In 1873, Congress appropriated $10,000 for a lighthouse at Port Austin, Michigan. The original plan was to build a brick lighthouse on the shore of Lake Huron near Port Austin, but two years later, the congressmen changed their minds and decided to build the lighthouse 2.5 miles offshore on the rocky Port Austin reef and appropriated an additional $75,000 for its construction. An octagonal foundation crib was built at Tawas, towed out to the prepared spot, and filled with concrete. A 57-foot pyramidal open-framework tower was built atop the foundation and a fourth-order Henry-Lepaute lens was installed atop the tower.
The light was turned on for the first time on September 15, 1878, by Keeper Charles Kimball. The total cost for the lighthouse was $80,923. In 1898, the foundation pier was rebuilt, and work started on a new combination lighthouse and fog signal, consisting of a sixteen-foot-square brick tower, four stories high, connected to the fog signal building, topped by a cylindrical lantern room with helical astragals. The light was installed in the new tower in the spring of 1900, and the structure was finished later that summer.
In 1933, it was noted that the corners of the pier were opening up, along with the metal plates at the base. In the following year, the brick and timber facing of the pier was replaced with concrete. In 1942, a marker radio beacon was established on the mainland at Port Austin to replace the fog signal on the reef and an automatic light was placed in the lighthouse, eliminating the need for an on-site lighthouse keeper.
In 1979, the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse and planned to dismantle it. After hearing of the Coast Guard’s plan, Lou Shillinger formed Port Austin Reef Light Association and in 1988, obtained a five-year lease to the property. Since then, Association volunteers have replaced the roof with historically accurate metal shingles, replaced all the windows and doors, and made other improvements. In 2013, the Coast Guard handed over the deed to the lighthouse to the Association.
Port Austin is home to Art in the Park every Labor Day and this year we're honored to have been accepted. With miles of Lake Huron shoreline to explore, I can't wait to visit. This area is truly one of those undiscovered gems in Michigan. While there aren't any tours this summer due to construction, check out the Port Austin Reef Light Association website and learn more. Charles Stockwell will be offering this print and several other Michigan lighthouses this summer on our site!