Kalamazoo River Light Seeing The Light

Saugatuck, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

Home to the Pottawatomie tribe in the early part of the nineteenth century, the Kalamazoo River wound its way among the scrub covered dunes before entering Lake Michigan some seven miles to the south of Lake Macatawa and nineteen miles to the north of the Black River. William G. Butler and his family became the first white settlers to enter the area when they and all their worldly goods were lowered to a small boat from the deck of the schooner MADISON, and rowed to shore in 1830. After living at the river mouth for some time, Butler loaded his family onto a log raft and made his way a couple of miles upstream to set up a homestead on a flat area at the edge of a widening in the river.

Envisioning a growing community in the area around his homestead, Butler platted the village that would eventually become known as Saugatuck on July 17, 1834. Within a few years a number of other settlers began moving in, setting up their own homesteads and businesses. A sawmill was established at the northernmost meander of the river about a mile from Saugatuck and three-quarters of a mile from the river mouth, and a separate community known as Singapore sprang up to support the mill. To provide assistance to vessels seeking entry into the river, local business interests banded together to establish a private light at the river mouth.

With the establishment of the first school between Singapore and Saugatuck in 1836, Saugatuck was fast becoming the thriving community that Butler had envisioned. Lumbering and commercial activity gradually increased, and the Kalamazoo River became busy with outbound log rafts and inbound vessels bringing supplies to the growing communities upriver. Reacting to this increase in maritime traffic, on January 25, 1836 Senator Linn presented a petition before Congress on behalf of concerned maritime interests in Detroit praying for harbor improvements and the construction of a government lighthouse at the entrance to the Kalamazoo river.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress responded with an appropriation of five thousand dollars for the construction of the lighthouse on February 1, 1837. After the purchase of land to the north of the river mouth from Horace M. Comstock on March 5, 1838 for the sum of $250, a contract for the station's construction was awarded with the stipulation that it be completed by October 15, 1838. However, during his visit to the site on September 5thof that year, Lieutenant James T. Homans reported that the contractor had made no progress beyond the collection of a pile of stones for the building's foundation. While it was normal practice at that time for the Collector of Customs of the area to superintend such lighthouse construction projects, this had not been the case at Kalamazoo River, and as a result the contractor had been working without supervision to obvious deleterious results. Homans appointed a special agent to superintend the construction, under whose supervision the structure was completed the following year. The 30 foot tall structure was constructed of rubble stone and was situated 75 feet from the Lake Michigan shoreline at a point 14 feet above lake level. As was the case with most lights built during the period, the tower was capped with a birdcage-style lantern, housing an array of eleven Lewis lamps with fourteen-inch reflectors. Payroll records for the station indicate that keeper Stephen Nichols reported to his assignment on November 11th, and it is thus likely that the Kalamazoo River Light was exhibited for the first time late in the 1839 navigation season.

As the small amount of timber around the river mouth was cut down, the fragile natural cover on the sand dunes disappeared, and the dunes began to shift. This drifting began to cause problems at the river mouth where sand frequently drifted across the channel, requiring that it be removed to allow vessels with any significant draft to gain entry. The drifting and blowing sand was also evidently causing problems at the lighthouse in 1850 when Henry B. Miller, the Inspector of Lights reported that the area on which the station was built was wearing away quickly and the tower was in need of whitewashing as a result of virtually constant sand-blasting. Concerned that the erosion might undermine the integrity of the tower, Miller had a timber protection constructed to help stem the erosion around the building's foundation.

With the formation of the Lighthouse Board in 1853, a plan was put in place to replace all of the Lewis lamps in the system with the vastly superior French Fresnel lenses. As part of this upgrade, a fixed white Sixth Order Fresnel lens was installed in the Kalamazoo River light in 1856. Unabated, the problem with shifting sands and erosion at the river mouth became a matter of such concern that Senator Chandler presented a resolution on behalf of the Michigan Legislature requesting Federal funds for improving the harbor on February 11, 1858. Unfortunately, action was not taken quickly enough, and the Kalamazoo River Light toppled from its foundation that same year.

