These midwest lighthouses stand as proud sentinels of a storied past.
Story and photography by Darryl Beers
I photographed my first lighthouse in the late 1980s. I didn’t seek it out; the lure was simply the Great Lakes, as it has been since my childhood in St. Ignace, Michigan, near the shore of Lake Huron. This youthful fascination grew into a career as a landscape photographer, with a special emphasis on the “lights,” as fans call them, of the Great Lakes. I’m now blessed to be living just minutes away from Door County, home to 12 lighthouses, among the most of any county in the United States.
An incredible 10,000 miles of shoreline, dotted with more than 330 lighthouses, surround the five Great Lakes. In the two decades that I’ve been photographing the lights, my travels have taken me to some of the most pristine and beautiful places in North America. I have kayaked on water so still that the eye could not differentiate between sky and lake. That same kayak has been tossed about by rough lake swells that put fear in my heart.
I have witnessed displays of the northern lights where their glow danced across the horizon as far as the eye could see. And I have experienced firsthand the perils of life on the Great Lakes by falling through the ice after photographing a lighthouse in Michigan City, Indiana, on a bitterly cold January night.
The more I study these beacons, the more fascinated I become. Many have captivating stories—not only about the lights themselves, but about the keepers who have tended them. The earliest recorded Great Lakes light was built in 1823 as a tower attached to the mess hall at Fort Niagara, where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. Ohio’s Marblehead Lighthouse on Lake Erie, built in 1821, is the oldest continuously operated light on the Great Lakes. And the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 sparked a tremendous shipping boom, which dramatically increased the need for lighthouses.
There are tales of daring rescues related to some of the lights; others are believed to be haunted by long-dead keepers. I’ve often felt the presence of those who lived and worked in these historic places. Some keepers assigned to more desirable light stations raised families and helped support them through farming, fishing or other jobs.
But the lights on isolated shoals or reefs offered few options for entertainment, socializing or even the simplest shopping trip. When photographing those lonely lighthouses, with the closest land appearing as a tiny bump on the horizon, I’ve often wondered how their keepers managed to stay sane.
Today, technological devices assist travelers with navigation, and lighthouses are being decommissioned at a rapid rate. But through the considerable efforts of local preservation groups, many lights have been saved, renovated and made accessible to the public. Thanks to the foresight and diligence of these modern keepers of the flame, Great Lakes lighthouses continue to stand tall and proud as symbols of our maritime heritage.