Save The Soul of Bete Grise! 

by Jack Edwards 

Reproduced courtesy of Great Lakes Cruiser

Gary Kohs, a Birmingham, Michigan, businessman, has taken lighthouse preservation one giant step beyond just keeping the light burning. He has also taken on the task of preserving the natural environment around the lighthouse. His ambitious project may well become a model for all kinds of preservation: lighthouses, railroad stations, theaters, historic homes. It is not enough to just save the structure; it’s important to preserve the environment too. A 19th-Century lighthouse amidst 21st-Century condos might as well be a lighthouse ride in a Disney theme park. For a lighthouse to be truly appreciated, it should be standing guard over a rugged shoreline.

A little over a year ago Gary bought the Mendota Lighthouse that is situated on the southern shore of the Lac La Belle Ship Canal. Constructed in 1895, this lighthouse marked the entrance to the channel that connects Bete Grise Bay (Lake Superior) and Lac La Belle in the Keweenaw Peninsula. The light was disestablished in 1960 and sold to the highest bidder, Heimo (Paddy) and Margaret Jaaskelainen. Though its light has been extinguished since then, Paddy worked hard to maintain the lighthouse at a time when other lighthouses were going to ruin. Without his hard work there would be no Mendota Lighthouse to restore. Now, thanks to Gary’s efforts, as of July 5, 1998, the light is now back on the Coast Guard light list as a private aid to navigation.
Gary is not a newcomer to the Keweenaw Peninsula. He has owned a camp (vacation home) in Little Traverse Bay for twenty-two years and loves the area. In his words, “This is a place where a handshake is a handshake, one’s word is one’s word, no one locks doors, neighbor helps neighbor, the air is clean and the water is pure.”

Gary has had the good fortune to travel throughout the world in pursuit of his business interests. How does the Keweenaw compare to the rest of the world? According to Gary, “This is the greatest place on earth.”

He is not alone in his assessment of the Keweenaw. Shortly after purchasing the Mendota Lighthouse, Gary received a calendar in the mail from one of his business associates. The Mendota Lighthouse was featured on the cover! He called the publisher and learned they had printed about 8-1/2 million calendars. They chose the Mendota Lighthouse because they considered it one of the most scenic. To quote Gary, “The Mendota Lighthouse is in pretty good company on a calendar with other scenic wonders, the Grand Canyon and Grand Tetons. This is a real statement for the beauty of the Great Lakes, Michigan and the Keweenaw area.”

Preservation vs. Development?

Within two weeks of the time Gary purchased the lighthouse, some local residents asked him to become involved and save the land opposite the lighthouse. Lake Superior Land Company owns much of the land in this area of the Keweenaw. This company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Champion International, a large paper company with headquarters in Connecticut. Unless someone did something quickly, the land would be subdivided into lots and sold to the highest bidders. Prospectuses had been sent to wealthy investors. Champion hoped to realize over hundreds-of-thousands-of dollars from the sale of the three choice waterfront lots across the channel from the lighthouse.

Time was short. If investors could be found who were willing pay the steep asking price, about the only way they could realize a profit would be to build condominiums on the lots. Before long “No Trespassing” signs would be erected. Local residents and tourists who view the lighthouse from the shore would be denied this pleasure. Boaters who entered the canal from Lake Superior would be greeted by a quaint old lighthouse on the south shore and modern close-stacked condos on the north shore. What an odd-ball combination!


The concerns of local residents were not figments of overactive imaginations. A couple of years ago a similar scenario had been played out at the nearby Eagle River Lighthouse. Condominiums were built on the land between the lighthouse and the lake. The long-time owners of the lighthouse were understandably miffed and bailed out; the new owners converted it into apartments. There are still a lot of bitter feelings about what happened at Eagle River. Originally several condo units were to be built overlooking the lake. The first was built but it still is not fully subscribed. The fate of the remainder of the condo project is in question. Unfortunately, the fate of the Eagle River Lighthouse had been sealed for the worst.

Just two weeks before the land across from the Mendota Lighthouse was to be sold, Gary persuaded Champion to take it off the market. He needed time to develop alternatives. Using his business acumen, he put together a plan to create a conservancy, the objective of which would be to save shoreline property in the Keweenaw beginning with Bete Grise Bay. When he bought the Mendota Lighthouse, Gary never dreamed that he would be leading an effort to save the environment around the lighthouse.

Before we examine Gary’s preservation efforts, let’s go back 135 years and discover how the Mendota Lighthouse and the Lac La Belle Ship Canal came into being. The story is relevant inasmuch as the efforts by the current land owners to realize a profit by promoting the development of the land is nothing new. Over the years, the land has changed hands many times.

