South Haven Pier Light Seeing The Light

South Haven, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

While a few white settlers were already homesteading in the area in 1831, it was not until lumbermen began to tap the bounty of the areas forests in the 1850's that a viable settlement began to appear at the mouth of the Black River. With the river serving as the primary conduit for the movement of logs from the forest to the sawmills at the mouth of the river, a growing number of vessels were entering the river to transport the products of the mills to the lumber-hungry cities growing around the great lakes.

Click to view enlarged imageThe first major attempt at harbor improvements was undertaken by a group of local merchants in 1861 with the construction of two cribwork protecting piers protruding into the lake from the north and south shores of the river mouth. The protected channel between the piers was dredged to a depth of between six and seven feet, opening the river to all but the largest lumber hookers of the day.

With the construction of his large sawmill in 1866, George Hannas became the village's premier employer and developer, and soon the inevitable string of stores, hotels, bars and churches appeared to nourish the hearts and souls of the areas growing community.

As South Haven grew in prominence as a shipping port, the Army Corps of Engineers assumed responsibility for harbor improvements in 1867, and over the following year increased the width of the channel to 120 feet, and extended the piers far enough to maintain an average channel depth of twelve feet.

Click to view enlarged imageAs work on the harbor improvements came to a close in the summer of 1868, the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $6,000 for the construction of a pierhead beacon, and keepers dwelling. A site on the nearby bluff was selected for the dwelling the following year, and plans were made to begin construction of the station early in 1870. Short of funds, in a sweeping measure of July 12th of that year, Congress recalled all unexpended funds from Federal agencies, and without funding, the work at South Haven was forced to be put on hold until a new appropriation could be made.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress re-appropriated the necessary funds that same year, and construction began late in 1871. Consisting of a thirty foot tall wooden structure, the lower portion was open, supporting a single storage room topped by an octagonal cast iron lantern. As well as offering a place to store supplies, the small storage room served as a shelter for the keepers when working on the light. Since waves frequently crashed over the pier during storms, a seventy-five foot long wooden walkway was constructed from a safe point close to shore to the tower to allow the keeper to walk above the waves, and to provide a life-line for the length of the pier. The walkway provided direct access to a door in the elevated storage room. Captain W. P. Bryan was appointed as the station's first keeper, and exhibited the light for the first time on an as yet undetermined date in 1872.

Click to view enlarged imageCaptain James S. Donahue replaced Bryan as keeper of the South Haven light in April of 1874. While Donahue had lost one of his legs while serving with the Eighth Michigan Infantry at the Battle of Wilderness, any concerns on the part of the local citizenry that such a disability might interfere with the hardships of a keeper's life were quickly dispelled by Donahue's dedication and hard work.

As part of a system-wide experiment with new illuminating apparatus, in 1890 the South Haven beacon was selected as a trial location for a Walsbach burner gasoline light. Evidently, the trial was successful, as it was reported that the new apparatus doubled the intensity of the light while reducing gasoline consumption by half.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Army Corps of Engineers continued work on the piers and revetments at the entrance to the harbor, and at the turn of the new century, a total of $252,000 had been expended on the improvements. As a result, the north pier now stood at an overall length of 1,594 feet, and the south pier at 1,554 feet, with some 470 feet of its length projecting beyond the natural shoreline.

No longer marking the seaward end of the lengthened pier, the wooden tower was moved some 249 feet to the new pierhead in 1901, and the elevated walk extended a like amount to bridge the gap.

Click to view enlarged imageThe following year, a new Fifth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Parisian glass makers Barbier and Fenestre was installed in the lantern. While the light was new, the old wooden beacon had withstood thirty years of Lake Michigan's worst, and as a result of increasing deterioration, Eleventh District engineer James G. Warren laid-out plans to replace the venerable structure with a new cylindrical metal tower.

