By JOSH BENDER
Capital News Service
LANSING — If you’re in the market for some truly unique property, four Lake Michigan lighthouses are up for auction by the federal Government Services Administration.
For sale: The North Manitou Offshore Lighthouse near the Manitou Islands, the Minneapolis Shoal Lighthouse at the entrance to Little Bay de Noc in the Upper Peninsula and the White Shoals and Grays Reef lighthouses, both between Emmet County and Beaver Island.
The North Manitou Offshore Lighthouse began operating in 1935. It was one of the last lighthouses run by an actual crew until it became automated in 1980, according to Great Lakes lighthouse historian Kraig Anderson’s Lighthouse Friends database.
The White Shoals light began operating in 1910, according to the University of North Carolina Lighthouse Directory.
Grays Reef switched on in 1936. Both became automated and saw their last crews leave in 1976, according to Great Lakes Lighthouse historian Terry Pepper’s Seeing the Light database
The Minneapolis Shoal Lighthouse began operating in 1936, according to Seeing the Light. Its crew left in 1979 after the light became automated and solar-powered.
So how do you bid on a Great Lakes lighthouse?
The Government Services Administration’s auction site is a lot like eBay, said National Park Service maritime historian Anna Holloway.
As of February, five Michigan and three Wisconsin lighthouses have been publicly auctioned, according to the federal agency, which has auctioned 45 lighthouses nationwide since 2000.
Public auction is a last resort if a suitable nonprofit preservation group cannot be found to assume ownership, said Cat Langel, regional public affairs specialist for the agency.
Prices ranged from $10,000 for Cleveland’s East Pierhead Lighthouse to $986,000 for Boston’s Graves Light Station, she said.
There are 388 lighthouses in the Great Lakes Basin, of which 70 percent still provide navigational support, according to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.
Many owners convert lighthouses into their own private getaway, Holloway said. But some turn them into retreats for other people to escape from the humdrum of daily living.
They include the Big Bay Lighthouse Inn in Big Bay, which was a company town for bowling equipment giant Brunswick. The light has a history as rich as the scenery it overlooks. It was built in 1896, said co-owner Jeff Gamble. “At that time there was nothing between here and Marquette but timber and porcupines.”
All building materials had to be brought by ship to Big Bay, he said.
Before the town gained the funding for a proper schoolhouse in 1915, local kids we’re taught in the lighthouse by the assistant keeper’s wife right, using educational materials provided by the Coast Guard, he said.
The lighthouse was bought in 1961 by a Chicago plastic surgeon who had been a reconstructive surgeon during World War I and made his fortune setting up plastic surgery programs at medical schools across the country.
The surgeon spent $500,000 rehabbing the lighthouse, which by then had a partially caved-in roof and other structural and cosmetic problems, Gamble said.
The lighthouse went through several more owners before Gamble, his wife and a friend encountered it while on a trip, he said.
They returned several times before buying it, whose previous owners were already operating it as a bed and breakfast, he said.
Today it offers seven rooms and operates all year excluding deer hunting season due to the risk to forest-traversing tourists who won’t wear orange clothing, he said.
The Coast Guard pays the owners a nominal fee of $1 a year to lease the top where the actual light sits, he said. The Coast Guard continues to operate the light as a navigational aid to passing ships.
The Big Bay and Sand Hills lighthouses are among the only 12 lighthouse bed and breakfasts in the United States, said Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn co-owner Mary Matthews.
When Matthews and her husband bought the Sand Hills light on Lake Superior, the place had been boarded up since 1961, she said. It was covered in graffiti, had no running water or windows, and the copper had been gutted from the ceilings.
After three years of renovation, the Sand Hills Inn opened in 1995 with a Victorian-inspired decor, she said.
Built between 1917 and 1919, the seven-story lighthouse is the largest in the Great Lakes Basin, she said. It was the last staffed lighthouse in the basin and once housed three keepers and their families.
Among its guests have been 14 veterans who trained at the lighthouse when it was a Coast Guard boot camp during World War II, she said.
Seeing the impact hospitality has on guests is the most rewarding part of owning a lighthouse bed and breakfast, she said. “We’re not filling beds — we’re filling hearts.”
Josh Bender writes for Great Lakes Echo.