Manistee, Michigan, “The Victorian Port City” on Lake Michigan, officially joined the lighthouse legion on June 30, 2011 when it accepted transfer of the Manistee North Pierhead Light. The 39-foot metal beacon announces the gateway into Manistee Lake via the Manistee River Channel.
Manistee County Historical Museum president, Tom Stege, told a standing room only gathering that “the transfer was many years in the making.” The event was held at the 5th Avenue Beach’s Beach House near the U.S. Coast Guard Station at the west end of the historic iron catwalk leading to the lighthouse, a ¼ mile west into the lake. Catwalks are indigenous to Lake Michigan lights and only four are extant. Manistee’s catwalk is owned and maintained by the city. The pierhead beacon itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Richard Balsano, from the General Services Administration, commented that “The lighthouse was transferred at no cost. Over 20 lighthouses have been transferred in Michigan in a similar manner. The light will remain an active aid to navigation.” There was some concern during Mr. Balsano’s commentary when hundreds of seagulls rose en masse, portending a defoliation onslaught!
“The light is visible up to 15 miles and serves as well as a sunset photo opportunity,” observed U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Robert Hemp CIH. He quipped, “It also answers the question—Where are we?”
Manistee Mayor Richard Mack said “Steve Harold brought this transfer about; he is a walking encyclopedia. This is a Manistee Milestone. Steven Harold is the Manistee County Historical Museum Curator, having served 35 years.”
Mr. Harold responded that “depending on your point of view, this has been in the making for 13 years, 20 years or 142 years. It will cost at least $150,000 to restore and maintain the light. After sufficient fund raising of $110,000, we can paint the light. Plans include removal of hazardous materials, repainting the exterior and interior, and making necessary repairs. The lighthouse will become a mini-museum with interpretive signage. While the structure itself will never be universally accessible, a virtual tour of the facility that allows people of all abilities to enjoy the facility is planned to be placed on the Internet.”
While there were many regulatory hurdles to overcome, the most hostile was forthcoming from the State Attorney General. Manistee sources claim the AG was of the opinion that the pier light sat on a state lakebed, and nothing could be done there without state approval. The light sits atop a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concrete pier. The AG banned any activity at the Manistee site, and others, “until an 80-year-old attorney proved otherwise. Any navigation service is a Federal Service, not a bottomlands jurisdiction.”
The Victorian Port City is also known for its “painted ladies”-- multi-colored lumber baron mansions and the city’s historic Ramsdell Theater is where the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones began his theatrical career. Other maritime attractions are found on Lake Manistee are the S.S. City of Milwaukee, the last of the 1920s era railroad car ferries, and the retired U.S. Coast Guard Tender Acacia. Lake freighters are often seen on the lake and along Manistee’s two mile river walk. The city became a major Lake Michigan port in the 1850’s lumbering era, before turning to salt shipments in the next century.
The first lighthouse here was built on shore in 1869. In 1875 the light was moved to the south pier and in 1893 it was moved to the north pier. There was also a very busy and heroic U.S. Life-Saving Station nearby. An old keeper’s residence was moved into the city and is still in private use. The present lighthouse was completed in 1927. Due to safety concerns, the catwalk is not opened to the public. There are no stairways in the tower, only steep, difficult-to-climb ladders.
Prior to 1920, at one time there was a wooden conduit, a square tunnel, 30 x 40 inches, which ran from shore to the light on the catwalk; within it were tracks on which a tram operated. With a rope and pulley system, the keeper moved a lighted gizmo that traveled out to the beacon at nightfall; it was sort of a horizontal dumb waiter. But, as the old adage proclaims: “There was light at the end of the tunnel.”
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This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 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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