St. Joseph Harbor
St. Joseph harbor is located 22 miles SSW of South Haven, 35 miles NE of Michigan City, and 60 miles NE across Lake Michigan from Chicago. The harbor is at the mouth of the St. Joseph River. St. Joseph was first permanently settled in 1830. It lies near the center of Michigan’s famed fruit-growing belt, so the shipment of fruit and other agricultural products was very important to the port. The town also developed into a popular summer resort, especially among Chicago and Milwaukee residents. For many years, St. Joseph was linked to those cities by daily passenger steamers. Although gravel and cement are still handled at the harbor, it is mainly used by pleasure craft.
The outlet of the St. Joseph River was originally a shifting channel with a depth fluctuating between three and seven feet. Work to improve the harbor began in 1836 and the project called for a dredged entrance channel of 16 feet deep protected by parallel piers 270 feet apart. By 1898, the north and south piers extended 1,300 feet and 55 feet respectively past the shoreline. The entrance was dredged upstream for about one mile to the junction with the Paw Paw River. Above the dredged channel, the St. Joseph River turns south between St. Joseph on the west bank and the city of Benton Harbor on the east bank.
The Old St. Joseph River Lights
St. Joseph vies with Chicago as the site of the first lighthouse established on Lake Michigan. Both were established in 1832, but the one in Chicago entered service earlier in that year. The first lighthouse at St. Joseph was a landfall light constructed in the fall of 1831 on a bluff near the mouth of the river on its southern bank at what is now the 400 block of Lake Boulevard. At that time the river flowed along the foot of the bluff and entered the lake near present day Broad Street. In a design common to the early pioneer period, it consisted of a conical, rubble-stone tower with a detached single-story stone keeper’s dwelling. No photographs of this early light are known to exist, but the contract specifications have survived. The tower was 30 feet tall from its base to the lantern deck; 18 feet in diameter at the base and nine feet in diameter at the top; outside wall was three feet thick at the base and 20 inches thick at the top; plastered with Roman cement and whitewashed twice over. Laid on top of the tower was a four inch thick soapstone deck supporting a six foot octagonal lantern room. The contract for construction was awarded to one John Scott, who was paid $2,700 for his efforts. Another $500 was paid to Winslow Lewis for the installation of his illumination system consisting of eleven lamps with 14” reflectors, reduced to four in number by 1848 as a whale-oil fuel saving measure.
The second lighthouse at St. Joseph was also a landfall light built on the brow of the hill just in front of the 1832 light at what is now 409 Lake Boulevard. Established in 1859, it consisted of a two story, wood-framed dwelling with a square wooden light tower emerging from the roof peak. This was a design that was to be repeated at several locations around the lakes, and especially on Lake Michigan. Within a couple of years, nearly identical structures were built at Cheboygan Point on Lake Huron and on Lake Michigan at Sheboygan, Tail Point, and the Kalamazoo River (Saugatuck). The keepers living in the dwelling were also responsible for maintenance of the pier lights. The 1859 light was made redundant in 1907 when the present system of range lights was established on the north pier. However, local politicians were able to put enough pressure on the Lighthouse Establishment to keep the light in operation until 1924. As a side note, political pressure was also brought to bear for the lease of a parcel of land on the lighthouse reservation for the construction of a building for the Memorial Hall Association of Berrien County, Grand Army of the Republic. Said parcel was to be occupied and used for a period of five years at one dollar per year with the option for the lease to be renewed every five years, which it was subsequently until 1936. Construction of the Memorial Hall, G.A.R. commenced shortly after the first lease was signed on December 12, 1914.
Eventually declared surplus property, the old lighthouse and the adjoining Memorial Hall were made available and sold to the City of St. Joseph in 1936. Thereafter the lighthouse was used to house a number of different charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, and the Society for Crippled Children. Local preservationists lost their battle to save the historic landmark, which was finally razed in September 1955 to make room for the parking lot that presently fills the site. The only remaining remnant is the wooden 1859 date board that once graced the front elevation. The old Memorial Hall currently houses the Curious Kids Museum.
Pier Lights at St. Joseph
The first pier light at St. Joseph was established in 1846 and consisted of a simple, wooden pyramidal structure common to the period. Both the north and south pierheads were lit at one time or another, but lighting of the north pier predominated as it was by design always the longer of the two in order to offer the most protection to ships entering the harbor. Damage to early wooden pier lights due to weather and/or vessel collisions was common and often necessitated their rebuilding. In addition, the north pierhead light was repeatedly moved and/or rebuilt as the pier was extended farther and farther out into the lake. As an example, at the start of navigation in 1881 the south pierhead light which housed a 4th order Fresnel lens was moved over to the north pierhead and its characteristic changed to display a fixed red light.
