DRAWN TO THE LIGHT

Re­mod­el­ing con­trac­tor finds ideal pro­ject: buy­ing and restor­ing Michi­gan light­house

The Detroit News - - Front Page - BY JOHN L. RUS­SELL Spe­cial to The Detroit News

Mack­i­naw City — Brent Tomp­kins has al­ways loved light­houses. So he bought one.

A re­mod­el­ing con­trac­tor in Tra­verse City, Tomp­kins was search­ing for a chal­leng­ing pro­ject; he thought of pur­chas­ing an is­land or some­thing else unique. A text mes­sage from a friend in 2016 in­form­ing him of an up­com­ing auc­tion of light­houses be­gan a jour­ney that has changed his life.

“I knew the gov­ern­ment sold light­houses,“Tomp­kins said. “I knew lit­tle else about the en­tire process.”

Tomp­kins, 44, took a boat ride in sum­mer 2016 to eval­u­ate Gray’s Reef Light off Cross Vil­lage, a light­house on the auc­tion block. But it was an­other nearby auc­tion prop­erty that caught his eye.

With its one-of-a-kind bar­ber pole red stripe, the 121-foot-high White Shoal Light­house sparked the idea of bid­ding on the light.

“When I first saw the light, I was blown away,” he said. “There’s re­ally noth­ing else like it on the Great Lakes. I thought, go big or go home.”

White Shoal Light sits on a treach­er­ous shoal 2.6 miles off Wau­goshance Is­land in north­west Em­met County. It’s at the north end of Lake Michi­gan, where ship­ping turns into the Straits of Mack­inac. It’s also the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind the im­age on Michi­gan’s orig­i­nal light­house li­cense plate.

The shoal was first served by an an­chored light­ship for 19 years be­gin­ning in 1891. But it proved to be a dan­ger­ous and un­re­li­able way to pro­tect ship­ping, as storms would drag the light­ships off the shoal, and the crews on­board were un­happy with the duty.

The Light­house Board of the United States pe­ti­tioned Congress for funds to build a per­ma­nent light sta­tion. An ap­pro­pri­a­tion of $250,000 saw work be­gin in spring 1908.

A tim­ber crib was built from 400,000 square feet of lum­ber while the shoal it­self was lev­eled to re­ceive the 72-square-foot crib, which was towed from St. Ig­nace and filled with 4,000 tons of stone and 3,700 cu­bic yards of con­crete.

The crib was topped with a 70square-foot stone base with a poured-con­crete top, and tower con­struc­tion be­gan in 1909. The steel skele­ton was bricked in and cov­ered with ter­ra­cotta blocks. Its base was made 42 feet wide, nar­row­ing to 20 feet at its up­per­most gallery.

At com­ple­tion in 1910, the light­house fea­tured nine decks with a kitchen, me­chan­i­cal room, bath­rooms, food stor­age ar­eas and five bed­rooms over sev­eral floors.

In 1954, a red bar­ber pole stripe was added to the light­house tower for vis­i­bil­ity; it’s be­lieved to be the only light­house in the United States with a red spi­ral stripe.

White Shoal Light be­came au­to­mated in 1976, and the Coast Guard crew was re­moved that year. It sports a new 12-volt, so­lar­pow­ered 190mm Tide­lands Sig­nal acrylic lens pro­duc­ing 1.2 mil­lion can­dle­power, re­plac­ing the sec­ond-de­gree Fres­nel lens, which is dis­played at the White­fish Point Ship­wreck Mu­seum.

It is one of only 14 off­shore reef lights on the Great Lakes and is unique as the stairs don’t pass through any rooms, wind­ing to the lantern room through the cen­ter of the struc­ture.

White Shoal Light was even­tu­ally de­clared ex­cess prop­erty by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2014 and handed over to auc­tion by the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion in July 2016.

The Na­tional His­toric Light­house Preser­va­tion Act of 2000 is a part­ner­ship of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Depart­ment of In­te­rior’s Na­tional Park Ser­vice and the U.S. Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The act al­lows trans­fer of own­er­ship at no cost to fed­eral agen­cies, non­prof­its, state or lo­cal gov­ern­ments and ed­u­ca­tional or com­mu­nity devel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions or to the pub­lic through auc­tions.

“Light­houses have deep roots and sen­ti­men­tal value as lo­cal his­tor­i­cal land­marks,” said Ann Kalayil, Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Great Lakes re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tor, in a state­ment. “Through pub­lic sales, the GSA is able to save tax­payer dol­lars on op­er­a­tion and main­te­nance while help­ing to find new own­ers who will pre­serve these trea­sures.”

To date, 137 lights on the Great Lakes have been sold or trans­ferred out of fed­eral own­er­ship, ac­cord­ing to Richard Steb­bins, pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cer with the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion, with 58 light­houses go­ing into pri­vate hands and 79 lights trans­ferred at no cost to preser­va­tion groups that must ad­here to strict guide­lines when restor­ing the struc­tures.

