Holland Harbor Light Seeing The Light

Holland, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

When scouting-out a location in which to establish a settlement for his Dutch emigrant followers in 1847, the Reverend A. C. Van Raalte immediately foresaw the potential of the Black Lake area, and established the Holland settlement on the lake’s south eastern shore. As was the case with almost all of the rivers and lakes which fed into Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, the small outlet at Black Lake was blocked by a sand bar formed by wave action depositing sand across the river opening, thereby limiting access to the river to vessels of only the shallowest draft.

Realizing that direct access to Black Lake from Lake Michigan for larger vessels would significantly enhance the growth of the community, Van Raalte began lobbying political representatives in an attempt to obtain Federal funding for the necessary harbor improvements. On Van Raalte’s behalf, Michigan Representative Charles E. Stuart presented a memorial before The House on February 1, 1849 signed by Holland’s 600 residents praying for "the erection of a light-house and the improvement of the harbor at the mouth of the Black River." However, Congress turned a deaf ear to the request and to all subsequent resolutions and memorials presented on Van Raalte’s behalf. Frustrated with continuing Federal inaction, the Dutch settlers began the work of dredging the new channel themselves. On completion of the work on July 1, 1859, the small steamboat HURON became the first vessel to make its way through the channel into Black Lake and down the lake to Holland itself.

Congress finally responded to Van Raalte’s ongoing pleas for assistance in 1867, and the Army Corps of Engineers was dispatched to Holland to begin improvements two years later. With a pair of protective piers at the Lake Michigan end of the channel under construction in 1870, the Lighthouse Board recommended the establishment of a light at their outer end to guide mariners into the channel. Congress responded with an appropriation of $6,000 for the establishment of the Light on July 1, 1870, and with completion of the piers planned for late that season, Eleventh District Lighthouse Engineer Brevet Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe approved the plans and specifications for establishing a pierhead beacon soon thereafter.

Click to view enlarged imageA work crew arrived at Holland late that year and began construction of the new structure near the outer end of the longer south pier. Typical of pierhead beacons erected throughout the district, the structure took the form of a 27-foot tall white-painted timber framed pyramid beacon. With its upper section enclosed with clapboard sheathing, a small enclosed room was thus formed within the structure to serve double duty as both a service room and as shelter for the keeper when forced to spend time tending the light in rough weather. Atop this service room, an octagonal iron lantern was centered on a square gallery, and outfitted with a fixed red Fifth Order Fresnel lens. By virtue of the beacon’s location atop the timber pier, the lens stood at a focal plane of 32 feet, and was calculated to be visible for a distance of 11 ½ miles in clear weather conditions.

Holland resident Melgert Van Regenmorter was appointed as the station’s first keeper on December 3rd, 1870, and exhibited the light for the first time soon thereafter. While the construction estimates included sufficient funds for the erection of a keeper’s dwelling on shore, the owner of the property selected for the dwelling was unable to prove clear title to the site, and the remaining funding reverted back to the Treasury. Thus, Van Regenmorter was forced to find accommodation elsewhere until more permanent arrangements could be made. While Congress made a new appropriation for construction of the dwelling on June 10, 1872, continued problems encountered in obtaining clear title to the selected property were encountered, and Van Regenmorter continued to make his own housing arrangements.

1874 saw the erection of 550 feet of elevated timber framed walkway lading from a point 450 feet from the shoreline out to the door of the beacon service room. connecting the door in the beacon service room. Designed to allow the keeper to make his way along the pier above the waves which frequently crashed across the top of the pier, 450 feet of plank walk were also installed from the inner end of the elevated walk to shore across the top of the open stone-filled pier cribs to provide secure footing.

While our research has yet to identify the year in which the dwelling was built, there is a record of the arrival of a work crew to conduct repairs to the dwelling in 1880. Thus, the dwelling was evidently built at some time between 1873 and 1880. Also in 1880, the elevated walkway on the pier was extended an additional 264 feet toward the shore, bringing its total length to 814 feet. Timber exposed to constant wetting and drying cycles is extremely susceptible to rot, and this was inevitably the case with the elevated walk at Holland Harbor, as 600 feet of its length was replaced in 1885.

While the construction of the piers served well to open Black Lake to larger vessels, the relatively narrow 200-foot opening between the piers represented a considerable challenge to vessel masters attempting to gain entry during heavy seas, and a number of accidents were experienced as a result. On a stormy October 23, 1887, a vessel of unrecorded name smashed into the beacon service room while entering the harbor, causing considerable damage to the structure. A repair crew was quickly dispatched to Holland to effect repairs. While on site, the crew also made some repairs to the dwelling and installed a tin hood above the lens to contain heat.

