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Guarding the Straits: The St. Helena Light Station

St. Helena Light Station as it looks today. Photo courtesy Craig Wilson.

Old Mackinac Point is just one of over a dozen light stations that helped guide sailors through the Straits of Mackinac. On a clear day, five of these stations can still be seen from the top of Old Mackinac Point’s tower. About eight miles to the northwest, in Lake Michigan, is the St. Helena light, which shared a great deal of history with Old Mackinac Point.

The island of St. Helena was home to a thriving fishing village for much of the 19th century. Steamships stopped at St. Helena to replenish their supply of wood for fuel, and sought shelter in the island’s natural harbor. However, dangerous shoals extend from the east and west ends of the island, imperiling vessels attempting to reach the safety of the harbor. To warn sailors of these dangers, Congress approved funding for a new light station on St. Helena in 1872, and the tower and keepers’ quarters were completed the next year. The station’s 3½-order Fresnel lens was lit for the first time in September 1873. Additional structures, including an oil house, wharf, and boat house, were added in the 1890s.  

Old Mackinac Point as it appeared in the 1890s, when brothers Charles and George Marshall served as the keepers at St. Helena and Old Mackinac Point, respectively.

The station’s third keeper, Charles Marshall, arrived in 1888 after transferring from the Waughoshance Point light. Charles was the son of Ordnance Sergeant William Marshall, who served at Fort Mackinac for several decades until his death in 1884. Charles, along with his brothers William II, Tom, Walter, and George, entered the Lighthouse Service and tended light stations around the upper Great Lakes. George served as the first keeper at Old Mackinac Point when the station opened in 1890. Charles served as the keeper at St. Helena until 1900, when an accident while painting the tower damaged his mental and physical health. He transferred to Old Mackinac Point, where he took on the less-stressful assistant keeper’s duties under his brother George’s charge. The assistant keeper at Old Mackinac Point, George Leggatt, received a promotion to keeper and replaced Charles at St. Helena. Unfortunately, Leggatt served only a year on St. Helena before drowning in a boating accident. Charles, meanwhile, served at Old Mackinac Point until 1902. In early April, according to George Marshall’s official station logbook, Charles was “adjudged insane and taken away to Traverse City,” where he was confined in the state mental hospital for the rest of his life. When Charles’ wife Rose died in 1907, their children, Chester, Ethel, and Nora, came to live at Old Mackinac Point with their uncle George and his wife Maggie, as well as their aunt Sarah and her husband, assistant

Charles Marshall’s son Chester (Chet) poses outside the keepers’ quarters Old Mackinac Point in 1915. Chet grew up at the station with his aunt and uncle, George and Maggie Marshall. Courtesy Margaret Marshall Greicar

keeper William Barnum.

On St. Helena, the station continued to grow through the early years of the 20th century. The Lighthouse Service assigned an assistant keeper in 1909, requiring the construction of an additional dwelling. The St. Helena light continued as a manned station until 1922, when it was automated and the last keeper departed. Responsibility for the lighthouse passed to James Marshall, the adopted son of George and nephew of Charles, who was then serving as the keeper at Old Mackinac Point. James and his assistants made regular trips out to St. Helena to check on the automatic light equipment, but without permanent residents the light station fell into disrepair. By the mid-1980s, the station was nearly ruined, but the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association (GLLKA) began an ambitious restoration program in 1986.

St. Helena Light Station from the water. Photo courtesy Craig Wilson.

Today, restoration work continues at the St. Helena light station. GLLKA runs a summer keeper program at the lighthouse, and offers occasional day trips to the island. For more information about their work, visit their website. To learn more about the Marshall family, their links to St. Helena, and the maritime history of the Straits of Mackinac, stop by for a tour of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.