Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2011

Underway On Saginaw Bay

Home Begins At Charity

By Pat Biggs


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The original keeper’s house at Charity Island ...
Photo by: Jerry Biggs

Ships seeking a safe haven from Michigan’s northern Lake Huron during the gales of November often sail into Saginaw Bay. A stubby peninsula known to Michiganders as the “thumb,” and the eastern side of the “mitt,” form Saginaw Bay.

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The new keeper’s house at Charity Island ...
Photo by: Ronald J. Neumayer

Northbound shipping “rounding the cape” at Hope take a hard left at Port Austin Reef Light, one of three lights at the gateway into Saginaw Bay. In the middle is Charity Island Light; a few miles west is Gravelly Shoal Light. The latter was erected in 1939 to replace the vacated Charity Island Light. Gravelly is a light structure, not a lighthouse, that resembles a square potato masher topped with a radio antenna.

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Gravelly Shoal Light Tower as it appeared in ...

Within walking distance, literally, from Charity Island is Little Charity Island. The water level between the two is only belt buckle high, ergo the reason for Charity Island Light; it is built upon a limestone ridge and has a ravenous appetite for the bottoms of ships. An excursion steamer was blown onto the limestone during a late evening squall in December. Why it was sailing into Lake Huron in December is totally perplexing. However, the survivors were brought ashore and given refuge in the lighthouse and fishermen’s cabins.

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Aerial view of the Saginaw River Rear Range ...

Early pioneers felt that God had given them charity through his bountiful supply of fish and a place of refuge during storms. Preceding the pioneers were Native American Indians who fished from the island and mined chert from the limestone base. Chert is a form of flint extracted from limestone and used for tools and weapons. Later, through a chemical process, limestone was converted to acetylene gas that was used to fuel the flame within lighthouse lenses. Concurrently, an ingenious humanitarian device was invented, the sun valve, that ignited or quenched the acetylene gas based on the amount of available sunlight. The concept was rewarded with a Nobel Prize for Humanitarianism. It also was the onset of lighthouse automation. Electricity was the coup de grace.

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The Saginaw River Front Range Lighthouse no ...

On the subject of gas, Little Charity Island is a rookery for an unending horde of cormorants that roost there at night after a day of sating their appetite for lake perch, to the “delight” of fishermen. Cormorant guano is mother nature’s answer to Agent Orange for defoliating the island’s greenery. If you are downwind of the rookery, no amount of Febreze will counteract the stench; an ill wind blows no good.

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Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse as it appears ...
Photo by: Ron Foster

Abe Lincoln signed the appropriation for the second incarnation of Charity Island Light and two weeks later Mr. Lincoln was fatally wounded. In later years, the island went into private ownership and more recently a realty development disappeared into Lake Huron sea-smoke.

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Vintage image of the assistant keeper’s house of ...

A majority of the island is owned by the Federal Government as a nature refuge. The lighthouse site on the island’s point is privately owned; the owners built a comfortable home on the grounds several years ago. They do not own the brick tower or control its access. The tower is under the administration of a conservancy which neither restricts nor allows access. The tower is open but at your own risk. The hand railings are not secure and some railings are missing. The brick work needs re-pointing and the lantern room and gallery may have to be re-fabricated.

The private owner has offered to trade some shoreline, with endangered flowers, for the light tower. “Then, a non-profit group would be formed to seek grant money to restore the tower.”

If the repairs (offshore costs) are, say, $100,000, the non-profit would have to provide $50,000 in matching funds. As the cliché goes: Charity begins at home.


Now having made the passage past the Charities, the next port of call is Bay City. Isn’t that inland? Yes, but at the bottom of Saginaw Bay is the mouth of the Saginaw River.

The entrance is marked by a skeletal front range light; next is the Saginaw River Rear Range Light (house). Line the stern up with the entrance range and the bow with the rear range (lighthouse) and the ship is on course. Along the river are more dayboards, or daymark range markers, guiding the way to Bay City and docking.

Bay City has long been a shipbuilding center. The city was known in WWII for building sub chasers.

Life was much simpler at the Saginaw River Range Light; the keepers could live in town, not at the light. It was the same when the USCG took over the site in 1939.

Saginaw River Light also became a Search & Rescue Station and maintained other aids to navigation along the Saginaw River. An added and required skill in the Great Lakes is life-saving on the winter ice, mostly stranded ice fishermen.

The light and surrounding property is owned by Dow Chemical Co. The Saginaw River Maritime Historical Society along with Dow is preserving the lighthouse. It has a new roof and two new entranceways. Most of the work was done by volunteers, but the current projects require skilled, licensed tradesmen.

A long, fenced service road provides access to the site and water control canals checkerboard the vast area surrounding the station. To the north is a potato plantation. The shoreline of Saginaw Bay is practically a bird sanctuary, and is teeming with migratory waterfowl. The deer herd is prolific and is often culled by the state. Of particular significance is the return of bald eagles to the area.

The lighthouse is surrounded by tall reeds and a vast expanse of lush, green grass, almost like an airstrip all the way down to the Saginaw River.

It is not unusual to feel the throb of ships engines well before freighters come into view. There was a time when lumber schooners traversed the river. Many of the lumber baron’s mansions still stand along Highway 25 running through Bay City.

But tall sailing ships have visited the town in recent years with great success. The lighthouse group chartered a comfortable motor coach for the last tall ships festival. Visitors motored in style to the lighthouse and the coach was the only air conditioned venue on the river in 90 degree temps. The tall ships will pass by the Saginaw River Rear Range Light again in 2013.

For additional information visit www.saginawriverlighthouse.com.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2011 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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