Lighthouses of Southwest Michigan
Visiting Michigan Lighthouses
The Great Lakes surround Michigan—with so many shipping industries and plenty of boating on these massive bodies of water, there was a great need to light the many bays and harbors. So, along the edges of the Great Lakes sit over 114 lighthouses—some of them still in operation, and no two exactly alike, with amazing histories and views. In this article, I would like you to join me on my quest to see and learn about the southwest Michigan lights—maybe this will inspire you to check out some of these for yourself.
The Muskegon Lights
The Muskegon lights consist of two lights—the South Pierhead and the South Breakwater; the history of these lights shows a need for lights as early as 1851 when the first light was erected. Little is known about this light, and there is no picture history of it, but journal entries by the US Senate Document show that a light keeper was paid a salary of $350 per year for one light and this house had six lights (Shook, 2017). The lights and harbor were originally called Port Sherman—after the General Sherman from civil war days—a name that stuck for many years. Early records show that the lighthouse was painted white, constructed of wood and visible for ten miles. The area underwent several improvements over the years—the straightening of the channels, building of the second light in 1870 which worked in conjunction with the Pierhead light along with many needed improvements. Several changes were also noted over the years to the harbor entrance as they attempted to straighten it for easier passage. In 1879 the Life-Saving Service Station with a launch area for the Life-Boat was established. The life station continued until around 1905 when it was probably removed to make room for other renovations to the lighthouse and keepers house.
The South Breakwater Light as we know it today was completed in 1903 it extends from the shore to the enclosed harbor connecting Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake and is constructed of steel. It is easily visible by walking the breakwater in the summer months, or from shore during the winter months. The winter months provide a stunning view as ice forms in the harbor and surround the pyramidal structure. The Pier light is a round cast iron tower located on the end of the southern pier. Both have a bold red color. The lighthouse recently opened for tours with limited hours during the summer months.
The city of Muskegon holds much history with items dating back to American Indian dwellings and followed by early French settlers. So a trip to this lighthouse will easily give you a look back in history. The town itself contains Michigan Adventure Water Park, the Pere Marquette Beach, a State Park and is also home to the Milwaukee Clipper. This lighthouse is a light worth adding to your must-see bucket list.
Grand Haven Lighthouse
The Grand Haven lighthouse sits on the channel of the Grand River. This light also saw many changes in its history. The original lighthouse and light keepers cabin were built in 1839. It was soon discovered that the placement of the structures was in error and they would not endure the rough Michigan winters. A sea wall was erected to protect the lighthouse. Then, in 1852 a fall storm knocked down the sea wall, and a few months later a winter storm knocked down both the lighthouse and the cabin. Grand Haven spent several years after that without a light. A second light was built in 1855 this time 150 feet above the beach. This light guided seaman for the next 50 years. In 1893 what is known as the South Pier was completed and a pier-head light added—in 1904 a steel tower was added at the end of the pier, and the Fresnel light was switched on the beach light to the pier light in 1905. In a failure of communication, the first few steamers nearly grounded—the communication lines had forgotten to tell the ship Captains about the switch in the lights, this could have been disastrous! Two years later in 1907, the light was moved 600 feet back to its present location.
The lighthouse continues to go through changes in 2014 the lighthouse received a facelift as repairs were completed and the light spent a summer wrapped in what looked like bubble wrap to be painted. In 2017 the pier closed and removal of the catwalk began along with major repairs to the pier. The walk to the lighthouse will be temporarily closed for this renovation through October of 2017.
Traveling to Grand Haven lighthouse is a great experience. To get there, you must walk along the beautiful boardwalk while enjoying the ships and many boats that pass through the channel. The Grand Haven Coast Guard Station sits at one end of the boardwalk, and it is easy to see the activity at the station. The town of Grand Haven has many attractions. It is home to the famous Pronto Pups where you can purchase a delicious corndog. It also has a yearly Coast Guard Festival at the end of July and camping with great views of the lighthouse at Grand Haven State Park.There are also many other tourist attractions such as unique shops and ice cream parlors along the walk to the Grand Haven lighthouse. The Grand Haven lighthouse and the town of Grand Haven are a worthwhile trip and one that I will remember.
