Digest>Archives> October 1999

South Haven Lights . . . Pages From Their Past

By Timothy Harrison


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Captain James S. Donahue a Civil War hero, served ...

By Timothy Harrison as compiled by Jeanette Stieve

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Photo courtesy of the Susan Rising ...

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Photograph courtesy of the Susan Rising ...

Donahue, born in Vermont in 1842, enlisted as private in the U.S. Army in 1861. A member of Company A, Eighth Michigan Infantry he was wounded at the Battle of Jame's Island. According to a story in the South Haven Messenger newspaper, he was "taken to the hospital, the doctors told him he must die. "But, I won't die!" he angrily exclaimed. His comrades sought to have him prepare for the end, but he insisted that die he would not. He did recover from his wound and went on to fight again. Soon he rose to the rank of Captain. In the Battle of Wilderness, he was wounded again, this time his leg was amputated at the thigh and when he recovered he resigned.

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Captain James Donahue, keeper of the South Haven ...
Photo by: Courtesy of the Susan Rising Collection.

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A late 1930's view from the bluff at the ...

While keeper at the South Haven Light, Donahue kept an active accounting of his daily life and chores, all of which have been preserved. Reading Donahue's journals, one gets the feeling of soon realizing that he was a sociable, courageous man, who was totally dedicated to his duties, however, most of his entries were brief and to the point and factual as this entry dated July 3, 1875 reads, (we have not changed or corrected the spelling), "Rain and cloudy, wind moderate, lake smooth, the night dark, the weather warm - my wife died this afternoon at 4 pm, of lung disease." The following day his entry stated, "Foggy, wind, the fog thick all day, the lake smooth, the night dark - I berryed my wife to day at 4 pm."

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In the 1920's they allowed people to dive off the ...

The following year Donahue married Ann Kyme. By 1900 the family had increased to six sons, and one daughter. Also living with them was a daughter-in-law and one boarder.

Since keepers of the time were allowed to supplement their income in other ways, as long as it did not interfere with their duties, Donahue started what eventually turned into a thriving boat rental business. From old records he also dealt in real estate, and quite successfully.

Although he only had one leg, Donahue is credited with saving an amazing 15 lives and in some cases actually jumped into the water to rescue people, including two of his own sons. He was awarded the silver life saving medal by the U.S. Government. Local citizens, dissatisfied with the fact that he was only awarded a silver medal, made their own gold medal and presented it to him.

When Donahue died in 1917, his entire funeral was handled by the Grand Army of the Republic and he was buried with honors at the Lakeview Cemetery in South Haven. Photograph courtesy of the Jeanette Stieve Collection/Michigan Maritime Museum.

The First South Haven Light

The first keeper of South Haven Light was Capt. W. P. Bryan who at the time of his appointment was a Justice of the Peace.

A description of the light by Keeper James Donahue states that the lower room, directly below the lantern room, was used for storage only. However, in times of violent weather he or other family members were forced to spend the night there. In a 1900 interview, Donahue stated, "In case of a fog, mist, or snow storm, the Keeper is obliged to remain at the tower if necessary, and signal helpless crafts on the lake with the fog horn." An entry by Donahue in the log book dated May 5, 1881 stated, (misspelled words are exact from the log book) "I went to the village councal one hour in the evening. My wife and brother was at the end of the pier blowing the foghorn and braut in the Steam Tug Mirands at eight thurty PM." In June of 1913 the fog horn was replaced by a 1600 pound fog bell. The bell was discontinued in 1937 and replaced by a droning fog-horn.

Apparently vandalism was even a problem back in 1906 by an account in the Daily Tribune dated April 13th of that year, which reported that iron pickets and some heavy lumber had arrived for the construction of a fence around the lighthouse. The paper went on to say, "This step has been deemed necessary by government officials to prevent the defacing of the lighthouse which has been going on for so long."

South Haven: The Steel Light

On October 6, 1903, a crew of ten men, all employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, arrived on the USLHS tender Hyacinth to tear down the old wooden lighthouse and replace it with a more modern steel tower. The new steel tower was on board the lighthouse tender and by mid November the new lighthouse was in place and operational. According to a story in the The Daily Tribune, dated October 14, 1903, the actual cupola (lantern room) was brought from Muskegon, Michigan where it had previously seen forty years of duty on the lighthouse there.

In May of 1910, a Captain Louis de Deimar was appointed keeper. Capt. de Deimar was formerly the keeper at the Kenosha Wisconsin Light Station where he was in charge of three lighthouses. At seventy years old it was felt that the South Haven Light Station, with only one light, would be easier for him to maintain at his age. The Captain was hard of hearing, which eventually caused his demise. In April of 1913, as he was walking on the railroad tracks; he failed to hear the Fruit Belt train and it hit him causing him to lose an arm. He died three days later.

In 1913, it was decided that the steel lighthouse should be at the end of the pier, and it was literally picked up and moved 425 feet to the location where it stands to this day.

Capt. Robert G. Young was the last keeper of South Haven to serve under the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Appointed to the position in 1932, he was dismissed in September of 1940 when the lighthouse was officially taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard, which decided that an actual keeper was no longer necessary to man the light.

This story appeared in the October 1999 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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