Click to view enlarged imageA work crew was dispatched to the Kalamazoo River, and in an attempt to avoid the drifting and undermining problems of the previous location, a site was chosen atop the dune 150 feet to the northeast of the site of the old light. By virtue of its construction on sand, the new station was built on a foundation of three hand-hewn 10" by 10" timbers which were bolted to the upper end of nine 8-inch diameter cast iron pipe pilings driven into the sand and encased in concrete and stone, and in an attempt to help stave-off future erosion, the face of the dune was reinforced with slabs of limestone barged-in from Alpena. The main structure was built to the same plan as that used at Cheboygan the year before, and consisted of a white painted two and a half story wooden frame structure with 8-inch thick walls throughout, standing 25 foot by 40 foot in plan, topped by a 7 foot 9-inch square tower at the south gable end, extending fifteen feet above the roof. The tower was capped with a gallery on which was centered an octagonal cast iron lantern into which a new Fifth Order Fresnel lens was installed. The tower stood 33 feet from its foundation to the center of the lamp, providing the station with a focal plane of 45 feet above the surface of the lake. With the construction of a well and a barn for the keepers horse, work was completed at the new station, and the light was exhibited for the first time on an as yet undetermined date in 1859.

While local business interests constructed timber crib protections in an attempt to limit the effects of drifting sand at the mouth of the river, Congress ignored frequent pleas for Federal assistance to improve the river entrance. Finally, in 1869 Congress appropriated $30,000 for improvements at the Kalamazoo River, and the War Department Engineers arrived to begin reconstruction. A pair of timber crib protective piers filled with stone were constructed on each side of the river mouth, which was widened to 225 feet, and the north pier was extended upriver an additional 450 feet to provide protection for the dune on which the lighthouse was located. The south pier revetments extended up the river almost three quarters of a mile in order to maintain the navigable channel.

Click to view enlarged imageCongress appropriated an additional $10,000 for harbor improvements at the river entrance in 1873, at which time the piers were reinforced, and the North pier extended to a length of 310 feet and the south pier to 225 feet in length. With the 1859 light now located some distance behind the piers, it was determined that a light on one of the piers would better serve mariners seeking entry into the river, and in 1876 the Fresnel lens was removed from the old light and placed atop a white timber skeleton pierhead light at the end of the south pier. Standing 27 feet tall, the new pierhead light had a focal plane of 34 feet and was visible for a distance of 11 miles at sea. While the old light no longer functioned as an aid to navigation, it continued to serve as the dwelling for keeper Samuel Underwood, who was now forced to row across the river a number of times each day to tend the new light.

Click to view enlarged image1883 saw the excavation of a 15-foot by 13 -foot cellar beneath the keepers dwelling and the installation of an underground cistern, located approximately 10 feet northwest of the building. Downspouts attached to the gutters diverted rainwater from the roof into the cistern to serve as a back-up water supply for the dwelling. Wainscoting was installed around the building's foundation and a wood shed and hand pump-operated drive well were added. Erosion in the area of the keepers dwelling continued to cause concern in 1885, when the dune was faced with logs to help stem the erosion. Three years later, iron boat davits were installed at the pierhead light in order to allow the keeper to lift the boat out of the water when servicing the light.

While making her way into the river in 1892, the steamer CHARLES MCVEA smashed head-on into the pierhead light. The damage resulting was so severe that the light was considered irreparably damaged, and the lens was returned to the lantern atop the keepers dwelling and re-exhibited in its old home on the night of August 16. All salvageable materials from the pierhead light were removed and carried across the river for storage in the station barn.