Its absentee owners from New York, Marquette, Connecticut and even from England have been seeking ways to mine it, log it, subdivide and sell it, farm it, turn it into a ski resort and most recently sell off the most valuable lakefront property.


Those who inhabit the Keweenaw have never been wealthy enough to gain ownership of most of the land. They have had little say in determining what will be built next door. They don’t know what tomorrow, next year or the next millennium will hold in store for them. The fate of their beautiful peninsula lies in the hands of wealthy absentee land owners who are primarily interested in getting the greatest return on their investments. The land is an instrument of wealth rather than a place of unspoiled natural beauty.

With this background, perhaps you can understand why many local residents are skeptical of fast-talking, wheeler-dealer outsiders who come into their community. They love their way of life and they would prefer not to see their communities converted into wall-to-wall condos, strip malls and theme parks. Economically the Keweenaw is a depressed area, but many of its residents are not ready to trade the very soul of their way of life for the almighty dollar.

The Mendota Mining Company

In 1863, as the Civil War intensified, the North’s need for copper pushed prices sky high. As is almost always the case with war, regardless of what happens on the battlefront, there are fortunes to be made by those who are comfortably behind the front lines. Convinced that commercial amounts of copper were to be found in nearby Mount Bohemia, investors from New York formed the Mendota Mining Company.

The company located its Michigan headquarters on Lac La Belle. They foresaw the need for a ship canal connecting the small lake with Lake Superior.


A canal would allow ships that plied the Great Lakes to bring in the necessary supplies and export enriched copper ore. Rock and wood to build the piers and shore up the sides of the canal would be available for free from the company’s lands. A Lac La Belle Harbor Improvement Company was organized and shares were sold. With only $6,050 on hand, the directors signed a $65,000 contract to build a canal twelve-feet deep and two-thirds of a mile long. Optimism abounded, the canal would be a sure winner. It couldn’t fail!

The contract included penalties if the canal wasn’t completed on time. The dredging proved more difficult than anticipated. Additional dredges were brought in from Sault Ste. Marie; still the work was well behind schedule. The Harbor Improvement Company unsuccessfully sought another contractor to complete the project. Having started the project without sufficient capital to complete it, the directors had hoped to raise the needed funds by selling lots in the town of Mendota. Thus, besides the perceived wealth from copper in nearby mines, Lac La Belle was viewed as a land scheme where additional profits would be raised by land sales. Unfortunately the town and the canal were inextricably linked; no canal meant no town, and no town meant no funds to build the canal.

"Can’t Fail," Huh?

The Mendota Mining Company bailed out the Harbor Improvement Company to the tune of $50,000. Other nearby mining companies coughed up an additional $15,000. The company loaned the contractor money to pay his debts and his employees’ back wages. Work was resumed in March 1866. More problems developed. The action of wind and currents in Lake Superior required design changes to prevent the entrance to the channel from being closed by waterborne sand. The length of the piers at the entrance were extended another 100-feet out into Lake Superior. The estimated cost of the canal, already six-months behind schedule, had escalated from $65,000 to $100,000. 


The investors in the Harbor Improvement Company, realizing their investments were endangered in their “can’t fail” project, turned to the politicians in Washington for a bail out. Marshaling support from three State legislatures, shipping companies and miners, they descended upon Congress. Opponents argued the canal would have no national significance. Supporters countered that there were no convenient harbors of refuge between Bayfield, WI, and Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Lac La Belle, roughly midway between the eastern and western ends of America’s largest lake, would provide a port for storm-threatened craft.

The canal’s supporters won; both houses of congress passed a bill on July 3, 1866, and President Andrew Johnson signed it into law. The bill would provide the Harbor Improvement Company with 100,000 acres of land once the canal was completed. Predictably, things again fell behind schedule. Finally, on December 1, 1866, Michigan’s Governor Crapo certified the completion of the canal to Congress. The Harbor Improvement Company received about an acre of land for every dollar invested in the canal. Actually, the canal wasn’t 100% completed and work continued on the seawalls until August 1867. Hopefully, the enhanced seawalls would prevent the artificial canal from filling with sand.

Elusive Dreams

With the canal finished, Congress appropriated $14,000 for a lighthouse and keeper’s quarters. No sooner was this completed in 1870, than the federal government closed the lighthouse claiming that the improvements were of “no use to navigators as a coastal light.” Commercial activity in the area had fallen off dramatically. Also according to a congressional report, the movement of sediments by near-shore currents had left an insufficient depth of water (about five-feet in some areas) in the canal “for any freight or passenger vessel navigating Lake Superior.” Discontinued at the end of the 1870 shipping season, the Mendota light was moved to the Marquette breakwater. In 1878, this original lighthouse burned.

