Tawas Point Lighthouse a beacon of interest for volunteer keepers
Along the 3,200 miles of shoreline in Michigan stand about 90 active lighthouses, sentries of safety and evocations of life on the Great Lakes.
Many are architectural curiosities, amid gorgeous waterfront scenes. Their attractiveness is consuming to some, an obsession to others.
“I love how people gravitate to lighthouses,” said Chris Zimmel of Tawas City, who stayed inside the Tawas Point Lighthouse as a keeper in 2008. “A visitor once told us that lighthouses are America’s castles. You know, we’re a young country compared to Europe. But some of the oldest buildings in the U.S. are lighthouses.
“That speaks to people as history. And they are also beacons that saved lives.”
People from all around the country apply to the state by the several hundred annually to be volunteer keepers of the Tawas Point Lighthouse, which was active from 1876 to 2016.
For a fee of $75 per person, lighthouse keepers stay in the second‐story quarters of the property's dwelling for two weeks. The accommodations sleep up to four in two bedrooms and overlook the scenic shores of Lake Huron, providing amazing views of both sunrises and sunsets, the lake, moon and birds.
In return, the keepers greet visitors, give tours and provide information about the lighthouse and Tawas area.
When Zimmel stayed there, she said she was enchanted by the living quarters and the conical, brick and masonry tower that is 70 feet tall,16 feet in diameter at the base, and 9 feet, 6 inches at the parapet.
She said she heard the waves crashing and wind blowing.
“What’s so nice is to be able to kind of feel what the keepers must have felt then, the kinds of weather, to be at the top of the tower in the lantern room and to see the weather coming in,” said Zimmel, who is secretary of the Friends of Tawas Point State Park & Lighthouse, which has members from around the country.
“We are very blessed in Tawas. Because of our situation at the end of Tawas Point, we see both sunrises over the lake and sunsets back to the west. It’s a magical place to be, at both sunrise and sunset.”
The state Department of Natural Resources operates the lighthouse keepers’ program as part of its oversight of Tawas Point State Park.
“We’ve been involved with the keeper program for a decade,” said Laurie Perkins of the department. “It started out as an opportunity to showcase the lighthouse.
“We had just redone the interior of the keeper dwelling. We had exhibits, and then we had space in the upper floor to put in a residential, short-term keepers place.”
The state installed a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Then the idea of inviting keepers in return for a fee and the service of providing tours “just sort of snowballed, from there,” she said.
People are drawn, in part, by the purpose of the lighthouse, providing safety to ships on the water.
As the 19th-century Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.”
Benjamin Franklin, after a narrow brush with a shipwreck returning from Europe, assessed lighthouses as “more important than churches.”
Beyond the navigation system, Perkins said, “You think about the romance of the lighthouse and all of those people at sea and the peril of the deep.
“And these things have been around for hundreds of years. They are just part of the landscape.”
People from inland states, such as Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma, who do not have ready access to water views, let alone the Great Lakes, are among those who made the keepers’ program an opportunity in high demand.
“They don’t have lakes and oceans next to them,” Perkins said. “And we get people coming just wanting to have that experience to be next to an inland sea because that’s what the Great Lakes are.
“So these land-bound states are all over this. And I’m getting applications from Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado and even Australia.”
In fact, Perkins and the state are inundated for the 2020 season, which runs from May 6 through Oct. 7.
The application period opened Jan. 6 and closes at 11:59 p.m. Feb. 7, and more than 750 people have already applied for the 24 to 48 slots available in the 12 two-week periods.
“It has turned out that there is a tremendous response for people who want to do this,” said Carol Garlo of East Tawas, who first became attracted to the light in the 1960s while driving to a night shift as a medical technician at what is now the Ascension St. Joseph Hospital, a block from Lake Huron.
“I was on call at night, and when I’d get called into work in the middle of the night, I always liked seeing the lighthouse,” Garlo said.
In those days, if she had house guests, she would call the Coast Guard to see if someone was available to provide tours.
Then, about 15 years ago, she stayed in the lighthouse as part of the keepers’ program and later joined the Friends of Tawas Point State Park and Lighthouse.
“Our keeper program is very popular,” Garlo said. “The people we had in last summer were just amazing. Enthusiastic, wanting to interact with the public, doing it easily. It was just great.”
Keepers are asked to perform basic facility maintenance, sweeping floors, removing trash, cleaning bugs off windows, sweeping outdoor walkways and cleaning the living quarters when leaving.
The total commitment is about 35 hours per week.
“You would be amazed at some of the questions people have, and every time I volunteer as a tour guide, I learn something new,” Garlo said. “Because some people who tour it know everything about the mechanics of the thing and other lighthouses. You learn something every time you volunteer."
The keepers' schedule is designed to allow time to enjoy recreational activities while giving tours and telling visitors about the lighthouse and the Tawas area.
“Lighthouses are very Michigan,” Garlo said. “We have a wonderful maritime history in our state.”
To be a keeper
- Must be 18 years of age or older
- Provide your own food, toiletries and linens
- Pass a background check
- DNR employees are not eligible
- No pets are allowed
- Apply by filling out form available at https://form.jotform.com/seekingmichigan/tawas-point-lighthouse by Feb. 7