St. Joseph Pier Lights Seeing The Light

St. Joseph, Michigan Home Back

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Historical Information

The first lighthouse in St. Joseph is thought to be in the home of the late Captain Pickering in 1832. The Pickering family put lanterns in their windows so ships would know where the entrance to the St. Joseph River was located.

St. Joseph's first Federal lighthouse was constructed in 1859 on the hill above the harbor, and served the area until 1906 when the north pier was extended 1,000 feet, and the cast iron pier head light installed. A thirty-five foot tall conical structure of prefabricated cast iron plates, the tower  measured eight feet three inches in diameter at the base and tapered to seven feet three inches in diameter below the decagonal cast iron lantern room, which was equipped with a fixed Fifth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier & Benard of Paris.

With the construction of the pier light, the Lighthouse Service decided to decommission the 1859 structure, however after much objection from local mariners, the old light remained in service until 1924, when it was officially retired. The building was taken over by the American Red Cross, and served as the local headquarters for the organization until 1954, when the building was sold to the City of St. Joseph. Unfortunately, in 1955 the City demolished the venerable old building in order to create additional parking space.

The inner pier light was built in 1907, to serve as a rear range for the existing  pierhead tower, allowing vessels to line up accurately on the channel from far out in the Lake. Over a a steel frame, the structure was encased in 3/8 inch steel plates. Twenty-six feet square, the building was capped by an octagonal cast iron lantern room, and equipped with a Fourth Order lens manufactured by Chance Brothers of Birmingham, England. At some point thereafter, this lens was removed from the tower, to be replaced by a Fourth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Sautter & Cie, of Paris, the lens that remains in the tower to this day.

Click to view enlarged image The United States Lighthouse Service completed construction of the Lighthouse Depot in 1893. The Depot served as the primary supply and buoy repair station for the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment’s 9th District. It was used for receiving, overhauling, and storing buoys and for receiving, storing, and delivering supplies for the district’s 114 lighthouses.

In 1918, the depot was transferred to the Department of the Navy, housing naval militia and reserve functions for the next 35 years. By 1952 the depot was home to the Army Reserves, and from 1956 to October 1993, it housed the Michigan Army National Guard.

Soon after being vacated, the site was placed on the National Historic Register, and on February 29, 1996, three local businessmen purchased the property and opened the Lighthouse Depot Brewpub in September, 1997.

Keepers of this Light

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

Seeing this Light

White sand beaches and blue water come together and work magic in St. Joseph. We ate our picnic lunch at a picnic table in the park and soaked-in the vista seen at the top right. We walked the pier, and being that it was a beautiful early Fall day, the boat traffic in and out of the St. Joseph River was heavy, and so we sat and watched some of the incredible equipment moving alongside the pier.

We ran into the same two Coast Guardsmen that we had seen a couple of hours earlier in Michigan City, and asked them jokingly if they were following us. They said that they were checking the locks on all of the lighthouses up the coast to make sure that they were working properly. It turned out that they were both CG auxiliaries, and that checking locks was their "penance" for the weekend.

We decided that the pier would make a great forefront for sunset pictures, and planned to return later that evening.

Click to view enlarged image On our way out of the park we stopped at the old USLHS Depot, seen in the photograph to the right. This building used to serve as the main supply depot for the Lighthouse Service, and it was from the dock located in front of this building from which the lighthouse service boats used to moor between runs to supply the lighthouses and their keepers. The building was converted into a brewpub for a number of years, but we understand that its' doors closed on Labor Day 2000, and the building is now up for sale. While the building underwent extensive modification during its' conversion to a brewery, the riverside facade still appears largely as it did when it was such an important part of the Lighthouse Service.

So it was that we returned later that evening, about an hour before sundown. Unpacking our picnic supper, we ate at the same spot in which we had eaten our lunch earlier. The warm breeze blew off the Lake, and a huge flock of seagulls began wheeling overhead. Naturally, one of the flock felt inclined to relieve himself directly above my left shoulder, splashing onto both the salsa and Sue!

Thus the meal ended quickly, and we packed-up to find the perfect spot on the beach to watch the sun go down behind the pier. It turned-out to be a keeper of an evening, as the sun worked it's magic flawlessly, painting the sky and water in an ever-changing array of colors.

While we snapped-off a couple of rolls of Fuji 100 film, we noticed a group of people come down to the beach, place flower arrangements in the sand, and then stand around the flowers in a semi-circle, praying. As the sun disappeared, so did they. Sue went to investigate, and reported that they had left more on the beach than flowers, as there were grayish-white ashes spread around the sand where the group had been standing. perhaps we were not as alone on the beach as we had previously believed!

We took one last walk along the pier in near darkness, packed-up, and headed home.

Finding this Light

Take M63 North, turn right on Upton Drive immediately after crossing the bridge across the St Joseph River. Follow Upton as it curves and heads North. Turn South on the brick surfaced Marina Drive. Follow Marina Drive as it curves around the river basin to the entrance of Tiscornia Park. Find a parking space in one of the hard-topped parking areas within the park, walk to the South side of the park, and follow the river West to the pier.

Reference Sources

Inventory of Historic Light Stations, National Parks Service, 1994 

Photographs from author's personal collection.
Personal observation at St Joseph, 09/25/1999
Northern Lights, Charles K. Hyde,, 1995
The Seashell Shop, lighthouse histories, website 

Keeper listings for this light appear courtesy of Great Lakes Lighthouse Research

Click for St. Joseph weather conditions

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This page last modified 12/07/2003