Pentwater Pierhead Light Seeing The Light

Pentwater, Michigan

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Historical Information

As was the case at many locations along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Pentwater lake’s only natural connection to Lake Michigan was through a shallow and swampy creek, barring access to the lake to all but the lightest canoes and row boats.

The value of opening up a channel between the lakes was recognized early, as evidenced by an 1838 report submitted to the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury by Thomas Homans, superintendent of lighthouses for the northwestern lakes. In his report, Homans suggested that "the Rivers au Betaux, Manistee, Pere Marquette, White and Pentwater are capable of being made excellent and safe harbors, accessible to any vessels navigating the lakes. Two parallel piers to each of moderate length and of trivial cost compared to the utility would soon make an abundance of fine harbors on this shore where they are so much needed." While the federal government was thus clearly aware of the value of opening up such a channel at Pentwater, it would be almost 20 years before work would begin, and it would then be undertaken as a private enterprise without the benefit of any federal support.

After purchasing tracts of pine forest around the shores of the lake for $1.00 an acre in 1855, lumber baron Charles Mears established a mill at the northwest end of the lake. A thriving community grew quickly to support the mill, and was incorporated under the name of Middlesex in 1856. Without a navigable channel through which to gain direct access to the lake, the mill remained virtually landlocked, and thus lumber had to be dragged out to the lakeshore where it was lightered onto awaiting vessels anchored offshore for transport to Mears’ yards in Chicago.

Click to view enlarged imageBetween 1856 and 1858, Mears work crews dammed the swampy outlet in order to raise the water level within the lake, and excavated a shallow channel through the narrow sand dunes to the south of the mill. Lined with timber cribbing and revetments, and protected with a pair of short parallel piers, the channel was opened up to a width of seventy feet. However, the goal of creating a channel deep and wide enough to allow vessels direct access to the mill had yet to be attained. While fishing boats and small coastal vessels were now able to make the passage through the channel into Pentwater Lake, there was insufficient depth for the larger lumber hookers. Thus, lumber was loaded onto a narrow gage railway and transported out to the end of the north pier, where the water was deep enough for larger vessels to tie up.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile the excavation of the channel was a boon to the growing Pentwater fishing fleet, it proved somewhat of a nuisance to travel between the settlements on the north and west shores of the lake. To this end, a ferry was placed into operation across the channel in 1858. Consisting of a wooden scow, motive power was provided by a winch connected to a cable that ran across the bottom between both banks. For the privilege of avoiding the long trip around the two-mile length of the lake, passengers paid 5 cents each, 10 cents for a man with a horse, 25 cents for a team and wagon, and 2 cents each for livestock. After almost ten years of continued improvements, Mears work finally paid off in 1865, when the steamer DAYLITE became the first large vessel to make her way between the piers and through the channel into Pentwater Lake. With the channel thus opened to general maritime commerce, a number of independent lumber-related interests moved into the area, perhaps the largest of which was Eldred's Shingle Mill. Located at the south end of Pentwater Lake, this mill grew to be the largest of its type in the state of Michigan, and according to some reports, the largest in the country.

With the economic viability of the channel thus proven, and facing the costs of endless pier repair and channel dredging, Mears began lobbying for federal government to assume responsibility for the woks. Taking up Mears cause in 1867, Michigan Senators Thomas White Ferry and Zachariah Chandler successfully presented bills before Congress calling for the appropriation of funding for harbor improvements at Pentwater, with the initial $55,000 appropriated for the project on March 6, 1867. Thus, late in 1867, the US Army Corps of Engineers arrived in Pentwater to commence a 20-year program to widen the channel to 150 feet, extend the piers, and to open up the channel to a minimum planned navigable depth of 16 feet.

Click to view enlarged imageWith construction well underway, the Lighthouse Board determined that the establishment of a light on one of the piers would serve to guide vessels into the channel. To this end, a lighthouse crew was dispatched to Pentwater in the spring of 1873 to begin construction of a beacon at the end of the south pier. The structure took the form of a white painted simple timber-framed pyramid structure standing 12 feet in plan. With the upper section enclosed serve as both a service room and as shelter for the keeper during inclement weather, the structure tapered to 8 feet in plan beneath the gallery, which was capped by an octagonal cast iron lantern. While the lantern’s window astragals were of typical construction, the lantern walls were formed by extensions of the wooden walls below, as opposed to typical prefabricated cast iron sections. A spherical cast iron vent ball capped the tapered octagonal roof, and was in turn surmounted by a platinum-tipped lightning rod standing 33 feet above the pier deck.

A timber elevated walkway was constructed leading from the shore to a door in the service room to provide the keeper with safer access to the light above the waves which frequently crashed over the surface of the pier during early winter Lake Michigan storms. With the arrival of the district Lampist from Detroit, a fixed red Sixth Order Fresnel lens was installed on a cast iron pedestal at a focal plane of 25 feet, and the light was exhibited for the first time on the evening of June 20, 1873. Outfitted with a single-wick Sixth Order lamp exhibiting 45 candlepower, the new Pentwater light was visible at a distance of 8 ˝ miles.

Click to view enlarged imageFunding for the erection of the beacon was taken from a general appropriation for establishing pierhead beacons throughout the district, and was insufficient for erecting a dwelling for the station. As a result, the new station’s keeper would be responsible for making his own living arrangements from his standard lighthouse service salary. John Davenport, former First Assistant keeper at Skilligalee light was offered the position of Keeper at Pentwater, but declined the promotion, perhaps as a result of the lack of a dwelling. Thus, the position remained unfilled at the time of the light’s initial exhibition, and thus a member of the construction crew was likely held over to maintain the light until a keeper was selected. The position was eventually offered to local resident Francis McGuire, and he appears for the first time on lighthouse payroll records at the station on October 22, 1873. Evidently, Keeper McGuire found more lucrative employment in the area, since re resigned from lighthouse service on March 3, 1877, and his wife Annie was immediately appointed as Acting Keeper, and after six months proving her capabilities, she was promoted to full Keeper status on September 20.

