Saginaw Bay Island Reverts To Nearly Wild After Brush With Development

CHARITY ISLAND, Lake Huron — As plants go, this island's feathered, slightly scrubby, threatened Pitcher's Thistle isn't much to look at.

It sits there in the sand, planning to bloom in, oh, five or seven years, while I surreptitiously check my cell phone to see if I have service, 17 miles out in Saginaw Bay.

Then I turn around. My mouth drops at the view — the stately lighthouse, its red-roofed keeper's house, the fields and flowers, and the blue bay beyond. It looks like Maine or maybe a peaceful dream. The dappled sun creates glares and shadows. The tall reeds swish on the shore, whispering secrets only the birds can hear, but I suddenly hear them, too.

Relax, stop awhile. Why are you in such a hurry?

Charity Island is proof that peace and quiet sometimes win out. In the 1990s, it was scheduled to become a big real estate development with 24 mega-houses.

Luckily, today it remains wild and cherished, with only a tiny human footprint — a lighthouse, a house, a path, one rental cottage, a small marina — and a chance for tourists to visit, lightly.

"I had 15 people pay deposits to buy property, but then I thought, the last thing I want are houses out here," says Robert Wiltse, a real estate broker. He gave up his plans in favor of something much simpler — live in the lightkeeper's house himself and run day cruises from the mainland to bring tourists to the island.

It is less than 3 hours north of Detroit.

Visitors arrive from either East Tawas (a 55-minute, 17-mile boat ride) or Caseville (10 miles). The tours are held only in good weather with calm waters, because Saginaw Bay can get choppy and rough.

After a refreshing ride, the boat maneuvers through unseen channels between the shoals and into the manmade harbor.

There, visitors are picked up in motorized carts and driven through the fragrant woods to the lighthouse.

After an explanation of the Native American and natural history of the island and a chance to see the house and lighthouse, an elaborate lunch or dinner is served on a broad deck. Dinner cruisers return on the boat as the sun sets. (By July, the Wiltses hope to have their beer and wine license so alcohol can be served on the boat and island.)

Charity Island has hosted weddings, parties, nonprofit events, student field trips and many private visitors, especially people from the Saginaw Bay region who have wondered all their lives what was on Charity Island.

Next weekend (June 17-18) it hosts a special event, with speaker Dennis Hale, the only survivor of the Daniel Morrell freighter sinking in Lake Huron in 1966.

Charity Island, once called Shawnagunk ("Green Place Where Seagulls Live") now is nearly entirely owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge. But back in the 1980s, it was for sale for $750,000 to anybody who wanted it.

It was named Charity Island because sailors relied on the charity of the island to help them navigate the rocky shoals of Saginaw Bay.

In 1993, Standish real estate broker Wiltse and investors bought it, and the first thing they did was blast a harbor. It took 60,000 pounds of dynamite and 16 weeks, but the result was a lovely, square-shaped sheltered spot surrounded on all sides by high rock, connected to the lake by a channel.

Then ... Wiltse changed his mind about the island's commercial future.

In 1997, he sold most of the 300-acre island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The non-profit Nature Conservancy bought a few more acres from Wiltse and bought the lighthouse from the government. The Wiltses kept just five acres, including the humble lighthouse keepers' house, which had collapsed.

In 2003, architects told them there was no way to save the original 1916 house as they'd planned. They tore it down and built a new one atop the old foundation and basement.

It is white, with a bright red metal roof that can be seen far out in the bay.

One thing that has turned out to interest tourists most? The Wiltses' basement.

It holds a 1,500-gallon stone cistern that stores water pumped in from the lake. Original to the 1916 house, it was so well-built that it was left intact. The house also has an ingenious power supply — a large set of batteries. When the power gets low, a propane-fueled generator switches on outside.

Robert Wiltse and his wife, Karen, cheerfully tell all these stories to visitors, who are free to wander through their house, use the bathroom, peer into the cistern, or just sit on the wide porch that faces the lake. There also is a small gift shop.

The Wiltses also won't stop brave visitors from climbing the lighthouse with its shaky steps and no handrail (they don't own it, so they can't control access). Nobody has restored the light house yet. That may be their next project, if Robert Wiltse can talk the Nature Conservancy into selling the lighthouse to him.

But plans can change. In fact, when they rebuilt the keepers' house, the Wiltses had every intention of renting it out to tourists.

"Then when it was done, we thought, life is so short, why are we renting it?" Robert Wiltse says. "We own a house on an island. Let's go live out there. We can bring people here on the week ends, and we can stay here. And we feel like the luckiest people in the world."

Instead, he encouraged his brother to build the only other structure on the island — Charity Island Lodge, a cottage that sleeps four. Anyone who hears the message of those whispering reeds — relax, stay awhile — can do just that.



Charity Island is in the middle of Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. The island is also known as Big Charity Island (there is a Little Charity Island nearby that is off-limits as a bird and wildlife sanctuary).

Charity Island Dinner Cruises: Lunch cruise leaves at 10 a.m. and dinner cruise leaves at 4 p.m. Runs every Saturday now through July 1, then every Friday and Saturday in July through mid-August, then every Saturday through Sept. 1. Anyone with a group of 24 or more can make arrangements for a private group trip. Check the schedule for East Tawas and Caseville departures. Dinner cruises, $79 per person, include boat ride, tours and meal (call 517-579-3182 or visit

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Owns about 285 acres of the 300-acre island. No camping or campfires; permit required to visit. Fishing allowed off shore. Part of the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge. For permission, contact or call 989-777-5930.

Charity Lodge: $200 a night with minimum 3-night stay. Sleeps four. Transportation from mainland provided. For more, see or call 989-387-2758.

Marina: Can privately dock boat in marina and come ashore for dinner, but you need to call Charity Island Dinner Cruises in advance to make arrangements.