On a blustery Friday afternoon on October 17, 1930, in a ceremony dedicating Michigan’s William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse, the Deputy Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses, in addressing the crowd of 500 people, said that he was gratified to be able to join with those in attendance “in the dedication of this beautiful shaft as a most fitting symbol of the life and work of William Livingstone.” The ceremony was held exactly five years to the day when William Livingstone died on October 17, 1925.
But, just who was William Livingstone and why was a lighthouse built to honor him?
Born on January 21, 1844 in Dundas, Ontario, Canada, William Livingstone Jr. grew up in Detroit where his parents had moved when he was five years old. As a young man, and with his father’s help, he started a wholesale grocery business, but soon branched out into other areas, dealing with grain, lumber, and maritime services. His business interests led him into politics where he served for ten years in the state legislature and finally as the Collector of the Port of Detroit.
In 1880, Livingstone founded the Michigan Navigation Co. and later played a managing role in the Percheron Steam Navigation Company, which was responsible for the building of ore carriers.
Livingstone expanded his reach into the business world when, in 1885, he purchased the Detroit Evening Journal, a newspaper that he operated until 1923. During this time, he got involved with the Dime Savings Bank, known for the fact that anyone could open up a savings account with as little as 10 cents, which proved to be a successful idea. The bank was one of the first to loan money to Henry Ford, with whom Livingstone became great friends. In April of 1900, when the bank’s president, Samuel Cutcheon, died, Livingstone was appointed as its new president. Under Livingstone’s leadership, the bank saw tremendous growth and even acquired a number of competing banks that he merged into the Dime Bank.
In 1902, Livingstone was one of the cofounders of the Lake Carriers Association, an organization of ship owners, a position that he would hold for the next 23 years until his death in 1925. Using his political connections, he vigorously fought against a planned railroad bridge that he said would impede shipping on the Detroit River. Using that same influence, he was able to convince the federal government to build the 1,350-foot Davis and Sabin locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
But what William Livingstone will be best remembered for was the creation of a channel that made the Detroit River safer for the large ore freighters by giving them a deeper and wider place to navigate. Construction of the channel took five years to complete, and was considered one of the nation’s top engineering feats of its time. It was appropriately named The Livingstone Channel.
William Livingstone Jr. was respected and loved by so many people that after his death that they wanted to erect something that would honor his memory forever. They decided on a 58-foot-tall lighthouse and hired famed architect Albert Kahn to design the structure. Then, they hired noted sculptor Gaza Moroti to work with the Georgia Marble Company for construction of the only lighthouse in the United States to be built entirely of Georgia Marble. Half of the cost of the $100,000 structure was paid for by the Lake Carriers Association and the rest was raised through private donations.
Through an interesting public-private partnership, the donors who built the lighthouse presented it as a gift to the City of Detroit and it was accepted for the city by Mayor Frank Murray. The Coast Guard agreed to donate a Fresnel lens for the lantern and operate the lighthouse as an aid to navigation. Where the lens came from remains unclear. Some sources state that the lens was from the nearby 1882 Belle Island Lighthouse, but that is incorrect because there exists a photograph dated January 4, 1937 that shows the lens still in the Belle Isle Lighthouse.
At the dedication ceremony, Charles Warren, speaking on behalf of the private donors, said, “More ships and tonnage pass Detroit each year than through the Suez and Panama Canals.” He went on to say, “Mr. Livingstone was by nature a sailor. This lighthouse is a fitting monument, in as much as it stands midway between the Livingstone Channel and the St. Clair Ship Canal, two of Mr. Livingstone’s great contributions to lake navigation.”
This story appeared in the
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