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HomeMI HistoryMichigan LighthousesThe Evolution of Michigan’s Infamous Red Lighthouses

The Evolution of Michigan’s Infamous Red Lighthouses

Lighthouse Photos by Gary Syrba

Historical photos courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard and historical archives as referenced

Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light

As is the case with many lighthouses that pepper the shores of our beautiful Great Lakes, the original Grand Haven Lighthouse met a stormy demise and went through quite the evolution to become the lighthouse that we know and love today.

Originally built in 1839 at the entrance of the Grand River, Grand Haven Lighthouse was constructed of stone and stood about 25-30 feet tall (conflicting reports), and had an accompanying five-room cottage to house the lightkeeper and his family.

Nehemiah Merrit was hired as the first lighthouse keeper in August of 1839. Merrit seems to have had a pretty uneventful stay as the lighthouse keeper, as I couldn’t find any additional information on him.

During Merrit’s time, the light was powered by four oil lamps with 14-inch reflectors that were used to produce a fixed white light. For 14 years, the lighthouse stood and served as a guide for ships entering the Grand River from Lake Michigan, before the infamous gales of the lake took both the cottage and the light out during two eventful days, in spite of a seawall built to help protect it.

Two years later, in 1854-1855, a new light and a keepers’ cottage were built from rubble stone on the bluff above the original site, 150 feet above the beach. The tower itself stood slightly over 24 feet tall, with a focal plane of 70 feet above the lake. It was equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens that produced a white flash every 90 seconds and could reportedly be seen up to 25 miles away on a clear night. In 1868, the tower was raised by four feet and equipped with a new lantern room.

Grrand Haven’s first lighthouse, the Bluff-top Lighthouse that sat at the mouth of the Grand River. Historic Archives. Prior to 1852.

The infamous South Pier went through an evolution of its own. Before it became the pier that we all know and love today,  it was originally built to accommodate the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad, to connect Detroit to Milwaukee via ferry service in Grand Haven. The Railroad built the pier and maintained its own lighthouse. Between 1867 and 1870, the federal government extended the pier and moved the light to the new pierhead. The light was quickly discontinued due to the difficulty of reaching it during treacherous storms.

Shortly thereafter, the Lighthouse Board requested funds to extend the pier yet again to 1,200 feet and to add an elevated walkway, along with a wooden tower and bell. These were built in 1871.

In 1875, a modern foghorn house was built directly under the pierhead light and replaced the original fog bell that rang via a hot-air engine.

Skipping ahead to 1883 and 1885, the pier was extended a third time and both the light and foghorn house were moved lakeward. Picture this: in December 1889, a “ferocious gale” was blowing and the lighthouse was forced back a whopping 12 feet, crushing the elevated walkway under it.

Fast forward to 1904, a new 52-foot tall steel tower at the tip of the South Pier was built. In January 1905, the fourth-order Fresnel lens bid adieu to the light on the bluff, finding its new home in the steel tower — marking the end of an era. Not to be left out, the foghorn house received an upgrade to its power source, with two new kerosene engines to fuel its voice.

A few short years later, in 1907, the tower was moved some 600 feet back from the end of the pier, to where it stands today, housed in a concrete base. Alongside that move, the foghorn house found a new home at the pierhead, now flaunting a new lantern and lantern gallery. A sixth-order Fresnel Lens was affixed atop the foghorn house, giving off a steady red light. In 1917, the colors swapped — the lighthouse tower’s light was changed from white to red, and the foghorn house light was changed from red to white. To keep things coordinated,  each structure was painted to match the color of their lights.

In 1910, the bluff light tower was dismantled and repurposed into a brick addition for the keeper’s cottage. The cottage continued to be home for the lighthouse keeper and his family until 1939, at which time the Coast Guard took charge of the light’s operation.

In 1922, the foghorn house underwent a significant upgrade. A sturdy concrete outer portion, shaped like a ship’s prow, was constructed to help shield it from fierce Lake Michigan gales. It also received a new, powerful steam siren that belted out a five-second blast in the key of F every 35 seconds. The light also received a serious boost. The 80-candlepower setup was replaced with a new electric light that boasted an impressive 1,200 candlepower.

The keeper’s cottage remains today, but not in its original state. In 1956, it was converted into apartments, and it remains as such to this day.

In a twist of modern fate, in 2009, the Coast Guard deemed the lighthouses “excess” and offered them at no cost to eligible entities.

Under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, these entities included federal, state or local entities, and nonprofits or educational organizations. In 2012, the Grand Haven Lighthouse Conservancy was formed to care for the lighthouses, with the city of Grand Haven holding the deed to the lighthouses. To this day, the conservancy works to fundraise to restore and maintain the lighthouses for our continued enjoyment.

Do you love the Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light? Luckily, you can donate to help preserve the legacy and enjoyment of the lighthouses. Visit their website to learn more.

Read about the sinking of SS Ironsides off the coast of Lake Michigan and Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light and the Ghostly Lore that accompanies it.

Tamara Graham
Tamara Graham
With an adventurous spirit and a burning desire to make the world work for all of us, Tamara encourages others to embrace self-love, compassion, empathy, understanding, and an ever important sense of humor. With over 30 years of diverse marketing experience, including a decade in publishing, she brings a fresh and innovative perspective to the industry. Her concept revolves around experiential magazines that captivate both online and in print. Tamara's visionary project, LIVE. LOVE. LOCAL. MICHIGAN™, unveils the wonders of our breathtaking home state, igniting love and admiration among Michiganders for where they live. By fostering this deep connection, she inspires a genuine appreciation and love for where we live!
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