|St. Joseph Pier, MI|
Description: Calvin Britain arrived at the mouth of the St. Joseph River in 1829 and shortly thereafter platted the village of Newburyport, whose name would be changed to St. Joseph when the village was incorporated in 1834. Situated across Lake Michigan from Chicago, St. Joseph received its first lighthouse in 1832, just months after the first lighthouse on Lake Michigan commenced operation at Chicago.
Work on constructing piers to facilitate entering St. Joseph River from Lake Michigan began in 1836, and by 1844, the total amount spent on the project was $121,113. The river could be navigated for about sixty miles upstream, where there was an abundance of land whose produce could be exported to other regions of the country. Planners boasted that St. Joseph would “become an important place, probably second only to Chicago, on this lake.” By 1848, a beacon light had been established on the pier, and the number of lamps in the main light had been reduced to just four.
St. Joseph’s stone lighthouse was replaced in 1859 with a two-story, frame keeper’s dwelling with a square tower rising from one end of its peaked roof. The light was roughly forty-eight feet above the ground, but the bluff on which it stood gave it a focal plane of 101 feet above lake level. The color of the light was changed from white to red in 1864 so it could be distinguished from other lights in the vicinity.
On July 15, 1870, Congress appropriated $3,000 for a new pierhead beacon, which was subsequently built on the south pier along with an elevated walkway. In 1881, the pierhead beacon was transferred to the outer end of the north pier, and its light was changed from fixed white to fixed red. A new open-frame tower, which was fifteen-and-a-half feet taller than the previous pierhead beacon, was built on the north pier in 1885, and upon the opening of navigation in 1886, it began displaying a fixed white light from a fourth-order lens. This light was deemed sufficient for the harbor, and the 1859 lighthouse was discontinued on March 18, 1886. On November 1, 1887, a 1,500-pound fog bell, struck by a Stevens striking apparatus, was added to the pierhead tower.
The 1859 lighthouse was re-established on July 10, 1889, and later that year a conduit light was added to the pier to form range lights for entering the river. A fifth-order lens replaced the fourth-order lens used on the pier, and it is likely that the fourth-order lens was installed in the 1859 lighthouse. The characteristic of the 1859 lighthouse was fixed white with a flash every ninety seconds, with the flashes being produced by a panel that revolved around the fixed Henry-Lepaute lens. In 1892, the frequency of the flashes was increased to one every forty-five seconds through the addition of another flash panel. The frequency of the flashes was increased again in 1901 to a white flash every thirty seconds.
On June 11, 1896, after years of petitioning by the Lighthouse Board, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a steam fog signal to replace the bell, which was often ineffective. A “well” for the steam fog signal was created in the crib by removing stone from one pocket and placing therein a plank box. A ten-inch steam whistle was established on February 1, 1897, with a parabolic deflector constructed behind the whistle to focus the sound lakeward. The front range light was discontinued at this time as the beacon and signal had been moved to the end of the pier, but a pole light was established 400 feet shoreward to serve as the rear light.
The rear tower consists of a twenty-four-foot-square steel structure whose pyramidal roof is surmounted by an octagonal tower and circular lantern room with helical bars. A fourth-order lens manufactured by Chance Brothers was used to produce a fixed red light. The pier’s original ten-inch steam whistle, constructed by J. P. McGuire of Cleveland, Ohio, was transferred to the lower portion of the new structure. A diaphone fog signal was installed in the rear tower in 1933.
In 1908, a duplex, with seven rooms in each of its two apartments, was constructed at the inner end of the north pier for the keepers. The 1859 lighthouse remained in operation until 1919, when an acetylene light was established atop a red, skeletal tower on the south pier. No longer needed, the lighthouse was sold to the City of St. Joseph in 1936. Over the years, the structure housed offices for the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, and the Society for Crippled children, but in 1955 local preservationists lost their battle to preserve the historic lighthouse, and it was razed to make room for a parking lot.
A Lighthouse Depot for the ninth district of the United States Lighthouse Service was built alongside the river in 1893. After a depot was built in Milwaukee, the one at St. Joseph became less important and was transferred to the Navy in 1918. The depot buildings were home to the Lighthouse Depot Brewpub and Restaurant from 1997 to 2001, but now belong to the Saint Joseph River Yacht Club.
“One of the reasons the City stepped forward is because our area has already lost much of our lighthouse history,” said Bob Judd, a former may of St. Joseph. “The original 1832 lighthouse, the 1859 lighthouse that once stood on the bluff, along with the South Pier lights, are gone forever. We almost lost the catwalk until a grassroots effort in the 1980s save it. We cannot lose our current lighthouses. We need to save them for future generations to enjoy.”
In August 2008, a historical architect assessed the inner and outer lighthouse structures, at a cost of $17,000, and concluded that $1 million in repairs would be necessary before public access to the lights could be permitted. The inner light requires more attention as part of its ceiling has collapsed. The city might not need to fund the entire restoration, as the Coast Guard may perform some rehabilitation work on the structures before the ownership transfer.
A Lighthouse Forever Fund Committee was formed in 2014 to raised $2 million in private donations to fully restore the pier range lights and catwalk. After that, maintenance will be funded by the city’s general fund tax revenues. By the end of 2014, the committee had raised $1.65 million, which allowed bids to be invited for the restoration work. Mihm Enterprises of Hamiliton was selected to rehabilitate the lighthouse at a cost of just over $980,000, and the north pier was closed in June 2015 so work could get started. The restoration effort concluded in the spring of 2016, shortly after a replica of a smokestack that had been removed in 1949 was installed on the inner light. All the hard work in raising the funds and saving the lights was rewarded with a 2016 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.
The fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed from the inner light in 2012 and taken to the Heritage Museum Cultural Center in St. Joseph, where it will be restored. The fifth-order lens used in the outer light had been removed in 2005 and was already on display at the museum. The 1908 keepers’ duplex still stands near the end of the north pier.
The piers at St. Joseph and Grand Haven are the only ones on the Great Lakes that retain their range lights and catwalks. The St. Joseph Pier Lights were featured on a postage stamp issued in 1995.
Located at the mouth of the St. Joseph river
in St. Joseph. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, towers closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, towers closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.