Claims that the federal government had deserted one of the most important harbors of refuge went unheeded. No additional moneys were appropriated for dredging and the canal remained inaccessible to all but the most shallow draft of boats. In 1873, the Harbor Improvement Company was desperate to recover some of the $750,000 it had invested in the failing canal and Mendota Mine that lacked commercial quantities of copper. It sold the 100,000 acre land grant to a wealthy English banker. With property taxes mounting and thieves stealing millions of board feet of lumber from his “Keweenaw estate,” the banker eventually sold most of the pine on his land to lumber companies.

In 1893, a Marquette lumberman purchased the land in the Keweenaw from the estate of the Englishman. He planned to log and sell the hardwood for over $750,000 and then sell the land for $1.25 an acre for farmland. Apparently the partially sand- and silt-filled canal was adequate to serve the waterborne transit needs of lumbering. The federal government once again built a lighthouse where the canal opens onto Lake Superior. Completed in 1895, the lighthouse was operated until 1933 when it was automated. 


Serious residential development of the Lac La Belle area began in earnest around 1940 and continued until 1960 when no more lots were available. When Lac La Belle was declared a harbor of refuge for recreational boats, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the canal at a cost of $450,000. Work on this project was complete d about 1960. The original piers at the channel entrance were replaced with breakwaters constructed with Z-type steel sheet piling and rock fill. The Mendota Lighthouse, which is set back from the entrance to the canal, was judged to be of no great use to vessels entering the canal from Lake Superior. The light was disestablished in 1960 and replaced with pole-mounted lights marking the entrance to the canal.

Since the 1960s, nearby Mount Bohemia has been the subject of several studies by potential developers. Notably, a ski resort was proposed during the 1980s. The mountain offers a vertical drop of almost 1,000-feet, which is substantial by Midwestern standards. Besides a downhill ski facility, developers have suggested cross-country and snowmobile trails as well as a conference center on the mountain. 


The proposed sale of lakefront lots on Bete Grise Bay is the latest attempt by absentee owners to realize a profit on their land. The Keweenaw is still very remote from the large urban and suburban population centers. Unfortunately, it is not so remote that by the end of the next decade every lineal foot of shoreline may be lined by everything from elegant mansions to ticky-tacky summer shacks.


A Matter Of National Priorities

There is a belief held by some members of the historic preservation community that historic maritime preservation is the responsibility of the government; it is the government’s responsibility to preserve our nation’s past for generations of as-yet-unborn citizens. A few Great Lakes lighthouses—Mendota, Big Bay, Boise Blanc, Port Selkirk—passed into private hands many years ago. St. Helena has recently been excessed to the not-for-profit Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association. Other lighthouses—Seul Choix, Crisp Point, New Presque Isle—are being excessed to local government entities. Much to the chagrin of preservationists, scores of lighthouses are presently on the brink of being disestabl ished by the Coast Guard. What will happen to them? Will they be left to the ravages of weather and vandals? All of a sudden the preservation of our nation’s maritime heritage has become a crisis of major proportion.

Congress has made no provision in the Coast Guard’s budget for historic preservation. Every dollar they spend on preservation means one less dollar they can spend to accomplish their other missions: maritime safety, environmental preservation, law enforcement (interdiction of illegal aliens, drugs and firearms). Congress has also not made any provision for the wholesale transfer of historic lighthouses to another government entity such as the National Park Service, Department of Interior. Regardless, preservation by any government agency will require multimillion dollar appropriations. This just is not going to happen. The American public is in a mood to reduce rather than increase their tax burden.

Like it or not, historic preservation is not high on the list of Congressional priorities. National defense, social programs, environmental protection, maintaining and improving transportation infrastructures – to mention just a few programs – have far higher priorities. If our nation’s historic maritime structures are preserved, they will be preserved through the efforts of organizations and individuals from the private sector. It is time for the historic preservation community to focus their attention on developing creative ways to finance the preservation of our historic structures before they disappear forever. Arguing that preservation is the government’s responsibility while these irreplaceable treasures decay is akin to fiddling while Rome burns.


