Michigan resident Jeff Shook is the proud new owner of the Saint Clair Flats Harsen’s Island Range Light Station located near Algonac, Michigan. Approximately thirty sealed bids were received in a government auction to dispose of abandoned lighthouses in Michigan from the U.S. Coast Guard and Shook was the successful bidder. The station includes three houses, a paint storage shed, a garage and two light towers.
The Harsen’s Island Range Light Station is located on the northern end of Lake Saint Clair where the Saint Clair River forms and narrows into the river passageway up to Lake Huron. The station sits on the southern end of Harsen’s Island and was built in 1934 to give ships a lighted range to follow into the river. The station replaced the two Saint Clair Flats Ship Canal Lighthouses built in 1871. The ship canal lighthouses were located on long piers about 7,200 feet long and were identical on each end. The channel between the two piers was 292 feet wide and twenty feet deep. They were used to guide increasing ship traffic into the river from off-shore and existed from 1871 into the 1930s. In 1906, the canal was dredged out on the west side which now allowed upbound ship traffic on the east side and downbound traffic to flow on the west side. Without these piers a channel could not be kept open because of drifting sand. After the new range was established the canal was removed, lighthouses torn down and the channel dredged deeper.
In 1934, a two-story lightkeepers’ house and set of white steel skeletal range light towers were built by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The Flats project was part of a depression-era cost reduction by the government. By constructing a lighted range that could use electricity and consolidate two lighthouses and other personnel into to one efficient operation, the government reduced cost in personnel and buildings. This new station effectively ended light keeping in the Saint Clair River as we know it. The keeper at this station was now responsible for other area aids to navigation up and down the river and could tend to them via a lighthouse service boat. The house was constructed with a built in boathouse used to keep the boat in out of the weather.
In 1938, a small two story assistant keeper’s house was built to help maintain the numerous aids to navigation in the river area and was part of a public works initiative program. In the 1970s a ranch house located next door was purchased by the Coast Guard and used to house additional personnel while the station was expanding. On a historical note in the late 1930s the new robot lightship ST. CLAIR was operated from this station. This was the first such remotely operated lightship for the lighthouse service. Jeff Shook has not been able to document this but it has been mentioned to him several times. Lightships were used where building a lighthouse on a crib or remote location was cost prohibitive. The lightships had a tall lighted mast that was used to guide ships through the area and sometimes fog horns. Lightships were located in many locations around the Great Lakes and off the seaboard coasts.
The station was transferred into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939 and was in operation until 1985 when the station was partially closed. From 1985 until about 1991 approximately the station was used as a summer substation and manned with only two personnel on the weekends from the new Saint Clair Shores Coast Guard Station.
The Saint Clair Flats area has a long history of lighthouses, range lights and other aids to navigation since 1859 when the first lighthouses were established nearby which still stand today. The Save Our South Channel Lights preservation group has been established to save these lights and has been taking steps towards restoration.
Shook’s plans are a complete restoration of the station over the next few years. He is starting with the assistant keeper’s and the ranch style house. The ranch house is not in bad shape. Both of the original buildings are in bad shape from being vandalized over the years. The interior is full of holes kicked in the walls, doors kicked in and water damage from leaking roofs. General clean-up was started in the fall of 2001 with overgrowth cut down along with the four-foot-high weeds that covered the grounds.
Restoration plans have been approved by the State Historic Preservation Office for the station and are currently underway. Shook has also purchased a former 44-foot Coast Guard Motor Life Boat that is being restored and will be docked at the station sometime after its completion. Shook is dedicated to preserving the history of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Life Saving Service and belongs to many organizations dedicated to preserving them.
Anyone who was stationed at Harsens Island or has any old photo’s or stories about the station or surrounding area is asked to contact Jeff Shook via. e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by mail at 10557 Jayne Valley Ln Fenton MI 48430.
This story appeared in the
March 2003 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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