Preserving our places: the coal tipple

Working hand in hand with city government and other community organizations, the Tri-Cities Historical Museum is playing a greater role in determining the needs and priorities for historic preservation in the Tri-Cities area.
Feb 22, 2013


The most recent example of these initiatives involved the preparation of a grant application that, if successful, will fund the cleaning and structural assessment of Grand Haven's historic coal tipple building. 

In the years immediately before and after the turn of the century, railroads were a major part of life in Grand Haven. Beginning in 1925, during the period when steam engines were the primary power sources for trains, the 350-ton concrete building on Harbor Avenue was used to store coal and load it into the bins of trains that came to Grand Haven. It served as an integral part of the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee Railroad terminal owned by the Grand Trunk Western Railroad.

According to the State Historic Preservation Office, it is one of only three buildings of this vintage and design that survive in Michigan, and the only one that is so accessible to the public. The other two exist in isolated railway locations.   

The coal tipple structure is accompanied by the 1223 Pere Marquette locomotive and coal tender railroad cars, which have their own historical significance.

Located only a block away from this site is the Tri-Cities Historical Museum's adaptively re-used Grand Trunk Railroad Depot. Built in 1870, this building serves as a center for local transportation history.

In combination, these structures stand in eloquent testament to America's golden age of railroading and Grand Haven's historical and economic importance as a once-vibrant hub of railroad transportation.     

The importance of useless things

If one evaluates from only a practical standpoint, the Grand Haven lighthouse as it currently exists is not useful. A steel skeleton with a light atop it would serve just as well to mark the southern entrance to the channel.

Continuing in this vein, the Grand Trunk railroad coal tipple is even less useful. It has no “practical” use at all. The purpose for which the structure was built exists only as a rapidly fading memory.

Why is it then, that both of these structures are considered by many to be icons of the City of Grand Haven? Can something that is “useless” as to its intended purpose still remain an important and relevant part of a community?

The answer lies in the sense of place that structures such as these create, linking us to a past that has long since disappeared. The needs that spawned the creation of these two structures, namely maritime navigation and steam locomotion, have long been supplanted by more efficient and modern technology, but both were vital to the creation of the vibrant community we know today.

The status of the Tri-Cities as a premier Michigan vacation destination can be traced directly to the influx of people, money and ideas that arrived in the area by trains and by boat. These places are part of our cultural identity; a connection to our roots that once severed is gone forever.

The museum is an active partner in the Grand Haven Historic Commission, which has been given the task of determining the historical significance and cultural impact of the coal tipple; and in the Lighthouse Conservancy, which is raising funds to acquire the lighthouse and fog signal house from the federal government, restore and stabilize the structures, and interpret their important role in the history of the community.

Although the coal tipple no longer dispenses coal, and the lighthouse is no longer needed for navigation, the decision whether to preserve these structures for future generations cannot be made without careful consideration. These “useless things” provide a distinct, unique identity for our community, and connect us to an incredibly significant portion of our collective histories.

Once they are gone, they will be missed, and we will all be poorer for the loss.

The progress to preserve

Working in association with the Grand Haven Historic Conservation District Commission, and with the generous assistance and expertise of museum friend and grant writer Katie Norton, a proposal was submitted to the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation requesting $10,000 that would be matched with city funds. The proposal was based on the recommendations of a Coal Tipple Preliminary Report produced by the Historic Conservation Commission in association with the museum.   

A decision on this grant request will be announced in the coming weeks.

If approved, funds would be applied to clean and prepare the coal tipple building for the purpose of administering a structural analysis. The analysis will be used, in turn, to determine the cost of repairing the structure for upkeep and for restoration, to explore future possibilities of connecting with a greater preservation plan for remarketing, reuse and tourism, and to pursue opportunities to promote and fund the preservation of the coal tipple through volunteer groups, grant applications, fundraisers and other promotions.         

The Tri-Cities Historical Museum is pleased to provide its services to this important community endeavor, and we look forward to the role it will continue to play in preservation planning in Grand Haven and the greater Tri-Cities area.   

— Kenneth Pott is the executive director of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum. Steven Radtke, the museum's curator of exhibits, contributed to this column.



The coal tipple and lighthouse are both strongly tied to Grand Haven's history as a railroad and shipping hub. They also contribute to the identity of our community and should both be preserved. It would be nice if the PM 1223 and other railroad cars could be part of an enclosed indoor transportation museum allowing year around access; and expanding the collection with other railroad and maritime artifacts and interpretive exhibits


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