Contracts for the metalwork and required materials were awarded and delivered to the lighthouse depot in St. Joseph. On October 6, 1903, the tender Hyacinth delivered the prefabricated steel tower and a work crew on the pier, and erection of the new structure continued through the remainder of the month. The thirty-five foot structure was given a gleaming coat of white paint, and the district lampist carefully removed the Fifth-order lens from the old beacon and installed it in the new octagonal lantern. Captain Donahue proudly climbed the spiral stairs within the new tower to exhibit the South Haven light from atop the new tower for the first time on the evening of November 13.

After 36 years of dedicated service, Captain Donahue retired from lighthouse service in 1910, and was replaced by Louis De Deimar, the former keeper of the Kenosha lights.

The final extension of the piers was completed in 1913, and with the light tower once again stranded some distance from the new pierhead, the tower was elevated and relocated 425 feet to the pier's new end.

Click to view enlarged imageThree years later, it was determined that range lights would serve as a valuable aid to vessels entering the harbor, and on June 15, 1916, a fifty-two foot tall skeleton steel tower was constructed on the pier some 800 feet to the shoreward of the pierhead light. Displaying a fixed red light of fifty candlepower, this new light was designed to function as a rear range, and by vertically aligning both lights, vessels at sea could hold a course leading directly to the channel entrance. It was quickly determined that the light on the new rear range was not bright enough, and the intensity of the light was increased to 750 candlepower a month later on July 5th.

Robert G. Young was the last Lighthouse Service keeper to be assigned to the South Haven Light. Appointed in 1932, the same year as responsibility for the nation's aids to navigation was turned over to the Coast Guard, Young continued to serve until 1940, after which the keepers dwelling and light were manned by Coast Guard personnel.

Click to view enlarged imageAt yet undetermined points in time thereafter, the skeletal rear range tower was removed, the wooden elevated walkway was replaced with an iron system, and the steel tower was given a coat of the distinctive red paint that it maintains to this day.

While the Coast Guard continues to maintain the light as an active aid to navigation to this day, the keeper's dwelling was abandoned, and ownership the dwelling was assumed by the General Services Administration. In 1991, the Michigan Maritime Museum, which is located in South Haven leased the building as a curatorial annex. When the GSA announced that the building would be offered at public auction, a public outcry caused the GSA to reconsider, and on a ceremony held on August 3, 2000, the property was deeded to the city of South Haven. The Michigan Maritime Museum plans to renovate the structure and convert it to use as a maritime reference library.

Keepers of this light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all South Haven Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

Our photography field trip to South Haven in 1999 was actually our second trip, since South Haven had been our first stop during our seminal 1998 lighthouse tour. Unfortunately, the only decent photograph I took the year before was taken with my digital camera, and was captured at a measly 320 x 240 resolution, way too coarse for any use beyond making small refrigerator magnets!

While the tower at South Haven is quite diminutive at only 35 feet, the catwalk appears even more dramatic as a result. The row of lights gracefully bending over each catwalk support beckoned for a follow-up visit after dark, when they would look like jewels reflected in the surface of the Lake.

We returned to South Haven on a whirlwind tour of the coast over the last weekend in April of 2001 to photograph the keepers dwelling, and were surprised at the amount of sand which had been blown across the roads along the beach to the north of the river.

Finding this Light

Take Phoenix Street (Exit 20). Stay on Phoenix Street after Business I-96 turns South. Continue West on Phoenix Street to the beach. (Note that Phoenix becomes Water Street at some point along the way!)

Contact information

Michigan Maritime Museum
260 Dyckman Ave.
South Haven, MI. 49090
Tel: (800) 747-3810

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, 1868 - 1906
Annual Report of the Lake Carrier's Association, 1916
Around the shores of Lake Michigan, Margaret Beattie Bogue, 1985
Email from Sarah Schneider, Michigan Maritime Museum, 5/24/01.
History of the Great Lakes, J H Beers Co., 1899
Lighthouse Digest Magazine, October 1999
Personal observations at South Haven, 1998 - 2001.
Photographs by the author, 1999, 2001.
Postcard from the authors personal collection.
The Holland Sentinel, July 27, 2000
USCG Historians office, Photographic archives.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 06/13/2004

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