To serve as a front range to the existing beacon, a tubular lantern was erected on a 20-foot tall post on the outer end of the south pier in 1890. This post was destroyed by a scow aptly named BREAKAWAY on entering the harbor on September 13, 1891, and a temporary light was shown until a work crew could be dispatched to effect repairs. The following year, the schooner R KANTERS ran her bowsprit into the elevated walk while leaving the harbor, requiring the replacement of three legs and the associated stringers and railing.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, a number of resort hotels had sprung up around Black Lake, which had been renamed Lake Macatawa, and Holland became a major vacation destination for Chicago and Milwaukee vacationers. In 1900 alone, over 1,100 vessels made their way between the piers bringing vacationers and weekend trippers to enjoy Holland’s quiet charm. With the resulting increase in maritime commerce, the Lighthouse Board recommended the establishment of a fog signal station at the harbor entrance, and estimating costs of an appropriate installation to be $6,000, requested an appropriation in this amount in its annual report for the 1900 fiscal year. The following year, a cable and pulley system was erected between the beacon and the post light. The system was designed to allow Keeper Van Regenmorter to tend the lantern from the shelter of the beacon service room by pulling the lantern to and from the post.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the thirty-one year old timber beacon showing signs of significant deterioration, a contract was advertised for supplying a more durable steel replacement, and on delivery of the new structure in 1902, the old beacon was torn down, and four concrete piers installed atop the pier to serve as a level foundation for the new structure. The steel tower was then lifted from a barge onto the pier and bolted securely to the concrete piers. Standing 45 feet tall, the lower level of the new tower was of open frame construction, with two rooms above sheathed with riveted steel plates. Round porthole-style windows cut into the steel sides provided the Keeper with views in all directions. Atop the upper floor, an octagonal cast iron lantern was installed, and the fixed red Fifth Order Fresnel lens from the old beacon installed within. Outfitted with a 150-candlepower lamp, the relocated light was visible for a distance of ten miles. With the establishment of the new beacon, the pole light which served as a front range was also discontinued.

Showing signs of continued deterioration, 1903 saw the replacement of 217 feet of timber elevated walk with cast iron supports and handrails. 216 additional feet of timber walkway was also replaced with similar cast iron walkway sections the following year.

In a major gale on December 22, 1904, the outer crib on which the steel pierhead light stood was pushed off center by the force of the sea, and had taken on a noticeable lean. Fearing that the structure might topple into the lake, the tower was disassembled and shipped to the St. Joseph Lighthouse Depot for repair. A wooden foundation pier was erected, and the repaired tower returned to Holland, where it was again hoisted on the rebuilt pier and bolted in place.

After six years of repeated requests for the $6,000 appropriation for the establishment of a fog signal at the Harbor entrance, Congress had failed to respond to responded. Still deeming the establishment of the signal of critical importance, Ninth District Engineer Major James G. Warren searched for another possible solution. Identifying that a $7,l500 of July 1, 1898 for establishing a fog signal station on the Breakwater in Milwaukee Harbor remained as yet unexpended, Warren recommended that legislative authority be granted to divert the unexpended funds to allow for the establishment of the fog signal at Holland.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile awaiting a Congressional response, on November 4, 1905, a fixed red lens lantern was installed on a 60-foot tall pole on the pier 400 feet to the rear of the pierhead light to serve as a rear range to the pierhead light. In combination, the two lights served to allow vessels out in the lake to line-up on the harbor entry by keeping the two lights visually one above the other. This pole was replaced by a 61-foot tall steel skeleton tower, 265 yards to the rear of the pierhead light in April 1906, and the fixed red lens lantern from the pole moved to the top of this new tower.

Congress responded favorably to Major Warren’s request on June 30, 1906, stating "the Light-House Board is authorized to expend not to exceed $6,000 out of the appropriation made by the act approved July first, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, for building South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, light-station in the establishment of Holland pierhead range light-station, Michigan." Rather than expend the cost of designing a unique set of plans for the new structure, the decision was made to use a plan that was also planned for use at Waukegan, and would also end up being used at Kewaunee a few of years later.