Click to view enlarged imageBy the 1880’s virtually all of the white pine had been removed from the area, and lumbering interests began moving-on to other locations around the lakes where pine was still plentiful. In May 1882, the Pentwater Furniture Company was formed on land purchased from Mears, and began operations making furniture from the hardwoods which had been left standing after the pine had been clear cut. The new factory consisted of a large 100 foot by 50 foot four-story building with a separate brick boiler and engine room. After five years operation, the factory began experiencing financial difficulties, and on January 1, 1887 it was taken over by the Sands and Maxwell Lumber Company under the name of the Pentwater Bedstead Company. 1887 was also the year in which Annie McGuire was removed from her position as keeper of the Pentwater Light, to be replaced by Barney Evers who was appointed to the position on March 11. Evidently, the Bedstead company flourished under its new management, as a detached two-story 48-foot by 164-foot brick addition was erected in 1888 and connected to the original building by a tramway bridging the second floors of the two structures. The following year on October 21, the boiler exploded killing three men. The boiler house was rebuilt and the factory quickly resumed operations.

To make finding the entry between he piers easier, a fixed red lens lantern was suspended from a 17-foot tall post at the outer end of the south pier to serve as a Front Range to the beacon in 1890. In 1899, after braving the elements for 26 years, the pierhead beacon and the section of pier on which it was standing were both found to be significantly deteriorating, and it was moved to the inner end of the outer crib, which was in better condition. Simultaneous with the move, new lower timbers were spliced onto the four main support posts and the sills of the service room were replaced on three sides. The following year, the 500 foot-long elevated walk was replaced and the entire surface of the pier was planked-over to better serve as a landing, and to provide a safe walking surface for the many people who walked the length of the pier for fishing and general recreation. That same year, the Bedstead Factory was completely destroyed by fire, leaving all of its 250 employees out of work, and doubtless a devastating blow to the Pentwater economy.

Click to view enlarged imageWith the dawning of the new century, the Pentwater light station had been active for almost thirty years, yet action had still to be taken on the matter of a dwelling for Keeper Evers and his family. Attempting to rectify the situation, the Lighthouse Board plead the case for a $3,500 appropriation for construction of a dwelling in its 1903 annual report. After Congress turned a deaf ear to the request, the Board reiterated the request on an annual basis in its subsequent reports in each of the following five years. Whether funding was eventually approved has yet to be identified, however the fact that no mention of the need of such a dwelling appears after 1908, could indicate that the structure was indeed built. Keeper Evers resigned his position in 1911, and was replaced by Andrew J. Davenport who was transferred-in from the Calumet Pierhead station where he had been serving as keeper since 1888.

On June 29, 1917, the station was automated through the installation of an acetylene power system. Equipped with a Sun Valve which automatically turned the light on with decreasing temperatures at dusk, and extinguished with increasing temperatures of increasing daylight, the characteristic was modified to emit a 45-candlepower flash of 0.8 seconds duration followed by an eclipse of 2.2 seconds in order to reduce acetylene consumption. Congruent with this change, the color of the beacon was changed from white to red in order to conform to the "red, right returning" navigation system.

Click to view enlarged imageAround 1925 the aging ferry across the channel was replaced by a swing bridge which was given to village of Pentwater by the Pere Marquette Railway Company after it was removed from service at Elk Rapids. Since the bridge needed to be swung open whenever a vessel needed to enter or leave the harbor, the bridge required a full-time attendant. Combined with high maintenance costs, the bridge quickly became the most expensive responsibility of the small villages utility department.

In 1937, the Army Corps of Engineers completely replaced the timber piers with more substantial concrete structures, and after 80 years of service, the venerable timber pierhead beacon was removed from the pier and replaced by a steel skeleton tower erected on cylindrical concrete footings. A small shed integrated into the tower housed acetylene tanks which were piped to a flashing burner mechanism within a 300mm optic standing at a focal plane of 48 feet. With the establishment of the new tower, the characteristic of the light was again changed to emit a single flash of 0.5 seconds duration followed by an eclipse of 4.5 seconds to further conserve acetylene, and reduce the interval between required service visits.

Click to view enlarged imageIn order to mark both sides of the channel entrance, a cylindrical modified "D9-type" tower was erected at the end of the north pier in 1997. Topped with a 300mm flashing green Tideland Signal acrylic optic at a focal plane of 43 feet, the tower also housed a diaphragm fog signal sounding a single 3-second blast every 30 seconds.

The Pentwater of today caters almost exclusively to the summer vacation trade. The downtown streets have been beautifully restored, and are now home to craft stores, restaurants and other establishments designed to tempt visitors to open their wallets. Condominiums line the lake, and pleasure boats of varying sizes move in and out of the channel. Virtually all signs of Pentwater’s lumber related past have disappeared, save a few vestiges of the old Bedstead Factory foundations.

Keepers of this Light

Click here to see a complete listing of all Pentwater keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Finding this Light

From US 31, take Business 31 into Pentwater. Turn west on Lowell Street at the north end of town and head just under 1/2 mile to Charles Mears State Park, from where you can walk the beach to the north pier.

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various, 1853 – 1909
Annual report of the Lake Carrier’s Association, 1917
Great Lakes Light Lists, various, 1872 - 1999
Pentwater 1853-1942, Florence R. Schrumpf, 1993
Oceana County pioneers and business men of to-day, Hartwick, Louis M, 1890
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research


This page last modified 12/01/2007

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