Digest>Archives> August 2003

Sentinel Centennial—100th Anniversary of a Pier Light at South Haven Celebrated at Harborfest

By Gary Martin


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View of the South Haven south pier light from the ...

Friday through Saturday, June 13th through 15th, was Harborfest in South Haven, Michigan. This is the one weekend of the year when the pier light guarding the entrance to the Black River is open for the public to see the interior of the light and to climb to the lantern room. The weekend was beautiful and Harborfest was well attended. This year was also special in that it marked the 100th anniversary of the steel pier light in South Haven — a sentinel centennial. The lantern room from the 37 foot wooden tower built in 1872 was placed atop the steel pier light when it was built in 1903 and still serves there. When the steel light was built in 1903, the pier extended 324 feet out into Lake Michigan. The wooden pier was extended to 700 feet in 1913 and replaced by the present 1200 foot concrete pier in 1940. That same year the lighthouse was repainted red from the original white to improve its visibility. Six keepers have served at the South Haven lighthouse over the past century, the most famous and longest serving Capt. James S. Donahue, a one-legged Civil War veteran credited with saving 15 people from drowning during his 35 years of service from 1874-1909, pulling some from the waters of Lake Michigan with his crutch!

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View of people lined up to tour the South Haven ...

Linda Bosma, of the South Haven Lions Club and another member of the club were working as hosts at the lighthouse Saturday morning, arriving at 9:30 where I was sitting waiting for access to the light. Linda generously gave me access to the light to photograph for this article a little before the light was opened for the general public at 10 AM.

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Linda Bosma of the South Haven Lions Club greets ...

I’m by no means small, and getting through the opening to the 2nd level of the lighthouse necessitated putting my shoulders through diagonally, but it was worth squeezing through. A shorter but still steep second ladder takes you to the lantern room offering views down the length of the pier and the catwalk.

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The ladder leading up is steep and the entry to ...

Having photographed this light during numerous storms and gales that ravage Lake Michigan in the spring and fall, it’s hard to imagine the courage it must have taken to make your way out the catwalk when the winds are driving big waves into the pier throwing billowing clouds of spray into the air to whip about and sometimes turn to sleet later in the year. You can get somewhat of a sense of what that might be like from a November photograph taken from the north pier of a big wave sending billowing clouds of spray skyward over the light.

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View from the balcony, looking down on the ...

By the time I’d climbed back down from the lantern room, people were already starting to queue for the first tours of the day as shown by the view through the access hatch to the pier.

By 10:30 Saturday morning, I’d walked back in the pier and up onto the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan where I’d left my car parked, which is one of my favorite places to photograph the light from with big telephoto lenses. As you can see in the long telephoto view above, there was a long line formed early in the morning on Saturday of people waiting to visit the lighthouse. Last year, the wait to tour the lighthouse on the Sunday of Harborfest was over 2 hrs, with many people having to be turned away because there just wasn’t time for everyone to be able to climb the lighthouse.

This story appeared in the August 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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