US Life-Saving Stations

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is unique in having three historic USLSS stations within its boundaries. The Sleeping Bear Point USLSS station near Glen Haven has been restored and developed as a Maritime Museum describing the USLSS, its equipment and facilities, and the lives of Surfmen who served in this service. The stations on North and South Manitou Islands have been restored and are used as ranger stations and for other purposes by the National Park Service.

North Manitou Island Life-Saving Service Station

The life-saving station on North Manitou Island was the first of the three stations to be built in the Manitou Passage. Nicholas Pickard, who owned the main dock on the island recognized the need for a life-saving crew in the Manitou Passage. He settled on North Manitou Island in the mid-1840s to operate a cord wood business to provide fuel for the steamships traveling from Buffalo to Chicago and Milwaukee. As the shipping traffic grew, the Manitou Passage became a busy channel because it provided a shorter route, and was a haven from a storm, but it was also a dangerous passage with hazardous shallow shoals that could easily ground a ship that drifted out of the channel in a storm or fog. In 1854, the Department of Treasury selected Nicholas Pickard to receive one of the first 19 surfboats authorized by Congress to be used for rescue assistance on the Great Lakes. Pickard built a boathouse that housed the new rescue boat and equipment, and it became a volunteer Life-Saving Station.

The 1854 Volunteer Rescue Station is the only structure of its kind remaining from the 1854 federal appropriation to place volunteer rescue stations along the Atlantic Seaboard and Great Lakes. Nicholas Pickard and his lumber crew built this structure according to written specifications provided by the Treasury Department. The 1 ½ story front-gabled building has a heavy timber frame and walls sheathed with cedar boards.

Twenty years later, in 1874, an official U.S. Life-Saving Service Station was established on a small tract that Nicholas Pickard leased to the government for $1.00/year. A lifeboat station was constructed in 1877 and placed into service that same year with an all-volunteer crew. Daniel Buss, a resident on the island, was appointed Keeper of the station. Beginning in 1878, the station was staffed by a paid 6-man crew. Members of the crew received room and board from the Keeper, or from one of the other residents of the North Manitou Island village.

USLSS Crew Practices with surfboat

The original dock on South Manitou Island was near the center of the crescent-shaped bay on the east side of the island. The small village of Burton’s Harbor was located near the dock. It included a general store, blacksmith shop, barn, house, and a few other buildings. This location was ideal for supplying the steamships with cord wood for fuel, but it was too far from the dangerous areas of the Manitou Passage shipping channel to build a USLSS station. In 1839, a lighthouse was built about 2 miles south of the village on the southeastern shore of the island facing the channel, but it wasn’t until 1902 that the USLSS station was built near the lighthouse. The station was located on the south end of the bay to provide a protected harbor for easy launching of the rescue boats close to the channel. The USLSS station buildings were built with the same design and by the same builder as the Sleeping Bear Point USLSS, which was built at the same time. A watchtower was built south of the dwelling close to the shore with a good view of the Manitou Passage. Photographs in later years show the watchtower was moved near the lighthouse.

Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Station

By 1877 the dangerous Manitou Passage was protected by only one lighthouse (South Manitou Island) and one USLSS station (North Manitou Island). The 1877 USLSS Annual Report noted that a station would be placed at Sleeping Bear Point, but that it had not been built. The situation remained the same through the 1880s and 1890s as shipping increased on Lake Michigan. From time to time a letter would come in to the USLSS office in Washington from D.H. Day of Glen Haven requesting that a station be built on the land already set aside for it, but no station was built.

In 1894, land was formally set aside and a proposed site was established. The station would be built at the point where the Manitou Passage to the north and the Lake Michigan shoreline to the south could be observed. By August 1899, no station had been built and D.H. Day again wrote to remind Kimball in a letter dated August 4, 1899 of the need for a station at Sleeping Bear Point. He reported that the steam barge Toltec and her consort Mixtec had recently grounded at Sleeping Bear Point “exactly abreast of the proposed station” and needed help to get free from the sand.

Day continued: “I sincerely hope the station will be built this fall for this is a very bad point catching a number of boats each year, and it is a mystery to me that there has not been more loss of life, and I am daily in fear that it will not always turn out that way, hence my anxiety to see the station built.”

Finally, sealed bids were taken on April 23, 1901 for the construction of a life-saving station at Sleeping Bear Point and one at South Manitou Island. The contract was awarded to Robert Newcombe of Manistee, MI with a completion date of November 1, 1901. He was to build two identical stations using the design of the Marquette, MI USLSS. Each station was to have a dwelling, out-building, and boathouse with incline (ramp to the lake).

USLSS Crew Practices righting a capsized surfboat

More information about the Life-Saving Service, their equipment and procedures – and the USLSS stations in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is available in the Visitor Guide Booklet which you can download FREE: US Life-Saving Service 020511. It is also available at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center in Empire for a donation.