Grand Haven Main Light Seeing The Light

Grand Haven, Michigan Home Back

Historical Information

While an American Fur Company trading post had been established a few miles up the Grand River from Lake Michigan in the early 1820's, real settlement of the area would not begin until 1836, when the schooner ST. JOSEPH began making regular trips between the growing community of Grand Haven and Chicago, bringing increasing numbers of immigrants to the area. By 1837, a succession of memorials had been presented before the federal government on behalf of Grand Haven residents, captains and vessel owners requesting an investigation be made into the feasibility of establishing a lighthouse at the river mouth and for the erection of piers to protect the river mouth from wave-born silting.

Congress responded with an appropriation of $5,000 for the establishment of the new lighthouse on February 1, 1837, and Navy Lieutenant Pendergrast, who was charged with identifying locations for a number of new lights around the western lakes that year, was dispatched to Grand Haven to select an appropriate site for the new light. Pendergrast selected a small waterfront site at the foot of the bluff a short distance to the south of the river mouth. A survey was undertaken later that year, and title to what would become known as "Lighthouse Acre" was obtained from Chicago land owner John Wright on March 7, 1838. With clear title in hand, a contract for the station was awarded to Milwaukee contractors Rogers & Burnett, with work on the new light underway in the summer of 1838.

Speculation as to the appearance of the original Grand Haven lighthouseWhile we have thus far been unable to identify the specific design used in building the new light, we are able to ascertain considerable detail of their construction from a report filed by Trueman Lyons, the Superintendent of lighthouses on the Western Lakes, who conducted an inspection of the construction site on October 27, 1838 at the request of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury. According to Lyon's report, the cellar walls were constructed of local stone of a type known as "hard heads," the stone used in both the dwelling and tower were quarried in Green Bay, and the lintels, headers and exterior steps were furnished by a "celebrated stone establishment in Cleveland." Trueman further indicated that at the time of his inspection, work on the dwelling was complete with the exception of plastering and pointing, and that the walls of the tower had been completed to the point that the structure was ready to receive the post and lantern. Thus, it appears highly likely that the new light under construction at Grand Haven was typical of such structures built throughout the Great Lakes under the Pleasonton Administration, consisting of a short stone tower and separate stone dwelling, and that its lantern was likely outfitted with an array of Lewis patent lamps with reflectors.

In closing his report, Trueman noted while the buildings had been erected at the rear of the property, the sand bank at the water's edge was showing signs of considerable erosion. In discussions with local residents familiar with area, he also learned that in heavy westerly storms lake water frequently came within a "few rods" of the area on which the lighthouse had been erected. Concerned that the buildings might be undermined in a heavy storm, Trueman suggested that a shore protection or breakwater be erected to minimize the erosion, and further requested and appropriation of between five to eight hundred dollars for their construction.

While Trueman's report indicates that work was well advanced at the time of his visit, construction of the station would not be completed until the summer of 1839, likely as a result of late delivery of the lantern and illuminating apparatus. Nehemiah Merritt was appointed as the station's first keeper, and first appears on government payroll ledgers at the station on August 29, 1839, and thus it is likely that the light was exhibited soon thereafter. Evidently, Stephen Pleasonton concurred with Trueman's recommendation that the shore be protected, as a timber protective wall was built lakeward of the station to help minimize the effect of wave action sweeping across the shore in front of the station. Little mention of the Grand Haven light appears in government reports until July 19, 1850, when Henry B Miller, the Inspector of the lights of the northwestern lakes at the time, toured the station and reported finding "everything to be in good order and the conduct of the keeper good."

Click to view enlarged imageOn the night of December 17, 1852, Trueman's concerns voiced fourteen years previous were vindicated, when waves driven my a major sou'wester disintegrated the timber shore protection. Thus unabated, huge waves rolled across the beach, crashing against the lighthouse itself, scouring the sand around the foundation at the north corer of the dwelling. With continued pounding throughout the night, in the early morning hours of December 18th, the wall at the north corner of the dwelling collapsed. With rapidly plummeting temperatures, huge ice banks to form across the beach, and for a while it seemed as if they might serve to protect the tower. However, by 4.00 p.m. that afternoon, the integrity of the tower itself had been compromised, and the entire structure came crashing to the ground.