Click to view enlarged imageIn the early 1890's, District Engineer Major Milton B. Adams was experimenting with a "conduit" system at a number of pierhead lights around Lake Michigan. Consisting of a square wooden tube known as a conduit which extended along the pier supported by trestles similar to those used to support elevated walks, the conduit contained iron tracks on which a small wheeled cart holding the lens was mounted. Connected by cable to pulleys at each end, it was designed to allow the keepers to conduct all lens service close to shore, then transporting the lens along the conduit to the end of the pier where it was displayed from within a box with glass sides and a galvanized iron roof. A 240 long conduit system was installed at the end of an elevated walk on the south pier at Kalamazoo River in 1894, with its fixed red lens lantern exhibited for the first time on the night of May 23. However, with the exhibition of this new light, the old 1859 light was not extinguished, but continued to serve as a coast light.

1899 saw some welcome repairs and additions at the main light. The structure was completely resided with cut cedar shingles and a platform was constructed at the kitchen door. A wooden walkway was built from this new platform to the verandah at the front of the building, and a boathouse was constructed at the river bank. A landing pier was built in front of the boathouse, and a 174 foot long wooden walkway with hand rail was constructed from the boat landing to the verandah.

While the conduit lights were heralded by the District Engineer as being a major improvement when they were first installed, in practice they proved to be less than reliable, and were all subsequently dismantled. The Kalamazoo south pier conduit was removed in 1900, and the light exhibited from a post located 152 feet from the end of an elevated walk at a focal plane of 21 feet 6 inches.

Click to view enlarged imageDrifting sand continued to plague the river entrance at the dawn of the new century, and photographs taken at the time frequently show sand drifting across the river from the northern shore. After considerable contemplation it was decided that rather than trying to keep the present river entrance sand free, it would make greater sense to dig a new connecting channel between the lake and the river approximately a mile further north along the lake shore in the Singapore area. There were a number of reasons why this new entrance was considered to be the optimal solution; The shore in that area was considerably less susceptible to drifting, and thus the new river entry could be maintained without the frequent digging and dredging required of the old opening. An entry in the new location would remove a major bend in the river, facilitating navigation to larger vessels. The current was faster at this pint in the river, and would thus help flush the silt and drifting sand into the lake. Finally, the distance between the river entry and the towns upstream would be reduced by over a mile, significantly reducing the time it would take to enter or leave the upriver harbors after loading and unloading.

Work on excavating the new channel began in 1904, along with the construction of protective revetments on each side of the opening and a pair of piers protruding into the lake to help still the waters within the channel. On the completion of the new channel in 1906, a simple post lamp with a platform for working on the lens lantern was erected on the outer end of the new south pier, and keeper George Baker who had been appointed to replace Samuel Underwood after he was removed from the position in 1878, assumed responsibility for both the new pierhead light and the old 1859 light, which now served purely as a coast light, since it was located a mile south of the new river entrance. To differentiate between the two lights, the pierhead light at the new opening was officially named the Saugatuck Harbor South Pierhead Light, while the old light continued to be known as the Kalamazoo River Light.

Click to view enlarged imageBy 1909, without continued dredging, the drifting sands completely filled the abandoned river entrance to the south and people were able to walk directly between the piers where only a few years previous large steamers had made their way in an out of the river. 1909 was also an important year in the history of the Kalamazoo Light as keeper George Baker retired after tending the light for 31 years. Baker was replaced by George Sheridan, who was transferred-in after four years as First Assistant Keeper at the Michigan City Pierhead Light. Sheridan was the first professional keeper to be assigned to the Kalamazoo Light, all of those before him having been appointed directly into their positions without prior lighthouse service and leaving the service after their time at Kalamazoo.

Click to view enlarged imageAlso in 1909, a concrete foundation was poured on Saugatuck Harbor south entrance pier, and a square cast iron pedestal and column, painted bright red to enhance their visibility were installed atop the pedestal. The lower pedestal contained acetylene storage tanks which supplied a 300 mm lens-lantern atop the 26 foot tall structure. Equipped with an automatic sun valve, the light was designed to operate for months without refilling or attendance, and its flashing red 35-candlepower, emitting a single flash every three seconds, was visible for a distance of 7 miles.

