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REED: The home light: History surrounds our local lighthouses

• Jun 22, 2018 at 1:00 PM

The Grand Haven light house is an icon of our area. Its easily identifiable and used frequently in local ad campaigns and business logos as a callback to our beautiful home. But the light house, piers, and State Park have not looked or functioned the same for all of the Tri-Cities residents who have come before us.

In 1838, just four years after the founding of Grand Haven, Congress was petitioned for funds to build a lighthouse that would serve to mark the entrance to the mouth of the Grand River. Unfortunately, we do not have any photos or illustrations of that lighthouse. But we do know it featured a 30-foot tower, 4 oil lights, and 14-inch reflective plates that helped cast a beam. The entire structure and its accompanying five-room keeper’s home were washed away in a fierce December storm in 1852.

The new lighthouse, Grand Haven’s second, would not be built until 1855. Rather than being on the beach, the new tower and connected home were high on the dune, allowing the tower light to shine 150 feet above water level. A new Fresnel lens — now on display at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum as part of our summer exhibit, “Coast Guard City, USA” — was purchased by the community at a cost of $4,000 dollars, which is equivalent to over $100,000 dollars today. Because the human eye is attracted to movement and change, a rotating blinker was added to make the light blink every minute-and-a-half. Eventually, the beam was made to rotate, lighting up the night sky in every direction over the harbor.

Of course, in terms of practicality for our busy port, a light high on the bluff made night time navigation into the river difficult. A secondary light was placed at the end of the south pier to fill this need. The light was 60 feet above water level, unblinking, and cast a light that could be seen 8 miles out on the lake. Civic-minded private citizens who owned property on the north side of the north pier placed a smaller, red light on that pier to help captains avoid striking the structure.

For the next 50 years, these multiple markers watched over the harbor entrance and all those who sailed through them. They were maintained by a number of lighthouse keepers, including Mr. and Mrs. Harry Miller. Captain Miller (an honorary title) passed away during his tenure as keeper, but his stalwart wife was so familiar with the systems and schedules of lighthouse keeping that she simply carried on for the next two years. Her tenure as keeper is the only record we have of a female-managed lighthouse in Grand Haven, but many women and children would have helped fathers and husbands who were fulfilling their duties.

Of course, darkness is not the only threat to ships. Intense fog was a constant worry. In 1875, a new fog horn was added to the south pier, and remains to this day. It has had some improvements over the years: converting from steam to electric, manned to automated function, and it has dropped in tone. Originally, it played a 30-second blast in the key of “F,” and today the blast is in “G.” This is a great fun fact for stumping the trivia kings in your life.

In 1905, the third and current light was erected at the end of the south pier. Its 39 feet tall from base to parapet, 51 feet above water level, and shines via a newer, more efficient Fresnel lens which produces a beam that can be seen 17 miles out.

— By Cate Reed, Tri-Cities Historical Museum education program coordinator

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