Lake St. Clair — between Lakes Huron and Erie — is the smallest lake in North America’s Great Lakes system, but it’s not lacking in navigational importance. At the head of the lake is a delta known as the St. Clair Flats, where water from Lake Huron discharges into Lake St. Clair via the St. Clair River. By the mid-nineteenth century, improvements were made so that major shipping traffic could pass through the area. Among those improvements was the 1859 establishment of two lighthouses that served as a range for vessels coming through the South Channel of the flats as they traveled from the lake to the river.
The front light, a 23-foot yellow brick tower on a stone and timber crib, developed a lean and had to be dismantled and rebuilt in 1875.
In 1907, with changes in the shipping channel, the rear light was discontinued. The keeper’s house that was attached to the 40-foot rear tower collapsed into the lake decades ago. The front light remained in operation and was automated in 1970.
In recent decades, both of the range lights have been endangered by neglect and vandalism. But after 16 years of dedication and hard work, the nonprofit group Save Our South Channel Lights (SOS Channel Lights) is making tremendous progress. The organization was recently awarded Michigan Lighthouse Assistance and Michigan Department
of Environmental Quality Grants totaling $470,000. SOS Channel Lights contributed $160,000 in matching funds, and restoration work began in the fall of 2005.
The initial hope was that work could proceed on both lighthouses, but it was realized that there was not enough funding for this. The front light — which had again developed a lean — was stabilized with the addition of a seawall in 1996, so it was decided that all of this round of work would focus on the rear light.
The rear light’s lantern was removed by a crane and was moved to a facility where it was disassembled and repaired. After the lantern was returned to the tower, work began on a protective 272-foot seawall. This past winter’s mild weather allowed work by subcontractor Shepard Marine to continue until the wall was finished, except for some minor cosmetic touches.
When the spring weather permits, the prime contractor, Mihm Enterprises, will proceed with the restoration of the interior of the rear lighthouse. The project includes the repair and recasting of parts of the spiral staircase, some repointing of the interior brick, as well as work on the windows and doors. Mihm will also do some repair of the exterior brickwork, leaving the tower in almost like-new condition.
“Once the grants are exhausted,” says SOS Channel Lights founder Chuck Brockman, “we will again be back to financial square one. But we will have accomplished the task of doing the important foundation work that had to be done to save the lights. Our organization will now be in a position to begin safe volunteer work while we try to obtain additional funds to continue this huge project.”
Many of the volunteers of SOS Channel Lights are local boaters who appreciate the significance of the range lights. Mark McKee, retired publisher of The Macomb Daily, is the group’s co-treasurer with Deb Strobel. “In their prime years, these range lights stood proud and tall,” McKee said recently. “They were the beacons
of guidance for ships entering the St. Clair Flats. And they heightened the development of our industrial region. We must preserve them for future generations.”
SOS Channel Lights will be virtually broke after this round of work. The needed restoration of the front light will mean raising the entire tower off its foundation, which needs to be entirely rebuilt. This complicated process has been estimated at about $700,000. Brockman and his fellow volunteers have no shortage of determination, as the restoration of the rear light illustrates.
Anyone interested in helping with the ongoing restoration of the St. Clair Flats South Channel Range Lights can call SOS Channel Lights at (810) 748-1888 or email them at SOSLights1@aol.com.
You can also learn more on the SOS Channel Lights website at www.sossouthchannellights.org.
This story appeared in the
April 2006 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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