White River is nearly twenty-four miles (about 38 km) in length and passes through White Lake before emptying into Lake Michigan. When in 1675, Father Pere Marquette stopped in the area, he learned that the Native Americans called the stream “Wabish-Sippe,” meaning the river with white clay in the water, which probably originated the names of White River and White Lake.
The cities of Whitehall and Montague are located on opposite sides of the river at the head of White Lake and were first settled by Europeans just before the Civil War.
Parallel piers at the mouth of White River were completed early in 1871, and later that year a pierhead light was established on the south pier. William Robinson, the light’s first official keeper, began his service in 1872. Captain William Robinson emigrated from England with his wife Sarah with the goal of finding work in the lumber industry to support his growing family.
Only in 1871, 635 vessels cleared the harbor at White River carrying over 61,000 tons of cargo, including lumber, shingles, railroad ties, and bushels of potatoes. Lumber from the area’s numerous sawmills was obviously the primary export, and would only increase as Chicago had to rebuild following its great fire of 1871. Some of ships are sunken, and the shipwrecks are visible still today in spring due the clear waters of Lake Michigan.
With the amount of traffic traveling in and out of the White River, at first Robinson was surprised there was no light to guide their safe passage. He began petitioning the lighthouse service to have a beacon built, and in the interim would hang a lantern on a pole at the end of the channel every night to aid the passing ships. When the light was built and lit, the Robinsons were appointed the first keepers.
In recommending another lighthouse at White River, the Lighthouse Board noted the following in its annual report for 1873: “Very large interests, especially in lumber, are centered here, and a larger light than the present pier light should be placed here.” The vulnerability of the pier light was made manifest on December 4, 1873, when a small storehouse at the base of the tower was washed away in a storm.
Construction of the lighthouse began on August 28, 1875, and Keeper William Robinson did some of the masonry work himself.
When completed, Keeper Robinson activated the new light, whose characteristic was a fixed white light, varied every minute by a red flash, on May 13, 1876.
In 1917, the color of the pierhead tower was changed from white to red and the main light was electrified a year later, in 1918.
In 1919, the now eighty-seven-year-old Keeper Robinson was told that he had to retire and let William Bush, his grandson who had been serving as his assistant, take charge of the light, but the feisty octogenarian wasn’t going to leave the lighthouse that he had called home for over forty years. As the inevitable became clear, Keeper Robinson fell into a terrible depression, and it seems he died before he had to leave, on April 2, 1919. An old newspaper clipping details the end to the story: “On the final day of his stay at the lighthouse he died, peaceably and quietly. Hundreds of people whom he had aided in time of trouble came to grieve with the family, for Capt. William was more than an honored resident of the White Lake community. He was an institution.” Keeper William and his wife Sarah were the parents of thirteen children, and It is said that he and his wife’s spirit still remain at the lighthouse watching over it. The historic keeper is buried at Mouth Cemetery.
Frances Marshall served as assistant keeper of the lighthouse in the 1940s while her husband, Leo Wuori, was keeper. After the couple divorced, Frances remained at the lighthouse and served as keeper from 1949 to 1954 and she is known for being the last female lighthouse keeper in Michigan.
White River Lighthouse was deactivated in 1960 and in 1970 the property was opened as a museum.
The museum has a number of artifacts from the passenger and freight shipping on the lakes in addition to information on the light itself.
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Images from web – Google Research