Leelanau News and Events

Restorations Continue This Fall At “The Crib” (And You Might Be Able To Sleep There Someday)

By Emily Tyra | Sept. 13, 2021

It’s a wrap on the first summer of day trips out to the offshore North Manitou Shoal Light, but a series of ambitious restorations will continue through the fall, says North Manitou Light Keepers (NMLK) president Daniel Oginsky. The lighthouse’s stewards now look toward their next goal: offering overnight stays in the wedding-cake-like sentinel soaring 66 feet in the middle of the lake.

Oginsky says, “we met a pivotal milestone in concluding phase one of restorations — saving it from the elements with all new windows and a fresh paint job — and it is a big deal that we started tours this summer. Now phase two is getting the interior to a place that people can stay overnight at what I think is one of the most beautiful places on the planet,” he says.

The steel lighthouse — known colloquially as “The Crib” because its foundation stands on a box which was filled with boulders, concrete, and timbers and then embedded into the lake floor — was completed in 1935 and marks the shallow shoal off the southern tip of North Manitou Island for vessels passing through the Manitou Passage. 

In 1980, when the United States Coast Guard automated the light, “it was the last offshore lighthouse in the Great Lakes to have personnel,” says Oginsky. The Crib’s living quarters included an eat-in kitchen, radio room, four guest rooms and “three or four Guardsmen at a time lived out there during the shipping season.” In addition to maintaining the light and keeping watch on the Manitou Passage, there were long stretches of passing the time. “There are stories about having a motorcycle to ride around the deck, and a lawn mower they would push to prank people on the ferry.”

Once mothballed, The Crib stood operational but vacant until the summer of 2016 when the nonprofit NMLK purchased it at auction after it was deemed excess property by the federal government. Though the structure itself is now owned by the nonprofit, the Coast Guard still maintains the equipment that makes it an active aid to navigation today.

Friends Daniel and Anna Oginsky, Dave and Sherry McWilliam, Todd and Natalie Buckley, and Jake and Suzanne Kaberle were the founders of NMLK who set out five years ago with a goal of bringing the shine back to the structure and opening it for public tours by July 4, 2021.

Dan Oginsky shares, “We are very proud to have met that goal with two weeks to spare.”

He recalls vividly the thrill of “getting a message from my friend Jake…saying The Crib was going up for auction.” And he’ll never forget the first time the group took a boat out to survey the results of decades of benign neglect at The Crib: “It was sobering…a rusting steel structure in the middle of the lake.”

He says each tour this summer was assisted by Leland charter captain Jim Munoz and required enough of an adventurous spirit for participants to climb from the boat, harnessed, up the metal rung ladder to the deck. These first tours consisted of “mostly NMLK donors and some of the Coast Guardsmen who served on The Crib.”

The next step is replacing The Crib’s sea doors, which were welded shut by the Coast Guard in 1980.

“Having open sea doors means we will be able to get more people in and get more equipment in, to allow for the rest of the restoration,” Oginsky explains. There is a donor lined up for this project — the Paul family with ties to the Leelanau Peninsula — but high water has kept it at standstill until now: “Lake levels are now down enough we are able to proceed with the work.”

Also on deck yet this season: replacing the “L-3” deck, which serves as both the roof over the living quarters and as an exterior watch deck. For this, NMLK was awarded a Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program grant from the State Historic Preservation Office, with funding coming solely from the sale of “Save Our Lights” license plates.

The $50,000 grant will be used to replace old decking and prevent water intrusion and structural damage, including removing non-historic steel plates, and resurfacing the entire watch deck. NMLK was able to match the grant — a requirement — through a previous grant from the Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball Foundation and some funding of its own.

But Oginsky says the latest RFP bid come in higher than the initial estimate, so in recent days “one of the NMLK members agreed to close the gap, knowing we've got to replace this deck,” he says. “Provided weather is good enough to get people and material out there we will get this knocked out in 2021.”

For this and all restorations to date, NMLK hired general contractor Mihm Enterprises of Allegan County, which specializes in historic restorations.

The ultimate goal is to get potable water, plumbing, and power to The Crib. “We have been investigating the integrity of our underwater power cable that runs from Pyramid Point to the lighthouse.” Cherryland donated many hours of labor and equipment and discovered the cable was severed. In the search for a power source, NMLK may follow suit with the Coast Guard’s system, where the beacon and foghorn are powered by a solar panel and battery.

Oginsky says the nonprofit’s 150 members are supporting ongoing efforts, and “we have many people who say, ‘I’ve got a paint scraper, how can I help?’ Once we get through installing all the mechanicals and turn to the interiors, we will be at the point people can help out that way.”

Additionally, the organization launched its “Campaign For The Crib” capital fundraising effort to cover the renovation costs of the coming years.

Once fully restored, the North Manitou Shoal Light will be open to the public for overnight stays.

A snapshot of what those first guests can expect? In addition to sublime stargazing on the watch deck and experiencing firsthand an iconic piece of maritime history, says Oginsky, “The radio room looks into the Manitou Passage looking out at Sleeping Bear and Pyramid Point. The guest rooms look at the islands. You can share photos, but there is no replacement to being there experiencing that 360-degree view.”

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