Soon after people started traveling the oceans and seas by boat, the need arose to send a boat’s captain a sign of where they could find land or difficult areas to navigate. From the days of lighting fires on hilltops as a warning to the first lighthouse in Egypt around 300 B.C., sailors have sought the comfort of seeing the rotating light -- which can be seen as far as 25 miles away -- as a sign that they were near a port. More than 1,500 lighthouses have been built in the United States, according to the U.S. Lighthouse Society, with Michigan accounting for the most in one state with about 150. While most lighthouses today are automatically operated, several are open to people for tours. In the Midwest, most lighthouses are located along the Great Lakes of Superior, Michigan, Erie, and Huron. Lake Ontario, the fifth Great Lake, borders Ontario and New York.
While it seems like each lighthouse should be the same, nothing could be farther from the truth. While each working lighthouse serves the same function as a navigational aid for boats and ships, not all lighthouses are created equally or designed the same. Here’s a look at nine extremely unique lighthouses in the Midwest, some with serious history and others offering a lighthearted backstory.
1. Whitefish Point Light Station
Made famous in the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot sang about Whitefish, “The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put 15 more miles behind her.” The Whitefish Point Light Station at the top end of Michigan’s upper peninsula still serves ships traveling along Lake Superior. In 1975, a November storm sank the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, sending it and all 29 souls aboard to the bottom of the lake. The lighthouse and the attached lighthouse keeper’s house are open to the public for tours. You will need to climb steps to the top of the lighthouse. The song may have made this shipwreck the most famous on the Great Lakes, but the Fitzgerald and other ships are honored at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. In 1995, divers recovered the ship’s bell, displayed at the museum, and replaced it with a replica with crew members' names inscribed. The families of the sailors didn’t want the ship recovered out of respect for the men.
2. Southport Light Station Museum
Serving Lake Michigan as its southernmost lighthouse, Southport Light Station was built in 1866. Today, the lighthouse and the 1865 keeper’s house offer a look into the area’s past. Travel on the Great Lakes was dangerous during its early days, with about 30,000 people losing lives in the five lakes. Lighthouses, such as the one in Kenosha, Wisconsin, improved life on the lake. Touring the keeper’s house, including the living area, you can feel what life on the lake was like in the mid-1800s. After climbing the twisting 72 steps to the top, the lighthouse features an impressive view of Lake Michigan. It’s said that on a clear day, you can see the Chicago skyline, about 70 miles to the south.
3. North And South Breakwater Lighthouses At Duluth Canal
Located on the northern edge of Canal Park, the North and South Breakwater Lighthouses greet boats and container ships as they enter the Duluth Canal. Constructed in the mid-1890s, when the Duluth Canal added two concrete piers, a lighthouse was added to both the northern and southern sides of the Lake Superior entrance. The original northern breakwater lighthouse wasn’t built with a light, while the southern lighthouse did include one. Realizing the north end presented navigational issues, a tower with a light was added in 1897. The current North Pier Lighthouse was completed in 1910 and served sailors for more than 50 years. The South Breakwater Light was built in 1901. A third lighthouse -- the Rear Range Light -- is located near the canal’s interior. Since their early days, the lighthouses have become tourist attractions as part of Duluth’s Canal Park. The northeast Minnesota city is a hub for container and ore ships as well as local cruise and recreational boats. The lighthouses offer outstanding views of Lake Superior and Duluth’s landscape. The canal is a great spot for watching giant ships arrive and depart, with a bonus view of the Duluth Aerial Bridge, which rises when ships travel through the canal.
4. Two Harbors Lighthouse Museum
Today, you can stand on the seawall at Two Harbors, Minnesota, and look out on Lake Superior, scanning the Great Lake for miles and miles. The beauty of the lake, and the quiet solitude it offers, had to be a bonus of being a lighthouse keeper. While a lighthouse keeper’s responsibilities were enormous back in the day, ensuring the light worked properly, alerting mariners of potential risks along the shoreline, you know they had to admire the water’s majesty. Today, you can visit the Two Harbors Lighthouse Museum, which is just a few feet from the lake, with volcanic rock hugging the shoreline. You’ll learn about life on Lake Superior during the 19th century as well as the keeper’s role in lake transportation.
5. Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse
Not all lighthouses are located on the Great Lakes in the Midwest. You’d think that it was constructed to guide riverboats along the Mississippi River, but the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse in Hannibal, Missouri, is actually a memorial to the world-renowned author. Born Samuel Clemons in Florida, Missouri, the would-be author spent his childhood in Hannibal, which was the inspiration for his books, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Built in 1935 to honor Twain’s 100th birthday, the hilltop lighthouse can be accessed via a 244-step path or wheelchair-accessible parking near the rear of the lighthouse. While you’re not allowed inside the lighthouse, the location offers impressive views of the Mississippi River and the surrounding area. While in Hannibal, visit Twain’s childhood home museum and other Twain-related attractions.
6. Michigan City Old Light Museum
Basically a streetlight, the first “lighthouse” in Michigan City, Indiana, was actually a post light -- a pole with a light attached at the top. It was replaced two years later, in 1837, with a lighthouse. In 1858, the Old Michigan City Light was constructed. It was staffed by a keeper until 1940 when the U.S. Coast Guard took over managing it. The Old Light Museum has offered a look into the area’s history since 1973, with a replica lighthouse lantern and home furnishings representing the lighthouse’s era.
7. Linoma Lighthouse
Located on Highway 6 midway between Lincoln and Omaha (Linoma) near Gretna, Nebraska, the Linoma Lighthouse is a decorative landmark, with its name painted vertically facing the highway just outside the entrance to the former lake and beach. Linoma Beach opened in 1924 on the site of a man-made lake created on a quarry site. The 100 foot-tall lighthouse was added in 1939. Today, Linoma Lighthouse is a private campground, but locals can become members to use the beach and lake.
8. Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse
At Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City, Michigan, you can see Lake Michigan on one side of the lighthouse and Lake Huron on the other. From 1889 to 1957, the lighthouse served sailors at a critical junction of the Straits of Mackinac, where the two lakes met. The area suffered several shipwrecks, which are featured in a movie at the museum’s barn. You can learn more about the ships at the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. A part of Michilimackinac State Park, lighthouse tours offer great views of the area.
9. Lake Minatare Lighthouse
When is a lighthouse not a lighthouse? Built in 1939, Lake Minatare Lighthouse in Nebraska is actually a shelter and observation tower. Resembling a lighthouse you’d find along the Great Lakes, Lake Minatare Lighthouse stands about 55 feet high. You can climb the narrow stone steps to the top, which features an impressive view of the lake area. As the largest in the panhandle, Lake Minatare includes about 2,300 acres of water, which is an excellent outlet for boating and swimming, as well as water skiing. The Lake Minatare Recreation Area is also available for camping and hiking. Wildlife enthusiasts appreciate views of waterfowl and migratory birds.
Before You Go
Before heading out to your favorite lighthouse, you’ll want to check its website for any requirements concerning accessibility and climbing the steps. Always wear comfortable walking shoes, dress accordingly for climbing stairs, and bring binoculars and cameras, as you’ll want to soak in the scenery. You can learn about other incredible Midwestern lighthouses here.