In the mid-19th century most travel was by sailing vessel. There were few or no roads, and only a few steamships were operating on the Great Lakes. Navigation was still primitive by today’s standards. Vessels followed the coastline of the lakes until there was a need to cross a large body of water, and then a compass and sextant were the major navigation tools.
Sailing schooners left Detroit and the St. Clair River and soon left the sight of the 1825 Fort Gratiot Light and began the perilous trip north along the Lake Huron shore. The next light to the north was located at Thunder Bay Island (1832), more than 150 miles (240 km) north of Fort Gratiot. Any vessel sailing up the Lake Huron coast stood a good chance of running aground on the reef extending out from Pointe aux Barques. The reef is only covered by some two feet of water and stuck out nearly two miles into Lake Huron.
Pointe aux Barques was also used as a turning point for vessels destined to the Saginaw River. Range lights had been established at the mouth of the Saginaw River as early as 1841, but the trip to Saginaw Bay required steering clear of Pointe aux Barques reef.
The lighthouse was intended to be constructed near the Thumb's most northwestern point at Pointe Aux Barques however it was ultimately constructed approximately 4.5 miles (7.2 km) east / southeast in what is now Huron Township.
President James K. Polk appropriated $5,000 to build the first lighthouse structure on July 3, 1847. The first keeper, Peter Shook, and his family moved in in 1848. In 1849 the keeper's dwelling burned to the ground. The first light tower was built on this location in 1847, at a cost of $5,000. It was first lit for the 1848 shipping season. The tower was poorly constructed and needed to be replaced after only 10 years.
The present 1857 light is a conical white brick tower, 89 feet (27 m) tall, with a focal plane of 93 feet (28 m) above Lake Huron. A rotating Third Order Fresnel lens provided a flash every two minutes visible as far as 14 nautical miles; 26 kilometres (16 mi) out on the lake. The tower is attached to a 2-story, brick keeper’s dwelling by a matching brick passageway.
The new taller light tower helped guide vessels away from the hazardous reef, but wrecks continued to occur. In 1875 a United States Life Saving Service station was built just south of the lighthouse.
An assistant keeper's house was added in 1908, and the light was upgraded to an incandescent vapor lamp in 1914. The change increased the lights range to 18 miles (16 nmi; 29 km) over the lake, and further protection was added in 1918 with the addition of a lighted, bell buoy some two and a quarter miles off shore at the end of the point.
Electrification came to Point aux Barques in 1932 and the incandescent light bulb in the Third Order lens with bull's-eyes provided an output of 120,000 candlepower. The Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation in 1939, and the way was paved for complete automation. The signal was further improved around 1950 with the removal of the Fresnel lens and the installation of rotating DCB-224 aero beacons rated at 1,000,000 candlepower. Putting aside questions of nostalgia, aesthetics, or appreciation for the engineering of a bygone era (as exemplified by the Fresnel lens), this iteration of lighthouse illumination is itself incredibly effective, and an endangered remnant of another bygone era.
On Sunday, August 5, 2007, a Michigan Historical Marker was dedicated at the grounds of the lighthouse. Cindy Krueger, an employee of the Department of History, Arts, and Libraries (HAL) and the great-great-great-granddaughter of light keepers Peter and Catherine Shook, presented the marker.
The State Historic Preservation Office, which administers the Michigan Historical Marker Program, awarded a $31,000 Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Grant to the county for a historic structures report and plans and specifications for the restoration of the lighthouse. The Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Grant is funded through the sale of the "Save our Lights" specialty license plates. The county received an additional $70,000 CMI (Clean Michigan Initiative) grant from the Department of Environmental Quality for restoration.
Since the Michigan Historical Marker Program began in 1955, the Michigan Historical Commission has placed more than 1,500 markers throughout the state. The markers are paid for with donations from sponsors who submit application packages to the State Historic Preservation Office. The Michigan Historical Commission determines the placement and wording of official state markers which are the property of the State of Michigan. The Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse Society donated the $2,875 for the marker.
The text on the Historical Marker reads as follows:
Point aux Barques Lighthouse
The Point aux Barques Lighthouse and Lifesaving Station aided mariners for over a century, beginning in 1847. That year the U.S. Lighthouse Service built the first lighthouse on this site to mark the turning point of Lake Huron into Saginaw Bay and to warn of shallow waters. Catherine Shook became Michigan’s first female light keeper when she took over for her husband, Peter, after he drowned in 1849. In 1857, the lighthouse and dwelling were replaced with the present 89 foot tower and attached house. In 1908, the brick assistant keeper’s house was built. The lighthouse was fully automated in 1934. Five years later, the last keeper retired, and the lifesaving station, made up of 15 buildings, was decommissioned.
The 1857 tower and attached keepers dwelling remain intact, along with the 1908 assistant keeper’s dwelling and a round, iron oil house. The keeper’s dwelling is home to a museum. One room contains memorabilia of the lighthouse, its history, and keepers. Many original documents and pictures are on display. Another room interprets the many ship wrecks that lie under the local waters.
Following automation, the lighthouse grounds were turned over to Huron County. The transfer was completed in June, 2003. The tower is an active aid to navigation and is not open to the public. A camp ground was established near the light station in the area where an 1876 United States Life Saving Service (USLSS) station had been located.
A group of students from Western Michigan University performed an archeological dig at the site in 2003. They unearthed evidence of an 1840s lighthouse structure that preceded the 1857 building. It was also repaired extensively in 2005.
In 1972, the lighthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Reference #73000949. On site are two museums,namely - "THE KEEPERS OF THE LIGHT" and "THE THUMB UNDERWATER PRESERVE". The original Third Order Fresnel lens, from Pointe aux Barques, is on display at the museum in Huron City.
The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse Society (PaBLS), founded in 2002, is dedicated to preserving and restoring the light station and museum located inside.
In 2008, an exterior historical restoration project was successfully completed by National Restoration, Inc.
Located off M-25, seven miles (11 km) north of Port Hope and 11 miles (18 km) south of Port Austin on Lighthouse Road. It is a Huron County park. A campground is located adjacent to the base of the light. Visitors can easily spend the better part of a day touring the lighthouse grounds and museum or just enjoying the beauty of the Lake Huron shore.