in their silos. That’s why it’s important to get everybody together and learn and share. We don’t have to learn by ourselves.”

The theme of the 2018 International Lighthouse Conference is “From Pharos to the Future!” and celebrates the international history of lighthouses. The Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse in Egypt was the first physical structure built as an aid to navigation. It was built in the Port of Alexandria in the Nile Delta in 280 BC, making it one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After being damaged in a series of earthquakes, the structure collapsed in the 1300s, but its remains were rediscovered in the 20th Century. The history of the lighthouse and how lighthouse technology has changed over time will be shared with conference attendees in several talks.

Wayne Wheeler, the president and founder of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, will give the keynote address, “The History of Lighthouses: From Bonfires to Satellites,” Monday evening. This talk and others will provide a global and historical context of lighthouses, which helps preservationists expand how they share lighthouse technology with the public.

“People want to learn about the whole system, not just local history,” Mr. Hoerr said.

Other talks at the conference will explore why lighthouses were needed, how light technology has changed and improved over the centuries, the history of lighthouses in Canada, and how lighthouses were historically important to emergency response efforts.

Kelly Wolgamott will give a talk about Travel Michigan’s Pure Michigan advertising campaign and how lighthouses have become an important component of statewide marketing strategies. Dena Sanford will provide an overview of the National Park Service Lighthouse Program and an update on the lighthouse transfer process.

Mackinac State Historic Parks Deputy Director Steve Brisson will provide Mackinac Straits-area history in his talk, “350 Years at Mackinac.” Grand Hotel historian Bob Tagatz will share history of the hotel.

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