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SLOVER: History of Grand Haven's lighthouses preserved at museum

• Sep 22, 2017 at 1:00 PM

As you may know, the Tri-Cities Historical Museum will no longer be occupying the Depot Museum of Transportation at 1 N. Harbor Ave. The displays featuring transportation by land and water, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, have been carefully taken down and moved to one of two places.

Some artifacts you may remember, like the Apex truck built in Grand Haven, have been moved to storage. Many other artifacts have been moved to our 200 Washington Ave. location to be incorporated into permanent displays and next year’s new exhibit, “Coast Guard City USA.”

One of the featured artifacts that will continue to be on display is the Fresnel lens from the lighthouse. It was developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel for increased light transmission over greater distance, making it perfect for use in lighthouses.

The first lighthouse in Grand Haven did not have the Fresnel lens, though. The first lighthouse was built in 1839, consisting of a five-room cottage for the lighthouse keeper and a separate light tower. It was built on the beach at a time when changing water levels, the intensity of storms and beach erosion were not entirely understood. After a few years, complications from these environmental factors became clear, and in response a seawall was built to protect the light tower. However, the erosion continued, and in the winter of 1852 the seawall was destroyed. Less than two weeks later, the tower and cottage collapsed.

It was not until 1855 that a second light and adjoining keeper’s home was built, this time on the bluff so that it was behind and 150 feet above the beach. The $4,000 Fresnel lens was installed and, under clear conditions, the light could be seen as far as 25 miles away. This bluff light continued to be the main port beacon until 1905, when the Fresnel lens was moved to a 52-foot steel tower built at the end of the south pier.

Each lighthouse was manned by a keeper, or an assistant, 24 hours a day because both the lighthouse and the fog signal required on-site manpower. In order for the keeper to reach both of these, even in extreme weather conditions, a catwalk was built. When the lighthouse and fog horn became automated in December 1969, the catwalk became obsolete. 

There was talk of lighting the catwalk in order to save it permanently, and local resident Steve Vozar had an idea for a model for the lights.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Escanaba called Grand Haven its home port. In 1940, it was refitted for war duty and had two wooden masts replaced with one steel mast. One of these wooden masts had what was known as the “smoking light” and was scrapped. At the time, Vozar was stationed on the Escanaba and reclaimed the smoking light from the junk pile and put it in his duffle bag.

Ed Zenko, a local manufacturer, loved the idea of reproducing the smoking light and allowed senior volunteers to use his shop equipment to create 120 replicas of the light. On Nov. 25, 1988, the catwalk lights were turned on for the first time.

The Fresnel lens and the lighthouse are integral parts of local and maritime history, and here at the museum we are thrilled to celebrate and share that history by displaying and interpreting the Fresnel lens as the significant beacon that it was, and is.

Check out the permanent display next year and, for more information on local history, visit the Tri-Cities Historical Museum and www.tri-citiesmuseum.org

— By Meredith Slover, curator of collections at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum

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