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Lighthouse lessons

Marie Havenga • Jul 12, 2016 at 12:00 PM

Lighthouses and piers are icons in these parts, serving as backdrops in photos, wayfinding for captains and an important piece of the culture, history and economy of Grand Haven.

This week, you can learn the history of these icons in “Home Light: Exploring the Piers and Lighthouses of Grand Haven,” hosted by Friends of Grand Haven State Park and the Tri-Cities Historical Museum. 

The event runs from 7-8 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Haven State Park pavilion, 1001 S. Harbor Ave., and includes a fascinating historical presentation, a lighthouse-making craft area for kids, book displays and light refreshments. Children younger than 12 must be accompanied by a parent.

The project is funded in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. RSVP at info@friendsofghsp.org.

Private citizens served as lighthouse keepers from 1839 to 1939.

FUN FACTS

• Originally, coastline residents used fires on beaches to mark channels and rocky areas.

“They started noticing the higher the light was and the more fuel it had the bigger the flames could be,” said Cate Reed, education assistant at the Grand Haven museum. “They would shoot for 15-foot flames.”

• Michigan has the most freshwater coastline in the United States and once housed 247 lighthouses.

“It stands to reason we would have the most lighthouses,” Reed said. “Shipping was the most efficient and speediest way to move products and people, and almost everything came through the Great Lakes.”

With trucking taking over for shipping, Michigan's lighthouse count has dwindled to 130, with 100 of them still operating. Thirty-four are open to the public.

“My favorite is at Iroquois Point on Lake Superior,” Reed said.

• Built in 1838, the first Grand Haven lighthouse stood on what is now the Grand Haven State Park beach, near the oval. There are no known images of the lighthouse. It consisted of a 30-foot tower, four oil lights, a 14-inch reflective plate, and a five-room cottage for the lighthouse keeper and his family.

“They put it up before thinking about where it should be and how bad the waves can get,” Reed said. “A storm swept away the entire structure in 1852. It was a total loss. It stood roughly where the oval was, just south of the current lighthouse.”

• Three years after the first local lighthouse met its demise, a replacement was built high on a bluff by Highland Park, 150 feet above Lake Michigan.

The community pitched in $4,000 for the fresnel lens, which is on display at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum's depot building. A beam flashed every 1.5 seconds and was visible for 40 miles.

“That was a substantial amount of money in 1855,” Reed said. “The structure was square stone and housed the lighthouse keepers and their families.”

Various citizens served as the lighthouse keeper, including Harry Miller. When Miller died in 1872, his wife took over lighthouse operations for two years. She was thought to be the only female lighthouse keeper at that time.

The Coast Guard used the facility from 1939 until it was converted to a private residence in 1956. The structure, minus the tower, still stands as part of a private residence on Prospect Street.

• Unfortunately, during Mrs. Harry Miller's tenure as lighthouse keeper, one of Grand Haven's most famous shipwrecks occurred. The Ironsides, a wooden steamer, was attempting to navigate between the pier heads when it got caught in a fall storm en route from Milwaukee. It struck the bulkhead of the south pier and took on water.

“The people of Grand Haven formed a human chain and tried to save as many people as they could,” Reed said.

The vessel eventually sank in 120 feet of water, 4 miles southwest of the Grand Haven pier head. Reed said records are unclear, but it's estimated there were about 23 casualties.

• While the second lighthouse was in operation, residents placed an alternate light at the end of the south pier to mark the channel entrance. Residents near the north pier placed red lights on their property to make it easier for captains to recognize the channel.

• A fog signal was added in 1875. Originally powered by steam, it later sounded by kerosene and now electricity.

• A south pier renovation in 1883 brought the pier to its current length of 1,151 feet. The work was completed in 1893.

• In 1905, the American Bridge Co. erected the current tower light. It is 39 feet tall from base to parapet and stands 51 feet above water level.

• A rudimentary wooden catwalk was added sometime between 1905 and 1910, according to Reed. In 1921, it was replaced by a metal structure.

• The catwalk lights are from the famed U.S. Coast Guard cutter Escanaba. Resident Steve Vocar salvaged the lights from the ship when it was refitted for World War II duty in 1940. Manufacturer Ed Zenko created 120 replicas of the lights so there would be enough to cover the entire catwalk.

On June 13, 1943, the 165-foot Escanaba sank in the North Atlantic after being hit by a torpedo or mine, claiming nearly all lives on board.

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