Keeper of the light:Stories from South Manitou Island

By David Fleet
Leland- Come summer, Jonathan Schechter often trudges daily up (and down) the 117 steps up to the top of a lighthouse towering more than 100 feet above Lake Michigan.
“The life of a volunteer lighthouse keeper is an exciting and at times challenging position,” said Schechter.  “Island guests want to climb to the catwalk and my role is to be sure it’s both safe and informative as we climb up.”
For the fifth time in seven years, Schechter, a Brandon Township resident, has served as a lighthouse keeper on South Manitou Island. He was one of three individuals selected by the National Park Service for six week-long stints to run the working maritime feature on northeastern Lake Michigan, about 14 miles off the coast of Leland—part of Leelanau County and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
“I share the history of the lighthouse with stories of triumphs and tragedies on the island,” he said. “Keeping it real adds to their enjoyment and knowledge.”
Since 1858 lighthouse keepers, like Schechter, have viewed sinking ships, daring rescues and massive storms from the top. While modern navigational technology had made the isolated life of a lighthouse keeper a thing of the past, they remain a towering landmark to the past.
“I do not consider myself a birder in the traditional sense; someone who maintains a life list and always has binoculars hanging around the neck,” said Schechter. “However I have become an ‘accidental’ birder from the lighthouse where I sometimes look down to birds flying lower than my elevation or right past me.  Dozens of  cormorants zip past me in almost military precision as mergansers submerge in water below me and a ring-billed gull sits on her steam whistle station nest 90 feet lower.  I sometimes wonder if the first lighthouse keeper back in 1871 became an accidental birder as well.  Or perhaps he just shot and ate them.”
South Manitou Island is the southernmost island of a chain of islands in northwest lower Michigan known as the Manitou Passage. The 36 mile long, often treacherous passage in Lake Michigan became an active shipping lane in 1825 after the Erie Canal was completed. In 1839 a lighthouse was constructed. It was replaced in 1858 by a light tower built on top of a Keeper’s Quarters that still stands today.
In 1958, the lighthouse was decommissioned and the U.S. Coast Guard abandoned the island. In May of 2009 the lighthouse became operational again. Restoration of the historic keeper’s quarters is underway and if all goes to plan by this time next year the public will be permitted within the quarters.

One Response to "Keeper of the light:Stories from South Manitou Island"

  1. Joan Jupin Gehr   April 26, 2024 at 12:16 am

    Would love to see what’s up there. Sounds like fun. Nature rocks.


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