U.P. lighthouse restoration bolsters tourism, economy, and community pride

The Upper Peninsula offers locals and visitors alike some of the more magnificent and underappreciated natural views in this country. The scenery comes largely thanks to preservation efforts, such as the DeTour Peninsula Nature Preserve. And just a mile off the coast of the Upper Peninsula between DeTour Village and Drummond Island, a regional anchor is getting a well-deserved makeover.
The historic DeTour Reef Light rehabilitation project is coming to a close after nearly 16 years of work. Scheduled to open this summer, the lighthouse in northern Lake Huron has the opportunity to serve as a unique maritime placemaking asset for the area, drawing visitors and rivaling other popular U.P. lighthouses, such as Eagle Harbor, Marquette Harbor and Whitefish Point.
DeTour Reef Light
Built in 1931, the 83-foot-tall lighthouse is a strategic and historic landmark that marks a dangerous reef to help guide ship traffic from and to Lake Huron and Lake Superior via the strategic St. Marys River. The DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society completed major restoration of the structure in 2004. An overnight keeper program and public tours to this unique light began in 2005.
Thanks to a slew of grants, and contributions from U.P. Engineers and Architects and Mihm Construction, DRLPS has been able to repair and restore every interior and exterior square inch of the structure, including replica windows, patches filled with plaster and new flooring. Tours will resume in the summer of 2014 with hopes of adding to the local tourism economy.
Bryan Lijewski, an architect with the State Historic Preservation Office and Michigan State Housing Development Authority, has worked with DRLPS since he began working with the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program grants in 2000. 
"They are a very dedicated, professional, passionate and fun group," Lijewski says of his restoration colleagues. "They have been very successful in tackling a challenging lighthouse rehabilitation project, and have done an excellent job in promoting the light, offering tours and generally building an awareness of this unique historic resource."
Dr. Charles Feltner has served as chief historian and treasurer of the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society since the organization's founding in 1998 as an all-volunteer non-profit. He says more than 350 members nationwide supported the volunteers dedicated to preserving and restoring the DeTour Reef Light Station.
"Since 1998, annual fundraisers were held including the Father's Day St. Mary's River Cruise from DeTour Village and Evening Under The Stars gourmet dining on the waterfront event on Drummond Island," says Feltner. These events as well as guided  tours helped build and continue momentum with the rehabilitation project.
A Vibrant Place
Completion of the restoration project was made possible thanks largely to a $60,000 grant from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority that addressed roof repairs, the watch room, and water damage to the interior ceiling and walls. When tours resume next summer, tourists can expect to find a special U.P. asset.
"The DeTour Reef Light Station is a vibrant place where people come from all walks of life from around the country to experience and enhance their education and appreciation of Great Lakes maritime history as they walk in the footsteps of the former keepers of the lighthouse through the tours and live on the lighthouse with the overnight keeper program at the historic, remote offshore lighthouse," says Feltner. "At the lighthouse, there is a rare original 1936 restored F2T Diaphone foghorn that visitors can listen to, and visitors can also watch a video that DRLPS produced called Gateway to Superior: Saving the DeTour Reef Light that highlights the restoration effort and includes oral histories of several former lighthouse keepers discussing life at the lighthouse in the 60s and 70s."
Luckily for other U.P. lighthouses, Lijewski says there are additional Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program grants available. Besides the $60,000 grant to DeTour, one grant seeks to rehabilitate a motor lifeboat house at Whitefish Point. 
"This building will be used as a theater space for the site," he explains, adding another MLAP grant underway with the Marquette Maritime Museum will replace the roof and offer masonry repairs.
Ultimately, these programs will help shed new light, pun not intended, on some of the exciting developments happening in the U.P., drawing visitors and bolstering the surrounding communities. And that's particularly the case with the DeTour Reef Light, says Feltner.
"The lighthouse visitor program has revitalized the communities with pride and provided economic benefits," he says.

Joe Baur is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Cleveland. He's also the Sections Editor of hiVelocity. You can contact him at joebaur.com.
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