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St. Joseph North Pier Range Lights, St. Joseph, Michigan

St. Joseph North Pier Range Lights in 2017; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

St. Joseph is a small town on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan across from Chicago. This Michigan town was founded in 1834 and has a population of around 8,300. It's a point of contention between St. Joseph and Chicago which one had the first lighthouse on the shores of Lake Michigan. Technically, Chicago's light was lit first.

Our story starts in 1831, when Congress allotted $5,000 for a lighthouse at St. Joseph, and the building contract was awarded to John Scott. Winslow Lewis installed 11 of his patented lamps along with 14" reflectors. The actual cost to build the lighthouse and keeper's house was only $2,700. The lighthouse was completed in 1832 and was a conical, rubblestone tower with octagonal lantern. It shone with a white light.

Five years later, construction began on a north and south pier marking the entrance to the St. Joseph River, which was a bustling river for shipping. From 1836 to 1844, about $121,000 was spent on the project--an astounding amount of money if you consider this cost after inflation. In 1848, a small beacon of light was placed at the end of the north pier and the lighthouse at the mainland was reduced from 11 lamps to 4.

In 1859, the original stone tower from 1832 was replaced with 2-story frame house with a tower built on the peak of the roof. The lighthouse shone 101 feet above lake level from its vantage point on the bluff. Five years later the light's characteristic was changed from white to red.

The 3rd lighthouse in St. Joseph, built in 1859; c. 1900; Courtesy of National Archives

Just 11 years after this third light was built, Congress decided a beacon was needed at the end of the south pier. Congress appropriated $3,000 for the project. It was completed in 1870, and included an elevated walkway. The light had a fixed white light. A decade later this lighthouse was moved from the south pier to the north pier in 1881, and was changed to fixed red. An open frame beacon tower was added to the north pier in 1885. A year later, the 1859 lighthouse on the bluff was declared unnecessary and its service ended.

However, just 4 years after being discontinued, the 1859 lighthouse on the mainland was re-established in July of 1889. Just afterwards, a conduit light as installed on the north pier to form a range light system to guide ships into the St. Joseph River. This conduit light system was developed by lighthouse engineer Colonel M. B. Adams (Corps of Engineers, U. S. Army) and from 1893 to 1894, a pierhead conduit system was installed at 9 different pierhead lights in Michigan. The system involved a wooden conduit linking the primary lighthouse and the furthest end of the pier. A small car would run back and forth from the light with a lantern, which would guide ships along the pier into the river. This allowed the keeper to guide incoming ships at night without having to physically walk along the pier. The conduit on the St. Joseph pier was 290-feet long.

Benton Harbor, Undated: Courtesy of Bieren County

In 1896, Congress replaced the 1887 1,500-pound fog bell with a steam fog system. The system required a series of boilers, engines, and pumps as well as a 10-inch steam whistle. Two assistant keepers were needed to help the head keeper maintain the light and the steam fog system.

4th lighthouse at St. Joseph; North pier after relocation 1887-1906: Courtesy of Bieren County

The decision was made to relocate the light to the end of the north pier with the installation of the steam fog system and the conduit light system was discontinued. However, a pole light was placed 400 feet towards the shore to help guide ships closer to shore in place of conduit lighting.

1898; Courtesy of National Archives

It seemed moving the lighthouses around at St. Joseph was a recurring theme. By 1900, the pierhead light had been moved from south pier to the north pier, and then along the north pier further from the shore. The range lights were again moved in 1904 after the north pier extended. The new pair of range lights were completed at the end of the extended pier in 1907. This is the set of lighthouses that remain today.

First winter for the 5th lighthouse(s); winter 1907-1908; Courtesy of National Archives

The inner lighthouse has a focal plane of 53 feet and a continuous white light. It's comprised of an octagonal white tower on a square 1-story cast iron fog signal structure. The lighthouse is painted white with a red roof and black lantern. The original lens was a Forth Order Fresnel lens manufactured by Chance Brothers. It produced a fixed red light. The outer pier lighthouse has a focal plane of 31 feet and flashes white. It's a round cast iron tower painted white with a black lantern. The outer light was fitted with a Fifth Order Fresnel lens. The steam whistle from the previous lighthouse was reattached to the inner lighthouse.

Undated, sometime after 1907: Courtesy of USCG

Onshore, a duplex was built for the keepers in 1908. The 1859 lighthouse remained in operation until 1919, when a skeleton tower was constructed on the south pier. The City of St. Joseph purchased the decommissioned light in 1936, and over the next several decades the building houses various offices like the American Red Cross and American Cancer Society. Unfortunately, the building was razed in 1955 for a parking lot.

c. 1910; Courtesy of Bieren County

The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act was passed in 2000, which allowed for the USCG to dispose of federally-owned historic light stations that are no longer deemed necessary for navigation to state or local agencies. In 2008, the pierhead lights at St. Joseph became available and the city applied for ownership. Bob Judd, former mayor of St. Joseph, said the City stepped forward because so much of the area's lighthouse history had been lost. The original 1832 lighthouse, the 1859 lighthouse, the south pier lights, and the north pier light predating the 1907 structures had all been lost. Judd stated, "We cannot lose our current lighthouses. We need to save them for future generations."

1930-1945 postcard; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The City of St. Joseph took ownership in October of 2013. The Fourth Order Fresnel lens from the inner light and the Fifth Order Fresnel lens from the outer light are now on display at the St. Joseph Heritage Museum. Nearly $1 Million of restoration work was completed on the two lighthouses in 2016. The funding was entirely comprised of private donations. The catwalk was not restored, as more funds were needed. The lighthouses opened for tours in the summer of 2016.

Today, the lighthouses at the St. Joseph north pier and Grand Haven Lighthouses are the only Great Lakes lighthouses that retain their range lights and catwalks.

St. Joseph North Pier Range Lights in 2017; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron


Ebinezer Reed (1832)

Thomas Fitzgerald (1832-1838)

James Simpson (1838-1841)

Daniel Olds (1841-1843)

Abner Stinson (1843-1853)

Thomas Fitzgerald (1853-55)

Joseph W. Brown (1855)

Benjamin F. Chadwick (1855-1861)

Monroe G. Carlton (1861)

John Enos (1861-1876)

Jane Enos (1876-1881)

Curtis Boughton (1881-1883)

Daniel R. Platt (1883-1919)

Edward Mallette (1906-1910)

George J. Cornell (1910-1916)

Ferdinand Ollhoff (1916-1927)

Charles S. Grenell (1927-1931)

Owen C. McCauley (1931-1936)

Charles Carlson (1936-1941)


Notices to Mariners, 1905, US Hydrographic Office

Southwest Michigan Tourist Council

Lighthouse Directory

National Park Service

Lighthouse Friends

Local articles in: The Herald Palladian, South Bend Tribune, ABC57


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