Leelanau News and Events

Leelanau's Lost-In-Time Island

By Ross Boissoneau | July 9, 2021

What is 3,400 acres in Leelanau County, but doesn’t abut any of the rest of the property in the county, public or private? Where can you find towering dunes, virgin cedars, and untouched beaches, part of 115 acres of state-owned land that’s virtually untouched? What was the site of a battle between environmentalists, the state and a private owner?

The answer to all the above is South Fox Island. Though perhaps not as well known as the Manitou Islands – it hasn’t generated any stories about cute bear cubs drowning while making their way across Lake Michigan – the island have their own tales to tell.

Helping South Fox tell its tales is the Fox Island Lighthouse Association, or FILA. The non-profit formed in 2004 as an effort to protect and preserve the structures on the public portion of the island and promote scientific, educational, and charitable purposes.

Catherine Allchin was one of the founders of FILA, and today serves as its vice president. The Suttons Bay resident says the island’s history is worth preserving, as are its flora and topography. “It’s an amazing place. When it’s gone, it’s gone,” she says simply.

She first became familiar with the island when a man chartered a boat she was first mate on to spread his brother’s ashes there. That was in 1999. She says it had suffered 15 years of neglect since it had been abandoned, but on the beautiful, sunny day, she felt a spiritual connection to the place. It was heightened by a vision of herself as a 9-year-old girl looking west and watching a thunderstorm come rolling across the water. “I felt the wind and waves. It just lasted a few moments,” she says.

But the feeling of connection has stayed with Allchin ever since. She began working with other like-minded people with a goal of restoring the light station on the island and co-founding the organization that today is FILA. It is dedicated to the preservation of the island's public lands and restoration of the surviving seven structures still standing on the south end.

Their efforts are constrained by the fact they have to bring all the materials needed from the mainland. And they’re not always easy to find. Case in point: The lighthouse's toilets were manufactured in 1910. You’re not going to find the parts for that at your local Ace Hardware. But they were able to contact the original manufacturer, which is still in business in Milwaukee.

The original bathtub was also missing, but after a presentation at a local library, they were told where they could find it. Unfortunately, the owner decided against returning it. So the stories don’t always have a happy ending.

The Fox Islands are part of an archipelago with Beaver Island, Garden Island, High Island, Hog Island and several minor islands. Curiously, the Fox Islands are part of Leelanau County, some 17 miles away. Beaver Island, though just ten miles distant, is part of Charlevoix County.

Allchin says she and the other members of the organization continue to work on the numerous projects, from painting the buildings to restoring them. They’re helped along the way by various volunteers. But finding people interested in staying on the island to work on the facilities while remaining isolated from the rest of the world isn’t always easy. Seven years ago they were able to host the first keeper in 59 years.

Allchin says one volunteer from Texas had never even been from Michigan. He was asked why he wanted to be part of the project, when there’s no electricity, no bathroom, and water has to be hauled up the hill from Lake Michigan. He responded that he had always wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. He’d become an engineer, and now saw the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream.

Allchin says for those who so choose, or who like her volunteer for some of the projects, it’s an amazing adventure. “You get away from it all,” she says.

Some important dates in the history of South Fox Island:

1866: the U.S. Lighthouse Board writes, “The necessity for a light-house with fog-signal which should be located at the extreme southeast end of the South Fox island has long been felt.”
1867: Congress appropriates $18,000 for a lighthouse on South Fox Island. A 45-foot tall lighthouse is built that summer and fall. Keeper Henry J. Roe exhibits the light for the first time on November 1, 1867.
1895: The fog signal and oil house are built.
1897: The workshop and boat house are constructed.
1900: A steam launch replaces the open sailing skiff that had served as the station’s official craft.
1915: Deer are introduced to the island.
1933: The Skeletal Tower on Sapelo Island, Georgia, erected in 1905, is disassembled, and the components shipped to South Fox Island. Workers from Northport reassemble it there the next year.
1958: The light station is converted to an automatic light. Allen Pearson Cain, the last lightkeeper of South Fox Island, leaves the island.
1968: The automatic light system is shut down. Electronic navigation has rendered it obsolete.
1980: The U.S. Department of Interior transfers the lighthouse and grounds to the State of Michigan.
1994: David V. Johnson, who owns two-thirds of South Fox Island, purchases North Fox Island.
1995: The Natural Resources Commission announces the possible acquisition of North Fox in a trade with Johnson for the remaining third of South Fox. Numerous parties, including the Grand Traverse Band, object to Johnson’s plans. The dispute continues for the next six years, until finally resolved with Johnson retaining ownership of North Fox and most of South Fox, while the state retains ownership of the south tip.
2003: Governor Granholm approved a swap whereby David Johnson traded all of North Fox Island to the State of Michigan in exchange for several state-owned acres on South Fox.

Today, the people of Michigan own North Fox Island with oversight by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. According to Allchin, the northern third of South Fox Island remains public, and the southern 115 acres — which are part of the light station — are open to the public as well.

Anyone interested in learning more about the organization or volunteering can do so at its website.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story omitted mention of the 2003 land swap which gave ownership of North Fox Island to the State of Michigan. It also indicated that FILA is opposed to development on the island. Allchin notes that the organization appreciates their neighbors with private property and is dedicated to the goal of restoring the light station.

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