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 Manistee North Pierhead, MI    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.
Description: The Manistee River runs 190 miles through a portion of Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula before expanding into Manistee Lake just before reaching Lake Michigan. The name “Manistee” is an Ojibwe word, and though its derivation is uncertain, it likely comes from ministigweyaa, meaning a “river with islands at its mouth.”

Manistee Lightouse built in 1872
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Missionaries and traders built cabins along the river in the early nineteenth century, but the first permanent Euro-American settlement was made on April 16, 1841, when John and Joseph Stronach arrived at the mouth of the Manistee River in a schooner loaded with fifteen men and equipment for establishing a sawmill.

As early as 1851, representatives from Michigan started petitioning Congress for a lighthouse and harbor improvements at the mouth of the Manistee River. Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse on June 20, 1860, but this amount reverted to the treasury, and it wasn’t until July 28, 1866 that $10,000 was allocated for building the lighthouse, provided that a careful survey was first made and the character of the required structure determined.

Before the federal government started work in 1867 on parallel cribwork piers that would extend into Lake Michigan for about 960 feet, local enterprise had built crude slab piers at the river’s entrance that provided a channel with a depth of seven feet. A site for the lighthouse on the north side of the river was purchased in 1868, and work on the structure began the following year. Although the frame dwelling with an integrated tower was not entirely completed, Keeper Octavius W. Barney displayed its light at the opening of the 1870 navigation season. After discovering that an addition made to the rear of the lighthouse was not on the purchased reservation, an additional parcel was acquired for $30.

On October 8, 1871, the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, Manistee was ravaged by a terrible fire. The following is one account of the conflagration: “Down from the circling hills on the lake shore pounced the devouring monster. The burning sawdust, whirled by the gale in fiery clouds, filled the air. Hundreds of cords of dry pitchy slabs sent up great columns of red flame, that swayed in the air like mighty banners of fire, swept across the Manistee, 200 feet wide, and almost instantly, like great fiery tongues, licked up the Government lighthouse, built at a cost of nearly $10,000, situated 150 feet from the north bank of the river.”

The Lighthouse Board noted that the Keeper John McKee, “with commendable energy, established a temporary light within a few days” after the fire. On May 18, 1872 Congress allocated $10,000 for rebuilding the lighthouse. A construction crew arrived on site from Detroit in July and by September the new lighthouse was finished. Like its predecessor, the lighthouse consisted of a frame dwelling with a tower atop one end of its pitched roof. This new light would not be active for long. The piers near the lighthouse were finally reaching their planned lengths, and a pierhead light was completed and lit at the end of the south pier on October 15, 1875, replacing the shore-based lighthouse. In 1879, the pierhead light was moved 156 feet lakeward, and the elevated walkway, used to reach the light, was extended the same distance.

Light and fog signal on south pier with old light in foreground
Photograph courtesy National Archives
During the year ending June 30, 1877, 1,585 vessels had cleared the harbor at Manistee carrying over 470,000 tons of merchandise. Most of this was wood products, including over 225 million board-feet of lumber and more than 280 million shingles. Noting the great number of vessels calling at Manistee in 1877, the Lighthouse Board recommended the establishment of a steam fog signal to enable vessels to find the harbor entrance in thick weather. Congress responded with the requested $5,500 on March 2, 1889, and a ten-inch steam whistle was established on the south pier on February 10, 1890.

While the fog signal building was under construction, a second light was placed on the pier to form a range. The Lighthouse Board gave the following description of the new light, which was activated on November 30, 1889: “A tubular lantern pierhead range-light was established at the outer end of the south pier to aid vessels in effecting an entrance to the harbor. The lantern is hauled to the post from the watch-room and is returned along a wire rope, with an additional wire to steady the foot, by a cord operating through a window cut for the purpose.”

On June 18, 1894, the light atop the gable end of the keeper’s dwelling was reestablished, showing a fixed white light punctuated every forty-five seconds by a red flash. On this same date, the pierhead light and fog signal were discontinued and transferred to the north pier, where the keeper could more easily reach them. The following account of the new aids on the north pier appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board.