With the establishment of a flashing white light on the Saugatuck Harbor north pier in 1914, the new river entrance was completely illuminated, and the old 1859 light was considered obsolete. George Sheridan exhibited the light of the Kalamazoo River Light for the last time on the night of October 16, and left to his new assignment at St. Joseph.

Click to view enlarged imageNo longer serving any purpose, the Lighthouse Service removed the lantern from atop the tower, and for the next twenty years leased the old station buildings to Frederick F. Fursman, the director of the famous Oxbow Summer School of Art, for the sum of $10.00 a month. Only occupied during the summer months, the old building began to suffer from vandalism and a lack of constant maintenance. The building was offered-up for sale by closed mail bid in 1936, with the single bid received from Arthur F Deam, an architect and a close friend of Fursman. The Deams took title to the building by quitclaim deed on July 19, 1937, and over the following years used the old building as a family summer cottage, undertaking an extensive restoration of the station buildings and property.

The Kalamazoo Harbor South Pierhead Light was electrified in the early 1950's and its output increased to 140 candlepower, also increasing its visible range to a distance of ten miles. The light was also equipped with an electrically-operated diaphragm fog signal, which emitted a two-second grunt every 15 seconds.

After years of loving restoration by the Deam family, the old Kalamazoo Light station was obliterated by a tornado on April 3 1956, leaving nothing intact beyond the cellar that was dug beneath the lighthouse in 1883. The Deams managed to salvage a number of articles from the old lighthouse, including porch railings, six-paneled doors, some newel posts, one of the 10-inch by 10-inch beams which had served as the main foundation for the old structure, and the pediment displaying the construction date "1859" which was displayed above the second floor windows of the old structure. Art Deam, who had taken over as President of the Oxbow School on Fursman's death, then set about designing a "lighthouse-style" summer home for his family. In so doing, he carefully incorporated all of the salvaged remnants of the beloved old structure into his new design, including the "1859" pediment, which he proudly incorporated into the porch above the front door entry.

Over the years since the new river entrance had been cut, the stretch of river between the two river entrances has become completely land-locked, with the section of river becoming known as the Ox Bow lake. Almost one hundred years after the old river entrance drifted shut, remnants of its original function can still be seen. Two rows of pilings which once formed the revetments on the north and south banks of the river still protrude above the surface of Ox Bow lake, and the skeletal remains of the old piers can be seen leading out towards the setting sun across Lake Michigan.

Click to view enlarged imageLate in the twentieth century, both North and South Saugatuck Harbor Pierhead lights were replaced by white "D9" cylindrical towers outfitted with modern acrylic optics. The North Pierhead light displaying a horizontal black band across its middle section, and the South Pierhead light showing a similar band of red. The South Pierhead light still contains the grunting diaphragm fog signal, and while few large commercial vessels still ply the waters of the Kalamazoo River, Saugatuck is home port to a large fleet of private yachts, power boats and charter fishing boats.

Over the years, the shifting dunes have completely removed all traces of the village of Singapore, and boaters entering the harbor today are blissfully unaware that the luxury yacht manufacturer on the north side of the channel sits atop the once thriving lumbering community.

Keepers of this Light

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

Finding this Light

The old lighthouse is no longer in existence, and thus cannot be seen. Please respect the privacy of the owners of the "lighthouse cottage," and do not trespass on their property. 

Reference Sources

Annual reports of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, various, 1835 - 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 - 1977
Annual reports of the Lake Carrier's Association, various, 1906 - 1940
Saugatuck Port Pilot, Great Lakes Cruising Club, 1944
Great Lakes Coast Pilots, 1958, 1961 and 2000.
Scott's New Coast Pilot, 1909
Saugatuck Through The Years, James S. Sheridan, 1982.
Photographs courtesy of Jeff Shook, Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy.
Email correspondence with Jack Sheridan, Kit Lane & Norm Deam,  Jan & Feb 2002.
Historical photographs courtesy of the Sheridan, Deam and Peterson collections.
Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

This page last modified 12/02/2007

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