The old photograph shown dates from around 1900 and shows the north pierhead light as rebuilt in 1890 joined to a fog signal building established in 1896. The light tower consisted of a square, tapering, wooden structure with the upper two-thirds enclosed and an open lower framework. The fog signal building was wood framed and encased in iron plates for durability. It housed the steam-generating equipment for a 10” whistle. Both structures were connected to shore by a raised catwalk. In 1898, an inner light (rear range light) consisting of a lens lantern suspended form a tall metal mast was established at the inner end of the north pier, thus creating a range light system useful to vessels approaching the harbor entrance. These range lights remained in service until 1907 when they were replaced with the present towers.
St. Joseph North Pierhead
and North Pier Inner Lights
The final 1000-foot extension of the north pier was completed in 1906, necessitating the rebuilding of the range light system marking the harbor entrance. Work on the present range lights, which are 315 feet apart, was completed in 1907. St. Joseph North Pierhead Light (the front range light) consists of a conical cast-iron tower with an overall height just under 36 feet. Topped by a nine-sided lantern room, the original optic was a 5th order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier & Bernard of Paris which displayed a light at a focal plane 31 feet above water level. This lens was removed from the tower in the fall of 2003 and replaced with a modern 300mm acrylic optic. The lens was restored to like new condition in 2004 and loaned by the Coast Guard under a five year agreement to the Fort Miami Heritage Society (FMHS) in St. Joseph. There it remains on public display. In 2005 the FMHS changed the name of their organization to the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.
St. Joseph North Pier Inner Light (the rear range light) is a combination fog signal/light tower nearly identical to the Michigan City East Pierhead Light. Resting on a raised concrete foundation 26 feet square at the base, the structure is steel-framed, encased in iron plates, and lined with brick. It has a hipped roof topped by an octagonal tower supporting a round cast-iron lantern room. The overall height of the structure is just over 57 feet. The original 4th order Fresnel lens manufactured by Chance Brothers of Birmingham, England remains in place. It produces a light with a focal plane 53 feet above water level. Both structures remain connected to each other and along the pier to shore by a raised catwalk. A two-story brick keepers’ duplex constructed in 1908 at the inner end of the north pier remains in use as housing on the nearby Coast Guard Base.
St. Joseph and Grand Haven are the only two places on the Great Lakes having pier range light systems with both towers and catwalk intact. They remain among the most recognizable of all Michigan lights. The St. Joseph range lights were excessed by the Federal government in 2008 under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The City of St. Joseph duly filed an application for their transfer and awaits a decision.
St. Joseph Lighthouse Depot
The Federal government began construction of this depot, which included a main storehouse and keeper’s dwelling, in 1891. It was completed on January 7, 1893 at a cost of $35,000. Located on the north bank of the river just inside the piers, the site was readily accessible to supply boats and tenders.
Until 1917, the depot served as the primary supply and buoy repair station for the Lighthouse Establishment’s Ninth District (Lake Michigan), which by 1900 included 114 lighthouses. It was used for receiving, overhauling, and storing buoys for the various lighthouse stations. All concrete sinkers for anchoring buoys used in the district were also fabricated there. Late in 1904, construction of another depot in Milwaukee began. Due to its more central location on the lake, the Milwaukee depot soon surpassed the one at St. Joseph in importance.
In 1918, the depot was transferred to the Navy Department, housing some naval militia and naval reserve functions until 1950, when the government discontinued funding. From 1952 to 1956, the depot was home to the Army Reserves. From 1956 to 1993, it housed the Michigan Army National Guard. Soon thereafter the premises were vacated, but in 1994 the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Three local businessmen subsequently purchased the property in February 1996. This is a prime waterfront site and it was initially feared a condominium development lay in the future. The new owners, however, converted the historic storehouse into a brewery and restaurant. The Lighthouse Depot Brewpub and Restaurant opened for business in September 1997. The owners displayed great taste and sensitivity in the conversion of the site to its new use. However, their efforts were not enough. The restaurant closed its doors in 2001 as the location proved to be a bit too far off the beaten path from downtown St. Joseph to make a go of it.
After sitting vacant for a couple of years, the site was acquired in 2003 by the St. Joseph River Yacht Club (SJRYC) as part of a land swap with the owners of the defunct brewpub. All of the brewery equipment is gone, but as headquarters of the private yacht club (open only to members), the site is buzzing with activity once again. A large swimming pool was installed on the property in front of the old storehouse, which houses meeting rooms and a dining facility for club members. In 2007 the SJRYC completed the exterior restoration of the depot’s keeper’s dwelling and continues to work on interior restoration with the goal of turning it into a rental unit for club members.
Editor’s Note: Additional information on the St. Joseph Lighthouses can be found in the just released book, Ghost Lights of Michigan by Timothy Harrison, available through www.FoghornPublishing.com. Also available is a small replica of the St. Joseph Pier Lights as item #43239 and they have charms of the lighthouse as items #11857 and 11936 by ordering on line at www.LighthouseDepot.com. You can also call them at 1-800-758-1444.
This story appeared in the
November 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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