The pierhead light and fog signal were transferred from the south to the north pier. A conduit was built on the north pier. The lantern shown from its outer end is run in and out. The conduit consists of framed trestles, erected and secured to the cross timbers of the pier with machine bolts, carrying a continuous box or conduit of 1-inch boards, sized and rabbeted, with battens and braces, and painted. The conduit is 290 feet long and extends shoreward to the new fog-signal house on the north pier. A new elevated walk, 460 running feet long, was built on this pier, extending shoreward from the rear of the fog-signal house; the old elevated walk on the south pier was taken down and 463 feet of it was transferred to the north pier.

Manistee North Pierhead Light and Fog Signal
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
About 100 cubic yards of “clay and muck” were delivered to the station in 1895 for top-dressing the grounds around the keeper's dwelling. A fence surrounding the dwelling was also extended that year to enclose the lighthouse grounds. In 1897, a parabolic deflector was placed behind the fog whistle to direct more of the sound lakeward. That year, the fog signal was in operation 572 hours and consumed roughly fifty-two tons of coal and three cords of wood.

In 1900, the lens lantern displayed from the end of the conduit was discontinued, and the conduit was removed from the pier. The fog signal building was moved 260 feet lakeward and an octagonal lantern was placed atop its front gable. A new sixth-order light was established therein on June 9, and the whistle and sound deflector were raised four feet to clear the new lantern room. Some 6,000 bricks were delivered to the station in 1900 to build a new oil house.

The main light atop the keeper’s dwelling was discontinued between February 24 and March 5, 1902, so a new revolving apparatus could be installed for the lens. In 1914, a breakwater was completed on the south side of the river entrance to create an outer harbor. On April 14, 1914, a post lantern was established about eighty feet from the end of the breakwater. This temporary light was replaced in December 1915 by a red skeletal tower, set atop a concrete base, that displayed a flashing red light. Keeper Milton McClure was awarded a lighthouse efficiency pennant for having the model station in the district for 1915.

In 1925, the lights at Manistee were electrified, greatly increased their intensity. Two years later, the current thirty-eight-foot-tall cylindrical tower was erected on the pierhead and equipped with an air diaphone fog signal, replacing the old steam whistle. The wooden walkway was removed at this time along with the old fog signal building, and the current cast iron walkway was put in place. With the establishment of the new pierhead tower, the main light was discontinued. In 1993, the old wooden lighthouse was moved to West Melitzer Street and Third Avenue.

Manistee’s catwalk, which is one of only four on the west coast of Lake Michigan, was refurbished in the early 1990s through a "Save the Catwalk" campaign, spearheaded by the local Chamber of Commerce. Clocks constructed of wood from the old catwalk were sold to raise money for the work.

In 2009, Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The light was transferred to the City of Manistee and the Manistee County Historical Museum in a ceremony held at the 5th Avenue Beach House on June 30, 2011. The museum is responsible for restoring and maintaining the lighthouse.

Head Keepers: Octavius W. Barney (1869 – 1871), John McKee (1871 – 1875), William King (1875 – 1883), John H. Roberts (1883 – 1888), Thomas Robinson (1888 – 1906), Milton McClure (1906 – 1923), Wallace S. Hall (1923 – at least 1940), William F. Davis (1947 – 1962).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, various years.
  3. Annual Report of the Lake Carriers' Association, various years.

Location: Located in Manistee on the north side of the mouth of the Manistee River.
Latitude: 44.25182
Longitude: -86.3469

For a larger map of Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Highway 31 in Manistee, take Memorial Drive, the first street north of the Manistee River, west towards Lake Michigan. Memorial Drive will become 5th Avenue. Take 5th Avenue to John Red Szymarek Park at the corner of 5th and Monroe. Turn right and follow Monroe to a traffic circle whose center piece is a lighthouse. Go 3/4 of the way around the circle and turn right on Lakeshore Drive. You can either park in the 4th Avenue beach parking lot or continue on a bit and possibly park near the Coast Guard Station, from where you can walk the breakwater to reach the Manistee Lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by the City of Manistee. Grounds open, tower closed.

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