The yellow-brick lighthouse at Point Betsie consisted of a circular, thirty-seven-foot tower connected by a passageway to a two-story dwelling, which had a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and living room on its first floor and three bedrooms on its second floor. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower’s lantern room, where it produced a fixed white light varied by a white flash at a focal plane of fifty-three feet above the lake.
Just a year after the lighthouse was placed in service, the station had to be protected from the lake, and over the years, various measures were used to keep Lake Michigan at bay. Displacement of the sand around the lighthouse led to the need to replace some of the tower’s foundation in 1869.
The first three keepers of Point Betsie Lighthouse each served less than a year, but this high turnover rate ended in 1861, when Alonzo Slyfield was placed in charge of the light. Besides his role as lightkeeper, Slyfield also served the local community as a doctor, coroner, and lifesaver. On a frightfully stormy night in June 1854, Keeper Slyfield spied the brigantine J.Y. Scammon near the point. When its anchors failed, the vessel was driven aground. The crew launched a spare spar over the brigantine’s railing to create a slide that allowed those aboard to flee the doomed vessel. Keeper Slyfield waded through the pounding surf to help everyone ashore and later wrote the following about the event:
On our return with the shipwrecked crew to the light-house, we found that during my absence I had been blessed by the arrival of an eight-pound blue-eyed boy…and there was indeed a feeling of happiness in the station that night, and I felt satisfied that I had accomplished more that day than on any other day of my previous life.
A lifesaving station was completed just south of Point Betsie Lighthouse in 1876 to help mariners who found themselves in trouble in Manitou Passage. This relieved Keeper Slyfield of the need to rescue mariners, but his skill as a doctor was still regularly called upon. When away from the lighthouse, Slyfield left the light in charge of his sons. Thomas Matthews, keeper of the nearby lifesaving station, felt this arrangement interfered with the proper operation of the light, and on April 13, 1880, he noted the following in his daily log:
Duty compels met to note on this Journal the very bad way Point Betsey Light has been kept this spring. I do not wish to do A.J. Slyfield any injury, but the light has been neglected so much and my crew so often passing remarks upon the light that I am obliged to make note of it. This morning the patrol see that the light did not revolve and was burning very dim – time 3:30 a.m. Watched it until near five OC, and weather being hazy and many vessels & steamers passing. Surfman LaCore went to the Light House, woked up some boys who were sleeping there who got up and fixed & put the light in running order. The Keeper is in the habit of leaving boys at the light in charge.
In September 1881, fifty-six-year-old Alonzo Slyfield wrote a letter to his superiors in which he expressed his desire to retire after twenty-eight years of lightkeeping and have his twenty-two-year-old son Edwin replace him. Though this was an unusual request, Edwin Slyfield was placed in charge of Point Betsie Lighthouse in 1882, even though he was one of the “boys” who Keeper Matthews felt had neglected the light.
In 1880, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board included the following paragraph, which seemed to foretell an early end to Point Betsie Lighthouse.
This is one of the most important lights on Lake Michigan. The present light has never given satisfaction. The tower was built by contract in 1858 and the work was miserably done. A new tower with sufficient height to put the focal plane 100 feet above the lake should be built, and the fourth-order lens should be replaced by a third-order. An appropriation of $40,000 is recommended for this work.
The requested steam fog signal was activated on December 31, 1891, after an act earlier that year had provided $5,500 for its construction, and a change in the light came on April 23, 1892, when a new fourth-order lens reduced the period between the light’s white flashes from ninety to ten seconds. The fog signal was housed in a frame building, built 120 feet north of the lighthouse and covered with corrugated iron siding and roofing. A circular iron oil house with a capacity of 300 gallons was also added to the station in 1892.
The extra work needed to run the fog signal led to the assignment of an assistant keeper to Point Betsie. The living portion of the lighthouse was renovated in 1895, when an additional six rooms were added to the dwelling, allowing it to be separated into two apartments under a single gambrel roof. The frame kitchen which had been located on the east side of the lighthouse was moved around to the north. On November 3, 1899, the dwelling and tower were painted white with red roofs to provide a better daymark for mariners.
