Digest>Archives> October 2009

English Family Robinson

By Richard Clayton


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White River Lighthouse keeper William Robinson ...

The families of Captain William Robinson III were lighthouse keepers in Michigan for over seven decades. Captain Robinson became the first keeper at White River Light in 1872. He served forty-seven years at that station until his death at the age of eighty-seven on April 2, 1919, becoming the oldest keeper on active duty at that time. His son-in-law, William Bush, the first assistant, took over as head keeper until his own retirement in 1943. Thomas Robinson, William’s oldest son, was the first assistant at White River for five years before his transfer in 1882. He retired from the Muskegon Light in 1928.

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Historic image of the White River Lighthouse ...

William Robinson III was born in Tynemouth, England in 1831. His grandfather, William and his father, Williamson, were both ship owners and captains, so it seems natural that young William would love all things nautical. As a young boy, he ran away from home and sailed the high seas for ten years. He then married Sarah Cooper of Newcastle and decided to stay home and work in the coal mines. Sarah bore six children; Mary Anne, Jane, Thomas, Williamson, Sarah and Isabella.

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White River South Channel Lighthouse. (Photograph ...

At age 35, Captain Robinson sailed from England with his wife and six children bound for America; the land of opportunity. They landed in the Port of Chicago and settled down on a farm in Michigan, where he worked until there was an opportunity to find employment constructing the White Lake piers.

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William E. Bush in his lighthouse keeper’s ...

Western Michigan grew by leaps and bounds toward the middle of the nineteenth century. There were endless forests and industry was skyrocketing in all of the major cities in the Midwest. There are several lakes in Michigan called “White Lake.” The largest is in Muskegon County, formed by the White River, which flows through a short navigation channel into Lake Michigan. A number of sawmills were built on the shores of White Lake as industry continued to grow.

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White River Lighthouse in Whitehall, Michigan is ...

By 1853, a growing number of shipwrecks in the area, prompted the Michigan Legislature to approach Congress requesting a lighthouse at the entrance to White Lake.

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The weather is not always as good as shown on ...

However, the wheels of government turned slowly, then halted by the Civil War, and finally, in 1869, the new channel was approved.

William found work building the piers until the channel project was completed in 1871. A beacon, standing 27 feet high, was constructed at the end of a short pier and was named the White River South Pier Light. The iron lantern room was prefabricated and outfitted with a fifth order Fresnel lens that was visible for about eleven miles. He took on the duties of Acting Keeper on June 12, 1872.

Over the next four years, construction workers built the present day stone dwelling and attached lighthouse tower, along with the elevated walk that connected to the South Pier. A fourth order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower of the new White River Lighthouse. Also, the south pier was extended by a hundred feet The White River Light was first lit on May 31, 1876. William Robinson III was the head keeper of both lights at the age of 45. His oldest son, Thomas, was appointed as his first assistant.

One would think that, with his varied life experiences, his entries in the keeper’s logbooks would have been eloquent prose as was the case with many keepers of that era.

Apparently he was given instructions by someone in the District Headquarters because the vast number of his entries was about weather, weather and more weather. (Also, he never signed his name in the logs until an entry made on December 31, 1899, he signed “Wm Robinson, Lt.Keeper.”)

“Weather moderate, wind fresh breeze west southwest, changing to NE during the night.”

“Weather fine, clear, wind light, changeable.”

We kept browsing through page after page of hand-written weather reports. I had given up on him and began looking through the logbooks of another keeper, while my wife stayed with Keeper Robinson’s weather reports. She let out a squeal of excitement when she came to an entry in late fall, 1878.

“October 30, 1878: Weather continuing very stormy wind, a strong gale S west with heavy rain, sea heavy, wind changing to NW at 1 p.m. A heavy gale.”

“October 31st: Dull, very cold, wind heavy gale NW. Moderating PM A large schooner dropped anchor off this harbor, sails all split, foremast head and bow split.

Went out to the vessel, found her a vessel drawing 13 feet of water, and loaded with grain. Wind changing to West 8 pm. Increasing to a fresh gale.”

She was the L.C. Woodruff. A three-masted wooden bark, 170 feet long and weighing 549 tons with a crew of ten. She sailed out of Chicago, bound for Buffalo, NY.

During the storm, she was driven ashore and wrecked while seeking shelter.

“November 1, 1878: Wind increasing to a heavy gale, southwest at 4 A.M. The grain loaded schooner’s anchor dragging vessel, drifting slowly in shore. 9 A.M. gale very heavy. Schooner mizzenmast main top most has just fallen into the sea, the sea is very heavy. I have started tug to White Hall to telegraph to Grand for the Life Boat.

The vessel seems to be stuck in bottom now. Rough sea going right over her now.

9:20 A.M. the anchor chain parted, vessel drifting half mile north from the station and is now on the outer bar, broadside to the waves which is terrible and making clean breaches over her. There are ten men in the fore rigger. I got together a band of Noble men and we dragged a yawl over sand hills and made three attempts to get the men.

The yawl filled each time and was driven back. 12 noon and no word of the Life Boat. Got a man who fast traveled to the Collector of Customs at Montague to telegraph again.

During the time, gale increasing. Fear full vessels decks blowing up and going to pieces fast. About 2 P.M. the Life Saving apparatus arrived. Got a line over the quarter of the wreck. In sending the hauling line out it got fouled and the Ship fired another which fell short of the wreck. Got line and fired another shot that passed close to them and over the vessel. In the meanwhile, we tried the boat again which was swamped and washed in and the line got fouled again. The place where the vessel struck is an old Edgen pile along shore for 100 yards with near perpendicular front of 20 feet. Night coming on and vessel broke in two. The men seeing no help jumped overboard. The yawl just shoved off again with five men in her. They started along the rocket line when they came to the place where the line was fouled. The boat swamped and one of the boat crew came near to losing his life. The sailors got hold of the boat and were dragged on shore. One poor fellow was badly hurt by the boat and died shortly afterwards. Two more were drowned. There bodies were not got this evening. I had to leave the seven sailors from the wreck to light lamps. Seven were saved.”

In detailed information from the Great Lakes Shipwrecks online website, on behalf of the Life Saving Service that operated the Life Boat and apparatus, they attended five wrecks that day; saving 29 lives.

History shows that the U.S.A. went through a recession in 1882 and the Great Lakes District office made severe cuts causing twenty-five stations to lose their assistant keepers. Thus, Captain William Robinson III became the lone keeper at the White River Light Station for 29 years where he maintained both the light on land and the pier head beacon light which was reached by walking the elevated catwalk in all kinds of weather.

After William was appointed the keeper at White River, his wife Sarah gave birth to seven more children; Robert, Anne, Elizabeth, Ellen, Annabelle, John and Susan. (The relatives living today have said that two of them died in infancy.)

In all probability, his other children may have assisted him at the station. His son-in-law, William Bush was appointed first assistant March 11, 1911. In the Captain’s final days at the station, it was known than William Bush had undertaken all the duties, so the Lighthouse Board had appointed him head keeper on March 15, 1919. Ironically, the Captain died in the Lighthouse on April 2, 1919, just days before he was requested to leave his post. He is buried at Mouth Cemetery in White River Township.

This story appeared in the October 2009 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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