Big Red Lighthouse
The Big Red lighthouse sits on the channel that connects Lake Macatawa to Lake Michigan. It is one of the most photographed lighthouses in Michigan. To visit the lighthouse, you must walk the boardwalks in Holland State Park or climb the dunes 200 step staircase up Mt. Pisgah which is 157 feet above sea level. If you decide to take the hike up the staircase just to let you know, furry pets are not allowed. On the other side of the channel, there is a difficult to get to trail, surrounded by private property – so lighthouse is easiest to view is from across the channel—the state park side.
The first lighthouse was built in this location in 1872. It underwent many changes since its early days. The structure that was built in 1907 is the building is what we see today—the automatic light was installed in 1970 and today we see the active lighthouse affectionately known as Big Red.
I have traveled to this light many times and have enjoyed camping at Holland State Park on the water's edge. The fishing off the Pier is great, and adding to the fishing experience is the boats that frequently glide by the lighthouse. The boardwalk holds many surprises too, with quaint restaurants, a bike trail that travels to the Grand Haven lighthouse with fantastic stops along the way and beautiful sunsets on Lake Michigan. It is a lighthouse worth visiting.
South Haven Lighthouse
The South Haven light stands at the entrance to the Black River on Lake Michigan and is located in Van Buren County. It stands 35’ tall and is constructed of cast iron—it is a shorter version of the Muskegon South Pierhead light.
The first light was built in 1872 with a keeper's house built at the same time on shore. At that time the lighthouse was a 30-foot tall wooden structure topped with an octagonal cast iron lantern. The lighthouse service tore down the wooden structure in 1903 and rebuilt the current lighthouse. In 1913 they decided to move the light 425 feet further out on the pier to its present location. In 1940 the wooden walkway was replaced with a 1200 foot concrete pier. The iron used in the walkway was salvaged material attained from Chicago.
This light also holds much history. You can still visit the keeper’s house that was moved to Michigan Ave in the city for preservation in the year 2000. The renovated house is now called the Marialyce Canonie Great Lakes Research Library and is open to the public. While in town you can visit the North Beach Public Park, and the Michigan Maritime Museum to learn Great Lakes boating history and culture. South Haven is also home to the western portion of the Kal-Haven trail—a loved bicycle and snowmobile trail. It has always been a port city and holds the charm associated with that—it is a bucket list lighthouse to visit.
A Lighthouse Holds Years of History—South Haven Transformation
Selbold, D. H. (n.d.). The history of Grand Haven lighthouse & pier. Retrieved from Grand Haven Lighthouse Conservancy: http://www.ghlighthouse.com/history/
Shook, J. (2017). Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy. Retrieved from A history of the Muskegon lighthouses: http://www.muskegonlights.org/
South HavenHistorical Association. (2017). South Haven Michigan. Retrieved from South HavenMichigan - South Pier Light: www.southhaven.com/south-haven-mi-lighthouse.shtml
Wikipedia. (2017). South Haven Light. Retrieved from Wikipedia: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Haven_Light#/editor/0
Wikipedia. (2017). Wikipedia. Retrieved from Holland Harbor Light: https://en.m.wikioedia.org/wiki/Holland_Harbor_Light
Questions & Answers
What time of day is best to photograph each of these lighthouses in Michigan? Also suggested places from which to photograph?
It varies as to what you are trying to get in a photograph. I have had great success at different times of the day. Middle of the day can bring activity and it can make an interesting photo with a boat going through. I also love the shadows of the evening sun. As to where to photograph - each lighthouse is very individualized as to where you can fully see the lighthouse. So hence, that makes the best spot. Also, I am not a professional photographer, just a hobbyist - so I am not really the best person to answer this question.
© 2017 Susan Sears