A light and fog signal are now needed here both in order to make available the harbor of refuge behind Middle Island, the only one in the vicinity having sufficient depth of water for the modern deep-draft lake vessels, and to mark a turning point in the regular course of vessels bound up or down the coast. …This it is estimated can be done for $25,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
A seventy-six-foot-tall, buff-brick tower was built seventy-five feet from the nearest high water mark and 375 feet from the keepers’ duplex. The tower tapers from a diameter of eighteen feet at its base to twelve feet, eight inches below its cornice and rests atop concrete piers that extend four feet below ground. A circular, cast-iron stairway, with three landings, winds up the tower to the decagonal lantern room, where a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed to produce a fixed red light.
The two-story, double dwelling was built of red brick and features six rooms in each of its apartments. A frame woodshed and two redbrick privies were located behind the duplex for the convenience of the keepers and their families. Cement walks link the dwelling to the tower, located to the southeast, and to the hip-roofed, redbrick fog signal building, situated 265 feet northwest of the duplex. The fog signal building originally measured forty by twenty-three-and-a-half feet, but a roughly nine-by-six-foot room was later added to house a hoisting engine used for a landing that extended 175 feet out from the fog signal building to a depth of three feet of water.
The station’s ten-inch steam whistle was manufactured by Optenberg & Sonneman of Cheboygan, Michigan and produced a three-second blast every twenty seconds when needed. Water for its boilers was drawn from the lake by steam injector.
On September 27, 1904, a forest fire swept over a large portion of Middle Island but did not damage the buildings under construction. The fire burned the island’s covering of pine needles, turning the surface of the rocks into lime, and destroyed the contractor’s construction camp and a large amount of building material.
The light and fog signal were placed in operation on June 1, 1905, by Keeper Patrick Garrity, who had been serving for fifteen years as his father’s first assistant at nearby Presque Isle Lighthouse. A brick oil house, capable of storing 500 gallons, was completed during the summer of 1905. The intensity of the light was increased on November 4, 1914 by changing the illuminant to incandescent oil vapor. The intensity was further increased in 1938, when the light was electrified and its characteristic was changed to isophase green with alternating five-second periods of light and dark. A compressed air diaphone, which eliminated the start-up required by the steam whistle, was installed in 1931.
Middle Island light and fog signal were maintained by three resident keepers. In 1916, the station’s three keepers, Patrick Garrity, George J. Hassett, and Alexander Brock were recognized for having gone to the assistance of the yacht Irvington, which had run aground, and for removing its female passengers.
Light Lists indicate that in 1953, the tower’s daymark was changed from its natural buff color to white with a black band in the middle. In 1970, the black band was changed to reddish-orange.
In July 1989, Marvin Theut became the new owner of the duplex and fog signal building after being the highest bidder in a sealed-bid auction, and the following month, two of Marv’s sons and two other men went out to the island to board up the duplex. The lake was calm when they ventured out with three boats that morning, but later that afternoon, four-foot waves started breaking on the island’s rocky shore. As they were leaving the island, their two rowboats swamped, nearly drowning one man. They wisely decided to re-anchor the motorboat and remain on the island. Not long thereafter the anchor line snapped, and the boat joined them on shore. A passing Coast Guard vessel spotted the wrecked boat, and, after summoning the men out of the duplex with its horn, it radioed in a helicopter to take them to safety. The Theuts had quickly learned that restoring an offshore station was not going to be an easy task.
Marv Theut formed Middle Island Lighthouse Keepers Association as a non-profit corporation in 1992 to continue the rehabilitation of the duplex and fog signal building, and in 2001, the fog signal building, branded the “Keeper’s Lodge,” opened to overnight guests.
Besides looking after Middle Island Lighthouse, Marv Theut also co-founded the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival, which has been held in Alpena every October since 1996. During the festival in 2002, a man showed up bearing a panel from Middle Island’s Fresnel lens. It turns out that this man, as a seventeen-year-old in 1975, broke into the lighthouse with some friends and removed the panel. While one panel is back home, the whereabouts of the rest of the lens remains a mystery.
A Notice of Availability, dated June 28, 2010, announced that Middle Island Lighthouse was excess to the needs of the United States Coast Guard and would be made available at no cost to eligible entities, who were given sixty days to submit a letter of interest. On October 4, 2011, U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow announced that three Michigan lighthouses, South Haven Pierhead Lighthouse, Middle Island Lighthouse, and Waugoshance Lighthouse, would be transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to local preservation groups. Middle Island Lighthouse was awarded to Middle Island Lighthouse Keepers Association, Inc., a non-profit that has leased the historic tower from the Coast Guard for more than twenty years.
“Michigan’s lighthouses have long been an unmistakable marker of Michigan’s identity,” Levin said. “Although they are no longer used as navigation tools, they are a testament to our state’s maritime history and important sources of tourism. Under the care of these local historical societies, these three lighthouses will be enjoyed by generations of future Michiganians and visitors.”