Michigan contractors find ideal project: Restoring lighthouse

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Mackinaw City — Brent Tompkins has always loved lighthouses. So he bought one.

A remodeling contractor in Traverse City, Tompkins was searching for a challenging project; he thought of purchasing an island or something else unique. A text message from a friend in 2016 informing him of an upcoming auction of lighthouses began a journey that has changed his life.

The White Shoal Lighthouse, completed and lighted in 1910, stands 121 feet tall, and is the only lighthouse in the United States to sport a 'barber pole' paint spiral.

“I knew the government sold lighthouses,“ Tompkins said. “I knew little else about the entire process."

Tompkins, 44, took a boat ride in summer 2016 to evaluate Gray’s Reef Light off Cross Village, a lighthouse on the auction block. But it was another nearby auction property that caught his eye. With its one-of-a-kind barber pole red stripe, the 121-foot-high White Shoal Lighthouse sparked the idea of bidding on the light.

"When I first saw the light, I was blown away," he said. "There's really nothing else like it on the Great Lakes. I thought go big or go home."

White Shoal Light sits on a treacherous shoal 2.6 miles off Waugoshance Island in northwest Emmet County. It's at the north end of Lake Michigan, where shipping turns into the Straits of Mackinac. It's also the inspiration behind the image on Michigan's original lighthouse license plate.

The shoal was first served by an anchored lightship for 19 years beginning in 1891. But it proved to be a dangerous and unreliable way to protect shipping, as storms would drag the lightships off the shoal, and the crews onboard were unhappy with the duty.

The Lighthouse Board of the United States petitioned Congress for funds to build a permanent light station. An appropriation of $250,000 saw work begin in spring 1908.

A timber crib was built from 400,000 square feet of lumber while the shoal itself was leveled to receive the 72-square-foot crib, which was towed from St. Ignace and filled with 4,000 tons of stone and 3,700 cubic yards of concrete.

The crib was topped with a 70-square-foot stone base with a poured-concrete top, and tower construction began in 1909. The steel skeleton was bricked in and covered with terracotta blocks. Its base was made 42 feet wide, narrowing to 20 feet at its uppermost gallery.

At completion in 1910, the lighthouse featured nine decks with a kitchen, mechanical room, bathrooms, food storage areas and five bedrooms over several floors.

In 1954, a red barber pole stripe was added to the lighthouse tower for visibility; it's believed to be the only lighthouse in the United States with a red spiral stripe.

White Shoal Light became automated in 1976, and the Coast Guard crew was removed that year. It sports a new 12-volt, solar-powered 190mm Tidelands Signal acrylic lens producing 1.2 million candlepower, replacing the second-degree Fresnel lens, which is displayed at the Whitefish Point Shipwreck Museum.

It is one of only 14 offshore reef lights on the Great Lakes and is unique as the stairs don’t pass through any rooms, winding to the lantern room through the center of the structure.

White Shoal Light was eventually declared excess property by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2014 and handed over to auction by the General Services Administration in July 2016. 

The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 is a partnership of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Interior’s National Park Service and the U.S. General Services Administration. The act allows transfer of ownership at no cost to federal agencies, nonprofits, state or local governments and educational or community development organizations or to the public through auctions. 

“Lighthouses have deep roots and sentimental value as local historical landmarks,” said Ann Kalayil, General Services Administration's Great Lakes regional administrator, in a statement. “Through public sales, the GSA is able to save taxpayer dollars on operation and maintenance while helping to find new owners who will preserve these treasures.”

To date, 137 lights on Great Lakes have been sold or transferred out of federal ownership, according to Richard Stebbins, public affairs officer with the General Services Administration, with 58 lighthouses going into private hands and 79 lights transferred at no cost to preservation groups that must adhere to strict guidelines when restoring the structures.

Proceeds from the sales go back into the U.S. Coast Guard’s Aid to Navigation Fund, which pays for equipment, maintenance and resources to keep the lights operational. The U.S. Coast Guard visits lights yearly for maintenance and upkeep.

