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VERHULST: Why Grand Haven is Coast Guard City, USA

• Apr 27, 2018 at 3:30 PM

It appears that the warm weather is finally on its way in, and it won’t be long before our lovely beaches and waterways are bustling with people looking to unwind. Citizens and visitors can feel an extra bit of relaxation in knowing that the Coast Guard is always ready to spring into action when an accident occurs on the water.

The Tri-Cities area has always had a special connection with the Coast Guard that is brought into focus with the Coast Guard Festival that is held every year. The festival is a great way for the Tri-Cities to thank the brave men and women of the Coast Guard for all they have done to protect our waterways.

Although there are 21 Coast Guard Cities throughout the country today, Grand Haven has the distinction of being the first to hold the title. There is a special bond between the residents of the Tri-Cities and the Coast Guard that stretches back to some of the earliest days of this community.

Only four years after the founding of Grand Haven in 1834, a lighthouse was constructed at the mouth of the Grand River to safely guide mariners into port. Fifteen years later, an improved lighthouse was built on the bluff 150 feet above the shore and equipped with a state-of-the-art Fresnel lens. This lens was capable of projecting light from a single lamp 14 miles out on Lake Michigan. The Fresnel lens would later be moved from the lighthouse on the bluff to a new structure at the end of the south pier. Eventually, the beautiful crystal and brass lens was replaced with a modern electric fixture.

In 1877, the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) opened a station on the Grand River. The USLSS was the precursor to the Coast Guard of today. Grand Haven’s life-saving station was headquarters for the 10th District, which oversaw all stations on Lake Michigan including those around Milwaukee and Chicago. Capt. William Loutit led a six-man crew that performed life-saving operations on Lake Michigan and the Grand River using hand-pulled lifeboats.

In addition to the lifeboats, the Life-Saving Service also had the Beach Apparatus at their disposal. The Beach Apparatus was a cart that was used for near-shore rescues when a ship would be blown onto a sandbar. The cart carried signal flags, flares, various types of lines, a special buoy and a 200-pound brass cannon called a Lyle Gun. The Lyle Gun would launch a projectile with a messenger line attached to it across the bow of the wrecked ship. This line was then used to pull a heavier hawser line out to the wreck that would be affixed to the mast of the wreck. Once the hawser line was attached to the mast, the lifesaving crew on the shore would attach the breeches buoy (a buoy with a seat sewn into it) and haul it out to the stranded ship. One by one, passengers and crew aboard the wrecked ship would ride the breeches buoy back to shore in a similar fashion to a modern-day zip-line. This style of rescue was common dating back to the 1880s and was last used by the Grand Haven surfmen when the entire crew of the J.R. Sensibar was rescued on Dec. 7, 1939.

On May 18, the Tri-Cities Historical Museum will open a new exhibit titled “Coast Guard City, USA.” This new exhibit will tell the story of how Grand Haven became “Coast Guard City, USA” and how the special relationship between the city and Coast Guard came to be. Featuring the Fresnel lens from Grand Haven’s second lighthouse, ship models, information on the SPARs (the Coast Guard’s women’s reserve during World War II), and artifacts from past Coast Guard Festivals, this new exhibit will have something for everyone.

The Tri-Cities Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 12-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. More information can be found by visiting tri-citiesmuseum.org or by calling 616-842-0700.

Mike VerHulst is the exhibits facilitator for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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