Digest>Archives> June 2002

130-Year-Old Lighthouse a Landmark in Holland, Michigan

John Gronberg’s attraction to the Holland Harbor Light is not a new thing

By Jim Merkel

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John Gronberg inside Big Red.
Photo by: Jim Merkel

John Gronberg’s mother once wrote letters meant to stop it from being destroyed. His father proposed to his mother at the lighthouse. In fact, when his family first acquired a cottage in the tourist community of Macatawa in 1898, the lighthouse already was a fixture for the area around Holland, Mich., on the southeast side of Lake Michigan. Today, he is secretary of the Holland Harbor Lighthouse Historical Commission, which led a campaign to save the light, and now leases it from the Coast Guard.

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The original tower at the Holland Harbor Light ...

Holland has been known for its Dutch heritage ever since the Rev. Albertus Christian Van Raalte and his congregation of 60 Dutch Protestants moved there in the mid-1800s. The building known around the world represents the final stage in the evolution of a light station that has guarded the south side of the channel leading into Lake Macatawa since the boom time after the Civil War. In time, Holland grew up around Lake Macatawa as well.

The first light went on in 1872, when a wooden tower was erected on the south pier head. It came at the end of a campaign that began in 1847, when Dr. Albertus van Raalte, the founder of the City of Holland, asked for money to improve the Holland Harbor.

According to the “Restoration Study for the Holland Harbor Lighthouse,” done in the early 1980s, Congress didn’t start appropriating money for the harbor upgrades until 1866.

As work on the harbor neared completion in 1872, Congress appropriated $4,000 for a wooden lighthouse tower on the South Pier Head.

Keepers walked to the Greek Revival-style tower along a wooden catwalk on top of the pier. While little is known about the kind of light used, a newspaper report in 1892 noted that a 5th order light was used.

Keepers lived on shore, away from the building. An article in the Holland City News on June 12, 1874 reported that “Our lighthouse keeper is enjoying the new quarters Uncle Sam has erected for him, and is making some splendid improvements on those barren sand hills.” Don’t look for the building today. In bad repair in the 1960s, it was destroyed in a beautification effort.

The next major change came in 1901-2, with the erection of a steel tower. Like the first light, it was raised on legs. With the light at a higher level, the red light from the 4th order light could be seen for 13 miles. The steel structure was more able to withstand the force of Lake Michigan than the earlier wooden one. However, it was not able to keep waves and icebergs during the winter of 1904 from doing serious damage.

Another change came in 1907, after ship captains complained about the fogs that hung around the lake. A building went up next to the light tower, containing a steam-driven fog signal. The building resembled the modern Holland Light, without the lantern on top and a basement on the bottom.

The 1930s brought changes that gave the building its look today. The old kerosene lantern gave way to a new electric light in 1934. In 1936, work began on converting the old steam fog signal to a new source: horns powered by air from electric air compressors.

The tower was placed on a barge. The restoration study speculated its next assignment was a pier on South Chicago Harbor near Calumet, Ill. A basement was placed under the old fog signal building and a two-level tower with lantern added to its west side.

As it appears today, the light is as historic as a ranch house built in the 1950s. That’s when it received a new coat of paint, in keeping with the “red right return” dictum that lights on the right side of the entrance to a harbor should be bright red.

“In my youth, the color of the light was yellow,” Gronberg said.

Whatever color the light was, it would only be the stuff of old pictures in a book, if it was not for a campaign to save it in the late 1970s. A group called the Holland Harbor Lighthouse Historical Commission organized in 1978 to fight efforts to demolish the building. Today it leases the structure from the Coast Guard and maintains it. Although the commission has been a target for criticism over restrictions to access through the private land surrounding the light, its role in saving the structure is unquestioned.

“They said it was too expensive of a way to hold up a light bulb,” said Mary Heuvelhorst, a retired teacher of the physically impaired, who was one of the key people in the effort to save the building from destruction. Heuvelhorst, who retired as a member of the lighthouse commission in May 1986, credits the work of Willard Wichers, Charles F. Conrad and John Cote in saving the light. “It wouldn’t have been standing without them,” she said.

This story appeared in the June 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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