Click to view enlarged imageWork began on the new fog signal building in 1907. Erected approximately ten feet to the rear of the pierhead beacon, the 22-foot by 32-foot structure was constructed of riveted iron sheets over a timber framework. While the building was under construction, the fog signal boilers and ten-inch steam whistles from the discontinued station at Calumet were delivered to the pier, and installed in the building’s first floor. While the dwelling on shore would continue to serve as the primary residence for the Head Keeper, bedrooms and living quarters were installed in the second floor to allow the Assistant Keepers to live in the fog signal building itself. To provide illumination and air flow within the living quarters on the second floor, a pair of gabled windows were installed in the roof on each side. A covered passageway was erected between the building and the pierhead bacon to allow movement between the two structures. Reflecting on the increased importance of the station, the lens in the steel beacon was upgraded to a fixed red Fourth Order Fresnel lens, with the new optic exhibited for the first time on the night of June 28, 1907. With this change, the range of visibility for the light increased from 9 ¾ miles to 13 miles. Work on the fog signal continued through the summer, and was completed in October of 1907.

Click to view enlarged imageEvidently, the aging Van Regenmorter was not impressed with the additional duties associated with the operation of a first-class steam operated fog signal, and he resigned from lighthouse service on September 30, after serving as the only keeper of the Holland Harbor Light Station since its establishment 37 years previous. Charles Bavry accepted a transfer to Holland from the isolation of Pilot Island, where he had been serving as Keeper for four years, arriving at the station on October 1. With the additional workload represented by the addition of the fog signal, the decision was also made to add both First and Second Assistant Keeper positions to the station roster. Thomas W Pollock was appointed to the position of First Assistant on October 20, and George T Rider to Second Assistant on November 9. Whether the two Assistants were unsuited for light keeping, or found themselves incompatible with Bavry is unrecorded, however they both resigned their positions within a month, eventually to be replaced by John Fish and William Jackson, respectively.

A pair of arrowhead breakwaters were erected from the end of the piers in 1916, and a red oval tower standing 27 feet in height was erected at the end of the south breakwater in order to form a range with the South Pierhead beacon. The red flashing acetylene powered lantern at a focal plane of 30 feet atop this tower was visible for a distance of 7 miles. With the addition of this new light, the characteristic of the light in the pierhead beacon was also changed on May 30, 1916 to exhibit a red flash every 4 seconds.

Click to view enlarged imageThe Holland Lights were electrified in 1932. Equipped with a 5,000 candlepower incandescent electric bulb, the Fourth Order lens was now visible for a distance of 15 miles. The old steam-operated ten-inch fog whistle was removed from the fog signal building the following year, and replaced with an air operated whistle powered by an electric motor-driven compressor. In 1936, a square tower was erected at the west end of the fog signal building roof peak, and capped with an octagonal cast iron lantern, the lens from the pierhead beacon moved into the new lantern. The steel pierhead beacon was then removed from the pier and shipped to Calumet, where it was placed at the south end of the breakwater.

A Coast Guard crew arrived in Holland in 1956, and gave the combined fog signal building and lighthouse a fresh coat of bright red paint in order to conform to its "Red Right Return" standard, which called for all aids to navigation located on the right side of a harbor entrance to be red in coloration. Local residents thus began referring to the fifty year old structure as "Big Red," a name which has stuck through the years. The Fourth Order lens was subsequently removed from the fog signal lantern in the late 1960’s, and replaced with a 250 mm Tidelands Signal acrylic optic.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the fading of the Great Lakes passenger fleet, Holland Harbor had ceased to serve any real commercial traffic. With the station now serving only as a beacon to guide pleasure boats in and out of Lake Macatawa, the Coast Guard announced plans to abandon the old fog signal building to eliminate ongoing maintenance costs in 1972. Over the years, "Big Red" had become as much of an iconic symbol of tourist-centered Holland as tulips and windmills, and fearing the loss of their beloved landmark, the citizenry of Holland gathered together and circulated petitions in an attempt to save the historic structure. To this end, the Holland Harbor Lighthouse Commission was formed in 1974 to coordinate preservation and restoration efforts, and continues to manage the structure to this day.

Keepers of  this Light

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

Finding this Light

Take US31 into Holland, and turn West onto South Business Rte 31. Travel one mile to Columbia Street. Turn North on Columbia to 7th Street. Turn West onto 7th Street, and continue to River Avenue. Head North on River Avenue to Douglas Avenue. Head west approximately six miles on Douglas Avenue to Holland State Park, and park in one of the many parking areas. Take the boardwalk to the pier. Big Red can be seen across the canal into Lake Macatawa, which it protects.

Reference Sources

Personal observation at Holland, 09/25/1999
Lights Of The Lakes, Chris Duncan, Mich. Coastal Mgmt. Program, 06/07/1984
Michigan historical markers at Harbor & Lighthouse, erected 1987
Holland City News, 08/01/1874
USCG Historians office, Photographic archives.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 09/06/2005

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