One Man’s Approach

Gary has proposed the establishment of the Mendota Lighthouse Conservancy to maintain the lighthouse and preserve the shoreline of the Keweenaw, beginning with Bete Grise Bay. Gary notes, “In the past, conservancies have relied on donations. We are going to take the opposite approach and not ask people for donations. We will offer quality products—canoe chairs, snowshoes, lighthouse models to mention just a few—made out of locally grown hardwoods. We will offer people the opportunity to help save the Keweenaw by purchasing these products. All the profits will go to preserving the land. I’m sure there will be donations, but it will be the products that drive the Conservancy and also support the people of the Keweenaw.”

The plan is to offer quality products made by the residents of the Keweenaw and market them through catalog sales and the Internet []. The key to success will be a website that entices large numbers of people to return time and time again. Here are a few of the ideas that Gary is exploring:

  1. • Live cameras will be installed in the lantern room of the Mendota Lighthouse. The cameras will scan Lake Superior and the land around the lighthouse where wildlife abounds: bear, bald eagles, fox, deer. People will be able to see a portion of the land they are saving by purchasing quality products from the conservancy. At night the camera will transmit pictures of the heavens as viewed through an on-site telescope.
    • The lighthouse will also have a weather station with data available on the website. The visitor will be able to observe temperature and wind speed and see what that means in terms of the conditions out on the lake. If a nor’easterner is blowing in November and large ships anchor in Bete Grise Bay to ride out the storm, the website visitor will be able to see them on the live camera.
    • Gary has copies of the log books from 1895 through 1933. Visitors to the site will be able to select a “hot button” and read the keeper’s entry in the log book for that date 100-years ago.
    • Select a virtual lighthouse tour by clicking a hot button. “You want to see the Mendota Lighthouse; let me take you on a tour.” A virtual lightkeeper will conduct people through the lighthouse. The “visitor” will climb the ladder to the lantern room and view the operating Fresnel lens.
    • Select a historical tour of the area by clicking another hot button. Learn about mining, the railroads, and lumbering in the Keweenaw.

For people who cannot travel to a museum, the website will bring the lighthouse to them. One of the beauties of a website tour is that it will not be necessary to bring thousands of people up to Bete Grise. Yet it will be possible for them to “visit” the area each day without trampling the wildflowers and scaring the wildlife.

To keep the conservancy sensitive to the needs of the area, the board of directors will be made up of area residents and business people. The board will decide what products to sell and what parcels of land to buy. Besides shoreline property, there is choice land in the Keweenaw that deserves to be preserved and not sold to the highest bidder. One does not have to go any farther than the untouched micro-wilderness behind the lighthouse. This is a wetland that is home to many species of wildlife; it extends right down to a sand beach that borders Lake Superior. Unspoiled lands, wetlands and beaches, this is what saving the soul of the Keweenaw is all about.

There is no doubt about it; the Keweenaw area is economically depressed. Increasing the tax base by developing the land is an alluring “quick fix” for hard-pressed township governments. Once the land is developed the natural beauty of the area will disappear. Increased demand for services—building schools, paving roads, plowing snow, fixing pot holes—will more than consume the increased tax revenue. Once-pristine areas will have become suburbs of Houghton-Hancock, bedroom communities with backyard barbecues and jet skis tied up to private docks. Before people know it, all the choice land will be gone and they will be asking, “What happened?”

The Mendota Lighthouse Conservancy is intended to provide local residents with an alternate source of income so they don’t have to sell the very soul of their way of life. Central to the idea is the concept of a conservancy that will be supported by offering people something of value rather than asking for donations. Funds will be raised by selling locally produced products. This is a win-win-win situation. The people of the Keweenaw win by preserving the soul of their land. The economy of the Keweenaw wins by the Conservancy bringing much needed jobs and economic development to the area. Historic preservation wins, not only by preserving a specific piece of property, but by creating a model approach that can be applied to other preservation efforts anywhere in the U.S.A.

Will Gary Kohs be able to pull his Mendota Lighthouse Conservancy idea off? Will he be able to negotiate the inevitable obstacles created by bureaucrats, elected officials, nay’sayers and even by some historic preservationists who are turned off by any non-traditional approach? I certainly hope the answer to these questions is a resounding “Yes.” Gary is fighting an uphill battle in a future-oriented world where support from traditional sources of funding for historic preservation isn’t doing particularly well. The cause of historic preservation needs more people like him who are willing to invest their time, energy and resources exploring alternatives to time-worn approaches that seem doomed to failure in today’s world.

Be sure to read the accompanying article, Viewing History Through Models, for a look at the man who is behind the Mendota Lighthouse Conservancy. Also read “Connected to the Past?” and decide for yourself whether or not the Mendota Lighthouse is haunted.