Keeper Phil Sheridan, whose service from 1895 to 1917 as head keeper is the longest in the history of the station, was painting the lighthouse tower on October 14, 1914, when the rope supporting the swinging seat he was perched in broke. As Sheridan plummeted thirty-five feet to the ground, his legs struck an iron railing breaking his right leg and crushing his left ankle. An artery in one leg was also severed, but Sheridan recovered to continue his service at Point Betsie. Cecile E. Theile served as a laborer at the station for six months while Keeper Sheridan recuperated.
In 1917, Keeper Sheridan and Severin Danielsen, keeper of Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, swapped assignments. Severin, a bachelor, served the final ten years of his thirty-year career at Point Betsie Lighthouse. In 1920, Keeper Danielsen wrote to the Bureau of Public Roads, pleading for improvements to the rough wagon path that ran between Point Betsie and a nearby highway. After waiting a few years, the men at the lighthouse and lifesaving station took matters into their own hands, and, with help from the community, they completed a serviceable road in 1924.
When Keeper Danielsen retired in 1928, the lighthouse superintendent in Milwaukee submitted this unique budget request for additional coal for Point Betsie: “The former Keeper being a bachelor heated only one room and it was possible to get along with 24 tons but this Keeper has retired and a Keeper (Charlie Tesnow) with family has been transferred to Point Betsie mainly for the reason that school facilities are available and with a family it will be necessary to heat the quarters.”
In 1912, a ten-inch chime whistle, operated by compressed air, replaced the steam fog signal plant at Point Betsie. The following year, the illumination for the light was changed to incandescent oil vapor, increasing the intensity of the light to 55,000 candlepower. The station was electrified in 1921, allowing a type “G” diaphone, which had a sound radius several times that of the air whistle, to be used. A radiobeacon was placed in commission at the station on February 28, 1927. In 1948, the fog signal was changed from a single-toned to a two-toned diaphone. The fog signal was discontinued in late 1973 or early 1974.
The lifesaving station at Point Betsie was decommissioned in 1937. The Lighthouse Service looked into using the station as additional housing for the three keepers who were now assigned to Point Betsie, but ultimately the service decided to improve the cramped living quarters at the lighthouse. The lifesaving station was sold into private hands in 1945 and remains standing to this day.
Henry J. Lafreniere served as an assistant keeper at Point Betsie from 1918 to 1945. In the early 1940s, a local newspaper reported that Keeper Lafreniere had recently discovered the largest deer track he had ever seen. As he was relating this to a friend, the keeper looked up and saw a group of three does. “They started toward the animals,” the paper said, “and it was not until they got within a few feet of them they discovered that they had tracked down three of the nicest heifers you could imagine.” This tongue-in-cheek account concluded by warning people to be cautious about letting their animals roam the dunes that fall if Keeper Lafreneiere and his friend were “anywhere in the country.”
In the fall of 1983, the Coast Guard automated Point Betsie Lighthouse and Sherwood Point Lighthouse, the last two staffed lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Coast Guard personnel continued to live at Point Betsie until the dwelling's heating system failed in 1996, prompting the Coast Guard to relocate its staff to Frankfort. Niel Martinek, one of the two coastguardsmen stationed at the light in 1983, called his assignment “more of a tradition than a job, in many ways.” Both Martinek and Scott Sandy, the commanding officer, enjoyed the extra time they got to spend with their families while stationed at the lighthouse.
On June 5, 2004, title to the lighthouse was transferred from the Coast Guard to Benzie County. The county, in turn, immediately leased the property to The Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse. After writing grants and holding dynamic fund-raisers, the group renovated the exterior of the lighthouse in 2006 at a cost of about $1 million. As part of the renovation, the lighthouse colors were reverted to those more historically accurate: a black lantern, green trim and doors, and a bright red cedar shingled roof.
The energetic group restored the fog signal building in 2008, and then embarked on restoring the interior of the lighthouse. The ground floor of the lighthouse now serves as an exhibition area depicting the history of the lighthouse and lifesaving operations at Point Betsie, and the assistant keeper’s quarters is now a two-bedroom apartment available as a vacation rental. During a ceremony held at the lighthouse on June 7, 2010, The Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse received the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation, which recognizes key achievements in historic preservation. To cap off their efforts, the group succeeded in having the fourth-order Fresnel lens, which was removed from the tower in 1996 and placed on display at the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station/Maritime Museum, returned to the lighthouse.