Presently, the Martin Reef Lighthouse in northern Lake Huron is the only Michigan structure on the auction block.

A General Services Administration-sponsored inspection trip to lighthouses in September 2016 ran into high-season Lake Michigan, and the trip lessened interest of some bidders onboard.

“This area where the lights are is treacherous, with large waves being common. The light can be hard to reach, as it’s miles from shore in the shipping lanes," Tompkins said. “There were some ill people onboard. I had a smile on my face after seeing some bidders drop out.”

After each bid, there is a 24-hour countdown clock allowing another bidder to raise the amount offered. The bidding for the White Shoal Lighthouse went on for two weeks beyond the deadline to close the bidding.

“It was two weeks of torture,” Tompkins said. “The last 24 hours was crazy. Someone had increased their offer by $9, and that amount stayed with the bidding.

“I raised my bid by $5,000 each time; I was getting out of my comfort zone but wanted to give it my best effort.”

At 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 29, 2016, Tompkins watched the countdown clock run out, and the screen suddenly went blank. The bidding had ended at $110,009. Two weeks later, he received by mail an official notification that he had won the auction. 

Marty Rosalik, 60, of Oakland Township, has been interested in old man-made structures all his life.

“I’ve always been interested in things man has made that did not survive the test of time,” Rosalik said.  “I’ve had an interest in old railroad buildings, mines, anything old with a history. I told my wife I was going to bid on a lighthouse.”

Jean Rosalik’s response? “Oh, no, you’re not!”

So instead the couple watched the auction and when bidding ended, Marty Rosalik contacted a man he knew at General Services Administration, asking for his contact information be forwarded to the winning bidder.

In response, Tompkins called Rosalik, an electrical engineer with General Motors. The talk went well.

“It was almost like a job interview,” he remembered later.

The two men hit it off, and Rosalik was onboard with the project. He would join the four-member board of the nonprofit White Shoal Lighthouse Preservation Society in 2016 and be placed in charge of putting together power systems for the structure.

After several trips to the light this summer, there is hot and cold water and bathroom facilities. Rosalik has made 20 trips to the structure and hopes the weather holds to allow a few more visits this fall.

Mike Lynch, 50, a building contractor in Weidman, had met Tompkins on a job. An offer to sit and have a cold beer led to Lynch becoming a co-owner on the project.

“I liked the idea right off the bat,” Lynch said. “I really doubted if he could pull this off, but when he won the bid, I was onboard. I’m the bean counter and can’t wait for it to be completed. It’s the prettiest light there is.”

It has taken two years to have a survey done on the property and complete all paperwork. Tompkins closed on the property in June and received its title the following month.

As owners of the lighthouse, Tompkins and Lynch have few restrictions. The two own it and have a legal title, but they do not own the bottomland under the light. That is owned by the people of Michigan.

They have to allow the U.S. Coast Guard access at all times because it's an active navigation structure. The Coast Guard has keys, and once a year, a helicopter will lower a crewman onto the light to check, lubricate and calibrate equipment.

Some nonprofits, on the other hand, are given a light with a boatload of restrictions, such as how it is repaired, how it is renovated, access restrictions and more. 

Crews with Tompkins have spent a total of three weeks on the light this year, beginning in the spring, with at least a couple of more visits planned for this year.

“We will rebuild with donations and private funds,” Tompkins said. “Being a nonprofit, we hope to receive some funds from the Save The Light program when the State of Michigan sold license plates with the White Shoal Light displayed on them.

"The money raised from plate sales is to be distributed to assist groups like ours for rebuilding and repairing the lights.”

Tompkins believes it will take four to five years and about $3 million to remodel the light. He hopes to have someone there from Memorial Day to Labor Day next year.

“We plan on remodeling the light in a 1950s-style theme,” said Tompkins, smiling. “No LED lights or flat-screen TVs. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.