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Michigan’s Charity Island – A Mysterious and Remote History

Michigan Islands

On the horizon of Saginaw Bay, it’s there, a lovely tree-lined island. Big Charity Island is roughly 10 miles from Saginaw Bay’s southern shore. The island is empty except for the seasonal occupants who live and give excursions at the lighthouse keepers’ residences. The US Fish and Wildlife Service considers these islands among the most distant and least visited islands within the Michigan Island National Wildlife Sanctuary. This is due to the dangerously shallow seas surrounding the island. The history of Charity Island is one of isolation and remoteness amid bustling shipping, boating, and fishing area.

The Great Lakes contain over 35,000 islands, many of which are uninhabited. There are, however, a select few islands that draw sailors and visitors from all over North America during the short summer tourist season. It’s a rare treat to visit one or more of Michigan’s Islands.

Where Exactly Is Charity Island?

Big Charity Island is one of the bigger islands on Lake Huron’s US side. At almost 250 acres, it commands a commanding presence at the mouth of Saginaw Bay.

Charity Island is approximately in the middle of Saginaw Bay, sandwiched between three birding and migratory refuges. Fish Point Federal Wildlife Refuge in the Thumb, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Bay City, and Tawas Point State Park are two of Lower Michigan’s most well-known birdwatching locations. Saginaw Bay is an important migratory stopover for birds like the Cygnus columbianus. Charity Island may serve as a rest stop for over 200 species of migrating birds; hence it is part of the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

The Island Chain’s Native American History

According to local legend, Charity island has been visited for thousands of years. It was a stopping point for native American Indians across Saginaw Bay. The island also has a stone known as Chert. This stone is used to make tools. The top title of the island in maps from the late 1600s by the French was Shawangunk. Shawangunk translates to “in the smoky air” in the Lenape language of the eastern US tribe. The French dubbed the tiny island to the south “Ile de Traverse,” or Traverse Island.

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LaSalle’s Journeys

It was possible French adventurer de La Salle saw the island in August 1679. He was sailing to the Straights of Mackinac on the Griffin. However, some historians reject this idea as the Griffin was observed approaching the crossing the 30 miles of Saginaw Bay during the night.

Exploration Of Lewis Cass And Henry Schoolcraft

In 1820, US Secretary of War John C. Calhoun sent Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass to lead an expedition of scientists, Canadian voyageurs, and Native Americans into the upper Great Lakes wilderness. They were to explore the area and look for the Mississippi’s source.

Cass personally selected 40 seasoned explorers, including Henry Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft was a well-known mineralogist and geologist critical to the expedition’s aim. The path they followed to traverse Saginaw Bay replicates a popular notion that the route between Oak Point-Charity Island-AuSable. This was part of a well-documented Indian transit route that included a halt at the island as a security measure from the bay’s fast-moving storms.

Charity Island During The Lumbering Era In Michigan

The forests in the Saginaw Bay region were lumbered from 1830 until 1910. Almost every river outlet to Lake Huron or Saginaw Bay had a lumber mill erected. Bay City, Saginaw, Sebewaing, Caseville, Port Crescent, New River, and Port Hope all had mills erected. The rivers made it easy to carry logs to the sawmills, positioned near the lakeshore ports. Ships entering the tiny bay had to navigate past the limestone reefs and shoals around Charity Island.

Throughout the Great Lakes, there were challenges with navigation. Lieutenant James T. Homans was assigned to appraising the waterways west of Detroit. This was part of a regional lighthouse project in 1838. Horman compiled reports on the status of each lighthouse. In addition, he made recommendations for any additional lighthouses. One of his suggestions was to build a lighthouse at the mouth of Saginaw Bay.

The Construction of the Charity Island Lighthouse

For $5000, Congress granted funding for constructing a lighthouse on “Traverse or Charity Island in Saginaw Bay.” They also funded the Port Austin Lighthouse for an equivalent sum.
The island’s construction began in 1856 and lasted into the following year. The steamboat Search delivered the brick used to build the 39-foot tower from Milwaukee. The editor of the Bay City Express took the ship around the island as the lighthouse tower was being constructed. In a commentary published in the newspaper on June 6th, he chastised the government for such wasteful spending, pointing out that the island was a source of excellent construction stone.

