Grand Haven Pier Lights Seeing The Light

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Historical Information

On March 7, 1838 the U.S. Government purchased an acre of land at the mouth of the Grand River from John Wright of Chicago as a site for a lighthouse. This came to be known as "Lighthouse Acre," and a crude lighthouse building was later constructed at ground level on this site.

With Grand Haven's increasing importance as a shipping port, a flurry of petitions demanding that piers and lighthouses be built to protect the growing harbor made their way to Washington. The next year, Congress responded to Grand Haven's flurry of petitions for funding a lighthouse, pier, and pier light.

The first real lighthouse was completed shortly thereafter near the present site of the State Park Oval. In 1852 this lighthouse was seriously damaged by a December storm, with the wooden wall surrounding it washed away and the corner of the lighthouse keeper's residence severely undermined. Ice banks that formed during the day saved the tower, but two young men living in the house lost their clothing and money in the ruins.

In 1854, materials necessary for the construction of a more suitable lighthouse at the mouth of the Grand River were unloaded in the Government Basin. The following year a new lighthouse took shape on the high bluff on the south side of the harbor. Constructed of stone, with a tower at its south end, its 150 foot focal plane allowed it's Fourth Order Fresnel lens to penetrate eighteen miles across the Lake. With Captain Gray installed as its first keeper, this tower faithfully continued to serve the harbor until 1905.

The harbor was significantly improved in 1857 with the Government's construction of revetments to control erosion and shifting sand, and to reduce the resulting silt build-up in the channel. These revetments extended along the south shore of the river from the Government Basin to the Beach, and terminated in a short pier protecting the south side of the harbor entrance. A fog signal building was built at the end of the South pier in 1875.

A beacon light was erected on this pier in 1881. Its sixty-foot tower, outfitted with a steady beam had a visible range of approximately ten miles at sea. In 1883, construction of the South pier began in earnest, continuing along the line of revetments into the Lake. The pier extensions were constructed of wooden cribs, which were built on shore, towed into position and submerged by filling them with stones.

Over the following decade, a number of extensions were added to the pier, with the final 100 feet added in 1893, bringing the pier to its current length of 1,151 feet. As each of these additions was completed, the fog signal building was dutifully moved to the new pier end, finally coming to rest in its present proud location 1,100 feet from shore.

The North pier was completed in 1897, and a privately owned red light was installed on a cross pole on the North pier, tended by a Captain T.W. Kirby.

In 1907, the American Bridge Company erected the current 51-foot cylindrical prefabricated steel tower on the South pier to replace the beacon erected in 1881, and equipped the new tower with the Fourth Order Fresnel lens removed from the lighthouse on the bluff. Two years later the tower was moved six hundred feet closer to shore, in order to allow the two lights to function as range lights to effectively guide vessels directly into the harbor. At some point in time, the original Fresnel lens has been removed, and replaced by a modern 250mm acrylic lantern.

The old lighthouse on the bluff was torn down in 1910, and its masonry walls incorporated into the two story, 13-room dwelling in which the lighthouse keepers and their families lived.

Over the years, there were numerous renovations to both the lights and pier. In 1921, the pole that supports the flasher on the north pier was installed, and in 1922, the cast iron catwalk was installed to allow safe access to the tower and fog signal during storms. The original wooden pier facing on the pier was replaced with 900 tons of steel sheet pilings in 1954. A less welcome change in 1969 was the replacement of the old diaphone fog signal with a higher-pitched, and less romantic whistle.

In 1986, the Coast Guard became concerned that someone would become injured on the deteriorating catwalks, and scheduled for their demolition in June of 1987. Edward J. Zenko and his daughter Terry headed a group of volunteers calling themselves the "Save the Catwalk Committee," and raised $133,000 to remove the wooden planks which formed the walkway, reinforce the iron supports, and install lights along the full length of the pier. Thus the catwalk was saved, and the lights illuminated for the first time on November 25, 1988. In all, $91,000 was spent on the improvements, with the remainder invested to provide sufficient income to meet ongoing maintenance costs. Sadly, Zenko died on December 31 1987, and never saw the fruits of his labor of love.

The "Piers and Revetments at Grand Haven" were awarded reference number 95001161 on the National Register of Historic Places on October 23 1995, better insuring their long-term survival as a valuable historical asset.

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.

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 12/09/2003

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