It was now clear that the location chosen for the lighthouse by Lieutenant Pendergrast in 1837 was less than desirable, and a search was on for a new location less susceptible to the fury of the lake. A suitable site was chosen approximately 50 feet above lake level on the sand bluff to the rear of the original station, and by the end of 1853, steps were underway to attain title to the site. In order to keep engineering costs to a minimum, the new station shared the same plans as stations simultaneously under construction at Point Betsey and Beaver Island Harbor. Consisting of a 1 story dwelling with a cylindrical stone tower attached to the south gable end of the dwelling by a short covered walkway.

Click to view enlarged imageConstruction began with the delivery of materials at the harbor in 1854, and continued through the end of the year, when the advancing winter forced the crew to abandon the project until the opening of the 1855 navigation season. With completion of the masonry work, an octagonal cast iron lantern was installed atop the tower in which the District Lampist installed a new Fourth Order Fresnel lens. The lens featured a single bulls eye panel, and was rotated around the lamp by a clockwork mechanism which imparted the station's characteristic fixed white light interrupted by a single white flash every 90 seconds as the bulls eye passed between the lamp and an observer. The center of the lens sat at a height of 24 feet above the tower foundation, and by virtue of the towers location on the bluff, boasted a focal plane of 70 feet and a visible range of 14 miles in clear weather conditions. In order to aid mariners entering the river during periods of thick or foggy weather, a fog bell building was erected at the waterfront, likely on the old "lighthouse acre." Equipped with a Stevens automated bell striking mechanism, the bell was sounded by clockwork whenever conditions at sea dictated.

Click to view enlarged imageWhile numerous pleas had been made to Congress for funding harbor improvements at the river mouth, the pleas went ignored. After the establishment of the terminus of the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad at Grand Haven in 1858, the railroad took matters in its own hands, beginning work on a pier at the south shore of the river in 1859. Designed to provide protection for the railroad's cross-lake ferry boats, the pier had grown to 2,500 feet in length by1861, and the railroad erected a small beacon light on the outer end of the new pier. While it would be ten years before the Federal Government would take responsibility for either harbor improvements or the lighting of the harbor, it appears that they did accept responsibility for manning the new pierhead beacon, as Assistant Keepers began appearing on the Grand Haven station payroll records in 1861, and as such, likely took up residence in the main light with the Head Keeper.

For reasons that we have yet to determine, there were evidently problems encountered with the lantern installed on the main light tower, since an appropriation of $3,000 was made on March 2, 1867 for the replacement of the lanterns at both the Grand Haven and North Point light stations. With the planned removal of the lantern, the decision was also taken to increase the height of the tower to place the light higher above the roof gable. With delivery of the new lantern not expected until the opening of the 1868 navigation season, a temporary light was installed atop a pole on the property during the winter if 1867 to allow continued display of a light during the reconstruction.

Click to view enlarged imageA work crew arrived at the station in the spring of 1868, and after removing the old lantern and Fourth Order lens, added four feet of new brickwork to the upper level of the tower. With the brickwork complete and the interior stairs extended, the new lantern was erected and the District Lampist arrived to reinstall and adjust the Fourth Order lens. Before departing, the work crew also undertook a number of unspecified repairs to the dwelling. The following year, the fog bell tower was moved 1,200 feet closer to the end of the pier, and during this move the bell was found to be cracked. A replacement bell was cast and installed later that year. After two years of improvements, the District Inspector reported that station to be in "thoroughly good condition" in his 1869 inspection of the station.

Over the four year period between 1880 and 1884, a number of improvements were undertaken at the station to improve living conditions for the three keepers who were now crammed into the diminutive structure. Notable among these were the addition of a summer kitchen at the rear of the dwelling, the sinking of a new drive well, the erection of a wood shed, installation of a new dining room floor, and the replacement of the dwelling roof. A tramway and wooden stairs were also erected up the face of the bluff to facilitate the delivery of supplies, and the dwelling, tower, boat house and fog signal tower all received a fresh coat of white paint.