Pro­ceeds from the sales go back into the U.S. Coast Guard’s Aid to Nav­i­ga­tion Fund, which pays for equip­ment, main­te­nance and re­sources to keep the lights op­er­a­tional. The U.S. Coast Guard vis­its lights yearly for main­te­nance and up­keep.

Presently, the Martin Reef Light­house in north­ern Lake Huron is the only Michi­gan struc­ture on the auc­tion block.

Af­ter each bid, there is a 24hour count­down clock al­low­ing an­other bid­der to raise the amount of­fered. The bid­ding for the White Shoal Light­house went on for two weeks be­yond the dead­line to close the bid­ding.

“It was two weeks of tor­ture,” Tomp­kins said.

At 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 29, 2016, Tomp­kins watched the count­down clock run out, and the screen sud­denly went blank. The bid­ding had ended at $110,009. Two weeks later, he re­ceived by mail an of­fi­cial no­ti­fi­ca­tion that he had won the auc­tion.

Marty Ros­a­lik, 60, of Oak­land Town­ship has been in­ter­ested in old man-made struc­tures all his life.

“I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in things man has made that did not sur­vive the test of time,” Ros­a­lik said. “I’ve had an in­ter­est in old rail­road build­ings, mines, any­thing old with a his­tory. I told my wife I was go­ing to bid on a light­house.”

Jean Ros­a­lik’s re­sponse? “Oh, no, you’re not!”

So in­stead the cou­ple watched the auc­tion and when bid­ding ended, Marty Ros­a­lik con­tacted a man he knew at Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion, ask­ing for his con­tact in­for­ma­tion be for­warded to the win­ning bid­der.

In re­sponse, Tomp­kins called Ros­a­lik, an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer with Gen­eral Mo­tors. The talk went well.

“It was al­most like a job in­ter­view,” he re­mem­bered later.

The two men hit it off, and Ros­a­lik was on­board with the pro­ject. He would join the four-mem­ber board of the non­profit White Shoal Light­house Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety in 2016 and be placed in charge of putting to­gether power sys­tems for the struc­ture.

Af­ter sev­eral trips to the light this sum­mer, there is hot and cold wa­ter and bath­room fa­cil­i­ties. Ros­a­lik has made 20 trips to the struc­ture and hopes the weather holds to al­low a few more vis­its this fall.

Mike Lynch, 50, a build­ing con­trac­tor in Wei­d­man, had met Tomp­kins on a job. An of­fer to sit and have a cold beer led to Lynch be­com­ing a co-owner on the pro­ject. “I liked the idea right off the bat,” Lynch said. “I re­ally doubted if he could pull this off, but when he won the bid, I was on­board. I’m the bean counter and can’t wait for it to be com­pleted. It’s the pret­ti­est light there is.”

It has taken two years to have a sur­vey done on the prop­erty and com­plete all pa­per­work. Tomp­kins closed on the prop­erty in June and re­ceived its ti­tle the fol­low­ing month.

As own­ers of the light­house, Tomp­kins and Lynch have few re­stric­tions. The two own it and have a le­gal ti­tle, but they do not own the bot­tom­land un­der the light. That is owned by the peo­ple of Michi­gan.

They have to al­low the U.S. Coast Guard ac­cess at all times be­cause it’s an ac­tive nav­i­ga­tion struc­ture. The Coast Guard has keys, and once a year, a he­li­copter will lower a crew­man onto the light to check, lu­bri­cate and cal­i­brate equip­ment.

Some non­prof­its, on the other hand, are given a light with a boat­load of re­stric­tions, such as how it is re­paired, how it is ren­o­vated, ac­cess re­stric­tions and more.

Crews with Tomp­kins have spent a to­tal of three weeks on the light this year, be­gin­ning in the spring, with at least a cou­ple of more vis­its planned for this year.

“We will re­build with do­na­tions and pri­vate funds,” Tomp­kins said. “Be­ing a non­profit, we hope to re­ceive some funds from the Save The Light pro­gram when the state of Michi­gan sold li­cense plates with the White Shoal Light dis­played on them.

“The money raised from plate sales is to be dis­trib­uted to as­sist groups like ours for re­build­ing and re­pair­ing the lights.”

Tomp­kins be­lieves it will take four to five years and about $3 mil­lion to re­model the light. He hopes to have some­one there from Me­mo­rial Day to La­bor Day next year.

“We plan on re­mod­el­ing the light in a 1950s-style theme,” said Tomp­kins, smil­ing. “No LED lights or flat-screen TVs. It’s go­ing to be a lot of fun.”

Pho­tos by John L. Rus­sell / Spe­cial to The Detroit News

Brent Tomp­kins of Tra­verse City, above, in 2016 paid $110,009 at auc­tion for the light­house. Mike Lynch, of Wei­d­man, came on as a co-owner.Con­tact usIndex The White Shoal Light­house, com­pleted and lighted in 1910, stands 121 feet tall and is the only light­house in the United States to sport a “bar­ber pole” paint spi­ral.

John L. Rus­sell / Spe­cial to The Detroit News

White Shoal Light was de­clared ex­cess prop­erty by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2014 and handed over to auc­tion by the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion in July 2016.

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