Renovating the ‘hidden gem’ of Lake Superior

Renovating the ‘hidden gem’ of Lake Superior

Jessica Parsons

Located on North Lakeshore Boulevard, a general first glance at the “hipped-roof Richardsonian, Romanesque-style structure with a parapeted front gable” and “rounded arch windows” will appear. Often times, it seems as though its small parking lot is empty, but invites visitors to come around back on the lake side. When entering the Marquette Maritime Museum, visitors step into a journey, time traveling through the past, present and future of its mission: to preserve, protect and promote maritime history of Marquette and the Great Lakes. But then why does it seem as though the lot is empty? Is it possible its history will disintegrate with its building that seems to be? What is going on within the brick walls and arched windows, and what’s the news on that big, red lighthouse staring over Lake Superior?

The stereotype surrounding an old museum that requires building upkeep may have one think that its history is slowly disintegrating. But this is a misconception, and perhaps even offensive to some museum workers.

The Museum


Housed in the old Marquette city waterworks building, the museum was built in 1898. During this time, surplus was scheduled for demolition. Frederick Stonehouse, the president of the museum’s board of directors, was one of six citizens who believed the maritime history of Marquette deserved to be told. It was largely ignored by other museums, and they were “finally” told the old waterworks building could be repurposed into a viable maritime museum, Stonehouse said.

“Growing up on the New Jersey shore, I was fascinated by maritime history in all its forms: shipwrecks, fishing, lighthouses, life-saving, pirates, etc.,” Stonehouse said. “When I went to NMU, that maritime interest transferred from saltwater to fresh.”

To Stonehouse, Marquette is the historic port on Lake Superior. Based on its early shipping of iron ore–the richest ore in the country at the time–the city was a vital part of the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution.

“Certainly other products came and went through our port: lumber, fish and general merchandise as well as passengers, all attesting to the lake as the highway to economic success,” Stonehouse said. “The story of Marquette is really a story of the big lake and our relationship to it.”

Over the years, museum workers were able to replace the roof. It had deteriorated to the point where one could look through it. It required exterior brick repair and the property sidewalk needed to be replaced as well.

Director at the Marquette Maritime Museum Hilary Billman has a MFA and a technical writing degree from Eastern Washington University. Alongside working at the museum, she is an adjunct instructor at NMU.

“I would not describe the Maritime Museum building as ‘falling apart and history slowly disintegrating,’ or that ‘the community does not know there are ideas and plans put in place to update features on the property,’” Billman said. “We do have old building issues, but building upkeep is very important to us and we are constantly renovating and improving.”

The responsibility of renovating was all passed onto the museum from the Coast Guard back in 2002 when a lease for the lighthouse was signed. Other than the navigation portion, the Coast Guard didn’t have the intention to renovate when leasing away. The agreement included a 30-year ownership of the lighthouse and approximately “2.5 acres of picturesque Lighthouse Point,” according to its website.

“When the city obtained the old Coast Guard station from the federal government, it was a terrific opportunity to both honor the historic connection between the Coast Guard and provide the citizens with a new waterfront park, another jewel to rival Presque Isle,” Stonehouse said. “Although the Maritime Museum isn’t on the park grounds, we certainly see the park project as a tremendous step to helping tell the Marquette maritime story.”

Last year, museum workers installed new track lighting in the main gallery, updated their security system and transformed one of the exhibit rooms into a rotating exhibit space, Billman said.

“After construction this summer, parking and access to the museum will be much improved,” Billman said. “We will also be moving the large maritime artifacts that are currently in the museum yard to different spots around the museum grounds and lighthouse point.”

This year’s renovations include installing a new back door and working on placing maritime images in the seven large windows that face public space, Billman said, noting, that the biggest improvement of the year will be adding more parking and re-routing the bike path that runs through Lighthouse Park. This is all thanks to the City of Marquette, owners of the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse and Lighthouse Point Park.

Support for the museum also stems from several sources such as the National Endowment for the Arts, The Ray and Peg Hirvonen Foundation and the Reynolds Foundation.

During the winter semester of 2019, Billman visited a technical writing course at NMU to present on the grants she writes and the workload she faces on a daily basis to uphold the “three p’s” of the museum. One grant she recently wrote received money from the Marquette Community Foundation that allowed museum workers to update the Children’s Corner with new furniture, games and activities.

Youth involvement is an important feature the museum upholds, and over the years, it hosted 19 different classes with over 1,000 kids learning about maritime history. Additionally, the museum now has on display an 8-by-8 mural of a lighthouse through collaboration with the art students at Marquette Alternative High School.

Guests come to visit not only from all over the United States, but other countries as well. Billman described the membership program as “very active” and information can be found on the museum’s website and social media.
“Everything we do at the museum is to help make our guests have the best possible museum experience,” Billman said, adding that the museum offers free tours to schools.

Marquette Harbor Lighthouse


The museum offers tours, both inside and outside the building, and up through the lighthouse. A path fades out to grass, through a fence that entrances to the iconic red house. The wind brought in through Lake Superior brushes through your hair and a tall, red staircase up ahead awaits your climb. A long, narrow cat walk stretches along woodland and meets the water. It points out into the never-ending abyss of Lake Superior in the same direction as an ore dock seen off toward the town.

Everyone knows the red lighthouse; it’s one of the most photographed lighthouses in the Great Lakes and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Stonehouse said that visitors often comment the museum is a “hidden gem,” and an unexpected highlight of the city.

“Acquiring the lighthouse when we did is a tremendous achievement. It is a win-win for everyone. The U.S. Coast Guard no longer has to maintain property they don’t need and the people of Marquette, through the museum, gain access to this most important part of history,” Stonehouse said, quoted on the museum’s website.

Marquette was a shipping port for iron ore on the Great Lakes until the opening of the major Minnesota mines in the 1890s. Throughout the years, floor extensions to the lighthouse were built. It’s important to note that lighthouses are not built as unique structures, but rather to serve a purpose to best fit the local conditions and terrain during their time in use, according to the museum’s website.

A local myth exists that the lighthouse was designed after a Spanish monastery. The start of this idea is unknown and “completely false,” according to its website. It has been heavily modified over time, as the 1860s served as a prime time for lighthouse construction in the U.P. The Marquette, Granite Island and Huron Island lights were virtually identical.

A paranormal story haunts the maritime history living in Marquette. Tour guides and visitors have seen a ghost of a little girl wearing a 1910s-style dress, sometimes seen staring out of the window over the lake, or on the catwalk around the lantern. She seems to like showing her spirit to women and other children. There has never been a reported death of a girl at the lighthouse, however, there was a young daughter of a keeper who injured herself when falling on the rocks of the shoreline.

Strange footprints, as if from a little girl, can be seen embedded in the grey paint on the floor next to a room of motors. They appear to be twisted and misplaced; they do not make sense to how the average person walks with one foot in front of the other.

The museum has added Sunrise and Evening Lighthouse tours, which include children art workshops, concerts and ghost tours.

“We continue to keep preserving and protecting maritime history,” Billman said. “Future plans, after 2019 Lighthouse Park construction is completed, is to help the City of Marquette with the renovation of the inside of the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse.”

The museum and lighthouse opened on May 14 for this season.

History is important to many, not just in Marquette, but everywhere in the world, and upkeeping its home and advertising its message is important to its surrounding community. It all starts with one person, planning and communicating through different platforms to reach community members and get more people involved. As famously said by David McCullough, history is who we are and why we are the way we are.