Click to view enlarged imageDuring the summer of 1892, a 3-foot tall timber revetment some 22 feet in length was built in front of the boathouse, and a second 38-foot long revetment erected along the north side of the lighthouse to stem erosion of the sand bluff. That same year, the District Engineer determined that a modification of the flash rate of the light would serve to render the light more easily discerned from the growing number of city lights n the area. To this end, the District Lampist was dispatched to Grand Haven that December, and the speed of the light's rotation increased such that its characteristic was modified to exhibit a fixed white light varied by a white flash every 60 seconds. This change was accomplished through the installation of a second flash panel in the lens and an adjustment of the clockwork mechanism. The Lampist completed the changes, and the light began exhibiting the new characteristic on the night of December 10, 1892 in accordance with the most recent Notice to Mariners. Over the ensuing years, problems resulted from these changes, and the keeper was furnished with replacement jack screws to install beneath the lens assembly in 1892.

Click to view enlarged imageDuring a 1901 inspection of the station, the tramway and stairs leading up the bluff were found to be in need of repair, and a work crew was dispatched to replace the structures that same season. While onsite, the crew also replaced a wooden platform on the west side of the dwelling which had been previously installed to increase the amount of flat surface area around the dwelling. Evidently, the installation of the new jack screws did not serve to solve the problems with the lens, as the District Lampist again returned to the station in early January 1902, and replaced the lens pedestal and clockwork mechanism, and installed ball bearings in the place of the chariot wheels. In order to accomplish this significant upgrade, the light was taken out of service for ten days from January 31 to February 10, 1902.

With improved lights under construction on the piers in 1904, it was clear that the old light on the bluff no longer served as an effective aid to lead mariners into the river. Thus, with completion of the new steel rear range tower, the lens was removed from the main light's lantern and transferred to the new tower on its completion, from whence it was exhibited for the first time on the night of January 12, 1905.

Still needed to serve as the primary dwelling for the keepers of the pierhead lights, the tower of the bluff light was demolished and the dwelling extensively remodeled in 1910. With automation of the pier lights, the building was sold into private ownership at auction in 1956, and the building still stands to this day, giving no real indication of its original purpose. In a ceremony held during the Coast Guard Festival in 1979, the Fourth order lens from the rear range light was loaned to the Tri-Cities museum, where it can may still be seen on display.

Keepers of this Light

Click Here to see a complete listing of all Grand Haven Light keepers compiled by Phyllis L. Tag of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research.

Seeing this Light

Take US31 into Grand Haven, and turn West onto Franklin Ave. Travel west approximately one mile and turn South onto South Harbor Drive, and continue to the Grand Haven State Park. While there is lots of beachfront parking, Grand Haven gets extremely busy around holiday weekends, so you may have quite a walk to the pier.

Contact information

The Fourth Order Fresnel lens from the Grand Haven lighthouse may be viewed in Coast Guard Room at the Tri-Cities museum. The museum is located in the old Grand Trunk railroad depot at 1 Harbor Drive. Telephone (616) 842-0700, or email the museum at

Reference Sources

Journals of the US Senate, various, 1833 1874
Journals of the House of Representatives, various, 1834 1874
Annual reports of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, Various, 1838 1852
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Board, various,1853 1909
Annual reports of the Lighthouse Service, various,1910 1939
Great Lakes Light Lists, Various, 1861 1999
Annual Reports of the Lake Carriers Association, various, 1908 1939
History of the Great Lakes, J H Beers Co., Chicago 1899
Historic Grand Haven & Ottawa County. Leo C. Lillie, 1931
Grand Haven Chronicle article, July 29, 1987
Email correspondence with Wallace K. Ewing
Lights Of the Lakes, Chris Duncan, Michigan Coastal Management Program, June 7 1984
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/02/2007

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