Capitan George Meade, A Future War Hero, Arrives.

In 1855, Captain George Meade was given orders to begin mapping the Upper Great Lakes, including Saginaw Bay. The bay was crucial to the nascent republics’ lumbering economy, and no good maps of the world’s distances and depths existed. As a result, groundings and disasters became all too prevalent. Meade established a baseline for his Lake Huron surveying from the long peninsula of Sand Point. He discovered triangulation towers at critical places along the north and south shores and a freshly built lighthouse on Charity Island in the middle of Saginaw Bay.

Colin Graham, the lighthouse’s first keeper, took charge after the tower was built. Regular operations started in May. The beacon gave a visibility range of 13 nautical miles. Lighthouses were placed thirteen nautical miles from each other. This distance is sufficient to warn vessels of the island and navigate from one light to the next.

Today’s Visit To The Island Includes A Boat Trip To Charity Island.

Charity Island dominates the skyline of Saginaw Bay in Michigan’s Upper Thumb. A few weekend travelers rarely visit the island and its lighthouse each summer. On one of his voyages to the island last year, we rode with Captain Tom Carriveau of Explorer Charters. Captain Tom has been leading Charity Island Tours for almost eight years. However, due to the COVID 19 Pandemic, he has had to make specific changes. Captain Tom is looking forward to the summer of 2022. As a result, there will be fewer Charity Island Picnic Cruises to the island this summer.

Captain Tom moved the Lady of the Lake from Leland, Michigan. The boat provided ferry service between Fishtown and Manitou Island in Lake Michigan in 2019. In addition, the 50-foot tour boat was rebuilt for tours and Scuba diving charters on Saginaw Bay.

“We replaced equipment last year, including radar, VHF with AIS, and a replacement sound system,” Tom explained. “We can take a passenger’s smartphone and play their favorite music over our onboard sound speakers.” It’ll be a nice personal touch.”

Other Great Lakes Islands to Explore

Michigan Islands - Charity Island
Michigan Islands Near Traverse City

Over 35,000 islands dot the Great Lakes. Many islands are deserted. However, during the brief summer tourism season, a chosen handful attracts sailors and visitors from North America. Here are a few of our favorite Great Lakes islands.

Lake Superior – Apostle Islands

This is a collection of 22 islands in Lake Superior, the biggest of which is Madeline Island. Except for Madeline, all islands are part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Moreover, the islands are famous for their stunning sea caves formed when Lake Superior freezes over winter.

Isle Royale National Park

This is Michigan’s only national park, located on the northern shore of Lake Superior. Unfortunately, it’s also the least accessible national park in the lower 48! Nevertheless, it is a popular location for serious hikers and paddlers due to its established paths, rustic campsites, and shelters. Rock Harbor on the island’s northern end and Windigo on the southern tip are the two prominent departure locations for an Isle Royale trip.

Beaver Island

This is the biggest island on Lake Michigan. Access to the island is by a ferry service from Charlevoix. However, it is possible to bring your car and visit its 55 square miles. Its isolation invites people to search for an experience off the main road. Beaver Island has beautiful beaches and hiking paths. In 1850, the kingdom for the Strangite Moron Church resided on Beaver Island.

Drummond Island

This is the biggest inland island in the United States, 249 square miles. It’s a genuine sportsman’s and sailor’s paradise. Sportfishing is the main attraction on this island. Charter captains can take you on a fishing trip to catch enormous lake trout and salmon. For example, exploring the various wilderness paths on ATVs is another exciting pastime.

Manitou Islands

North and South Manitou Islands are located in northern Lake Michigan. They are part of an island series that extends north to the Mackinaw Straits. These islands are part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This entire region is available for hiking, camping, and exploration. In addition, the two islands are part of one of the most well-known Native American legends in the Great Lakes; The Legend of the Sleeping Bear.

Final Thoughts on Michigan’s Charity Island

Unless you are a serious travel blogger or have the means to travel widely, you may never get to visit these remote areas of the United States. However, if you are ever near the Great Lakes region, it is worth exploring one of these charming and remote islands of adventure.