Once upon a time this lighthouse existed as a guide to keep sailors from wrecking their ships on the Lake Michigan coast.
In the wake of the United States Civil War the Great Lakes became an important waterway of the Mid-West. Boat traffic increased to accommodate the growing lumber industry. All throughout the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence Seaway the increase in ship traffic meant an increase in shipwrecks.
Petite Pointe Au Sable juts into Lake Michigan near Silver Lake State Park. It’s a gentle curve, almost a speed bump on the shore if you look at the satellite view. It doesn’t look like much, but it was the site of several shipwrecks. In 1871, the 87 foot schooner Pride, beached here. In 1872, the United States Congress approved funding for a lighthouse and it was completed in 1874.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. Ships were in danger. They needed a way to know when they were too close to an obstruction, like land jutting out into the lake. The lighthouse solved that issue by beaming a massive light across the water to warn the sailors of danger and keep them safe.
A lighthouse needs a keeper. Someone to make sure the light shines.
Originally the process was almost arcane.
At sunset the keeper would a light a small lamp and carry it to the top of the lighthouse, 108 feet above the lake. Carefully, he filled the supply reservoir with high quality lard oil and lit the wick of the lighthouse lamp with the handheld lamp.
The flame was kept low at first. Starting the flame too hot could potentially crack the glass chimney of the lamp. Slowly, over half an hour, the keeper would increase the flame to its full height, 1 and 13/16ths of an inch. On a clear night, the light from that flame could be seen 13 nautical miles away. This extreme distance from such a small light was possible thanks to the Fresnel lens.
The Fresnel lens, invented by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, was first used in a French lighthouse. Instead of a smooth, spherical, lens, like a camera or magnifying glass, the Fresnel lens uses annular sections to aim as much light as possible in one direction. The light isn’t condensed into a small beam, but guided into a powerful unified beam of light.
This relatively ancient flashlight was achieved with oil, flame, and a lens. Monitored and maintained by the lighthouse keeper.
The Keeper lived in a house, with his family, next to the lighthouse. The Keeper’s assistant and his family also lived there. Early on, there was no road to the lighthouse. The Keeper and his family had to walk trails to get to town. Mears, established 1873, was about 4 miles away.
In 1902, almost 30 years later, a road was built.
Advances in technology progressed and in 1915, after 40 years of service, the lard burning lamp was replaced with an incandescent lamp that burned kerosene. It was brighter and could be seen for 19 miles, instead of just 13.
The Keeper, a new keeper now, adapted to the new technology and maintained the lighthouse, saving the lives of many sailors.
1954 was a big year for the lighthouse. The kerosene burning lamp was removed and replaced with electric light. The flash sequence of the light was automated.
The lighthouse keeper was no longer needed.
The Lighthouse Keeper, once responsible for lighting the way for ships and sailors, guiding them to safety, so they could sail another day was replaced by electricity and motors of modernity.
He took his family and walked away from his home of so many years and wondered what life would be like now.
If there’s no lighthouse keeper, there’s no need for a Keeper’s home. The house was razed and all memory of the Keeper and the Keeper’s house are lost in the sands of the Lake Michigan shore.
At the dawn of global satellite positioning systems the lighthouse itself was no longer needed.
The light was turned off.
Sailors barely have need to look out at the water any more. The satellites will transmit their signals to the navigation system. The navigation system will collate the data and display it on a digital map that has every shoal, bay, sandbar, nook and cranny of the lake clearly defined. Warning bells will chime before the ship even gets near the danger zone no matter if it’s a moonless night, or clear sunny day.
The lighthouse, at Petite Pointe, still stands, but only as a museum. It must be maintained by donations. It exists only because we can’t let go of the past. There’s no light and no life to it.
And the world seems less interesting.
The more technology advances the less interesting the world becomes.
That’s not strictly true, to be sure, but technology has not only filled the map to the edges, it’s marked every point of interest along the way and put an advertisement on it.
Thanks to the World Wide Web, we don’t even have to travel to see new places. If we do travel, we do so knowing that every path is marked and every danger identified. Our adventures have become all together safe because even our phones will keep us from getting lost.
We don’t need the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper anymore. We barely even need to look up from our smartphones. There are no sailors and no adventurers because technology has finished the journey for us.
GPS is a great idea. It warns us of danger and points us in the right direction, but it doesn’t end there.
The sailor himself is obsolete. Thanks to computers the boats can pilot themselves. Your car may soon drive itself. There’ll be no need for you to even look out the window.
Discovery, and along with it, adventure, will no longer happen in the regular course of your life.
Set aside the technology for just a moment.
Take an unguided step forward.
Think of the adventure that awaits.