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St. Joseph Lighthouse: the iconic duo’s bright history

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When you walk the Tiscornia Beach shoreline, look over the bluff or simply go for a drive along Lake Michigan in St. Joseph, you can’t miss the two St. Joseph Lighthouses.
The St. Joseph North Pier Inner and Outer Lights are lighthouses in Michigan at the entrance to the St. Joseph River on Lake Michigan.
The station was built in 1832 on the shoreline and was the second lighthouse constructed on Lake Michigan, with the current lights built in 1906 and 1907, and they were decommissioned in 2005.
It consisted of two lights known as “Range Lights” that sailors would align to ensure that they were entering straight into the channel.
Having a range light system helps incoming vessels to enter the channel safely. When the lights align, they know they are on target to enter into the St. Joseph River.

Back to 1829, Calvin Britain, an American politician who served as Lieutenant Governor of the U. S. state of Michigan, arrived at the mouth of St. Joseph River and shortly thereafter platted the village of Newburyport, whose name would be changed to St. Joseph when the village was incorporated in 1834.
Located across Lake Michigan from Chicago, St. Joseph received its first lighthouse in 1832, a few months after the first lighthouse on Lake Michigan commenced operation at Chicago.

First lighthouse consisted of a conical, rubblestone tower topped by a soapstone deck and an octagonal lantern room, while a single-story stone dwelling was built nearby for the keeper of the light.
Work on constructing piers to facilitate entering St. Joseph River from Lake Michigan began in 1836.
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, and planners boasted that St. Joseph would become an important place, probably second only to Chicago, on the lake.
By 1848, a beacon light had been established on the pier.

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 14,5 meters above the ground, but the bluff on which it stood gave it a focal plane of over 30 meters above lake level.
In 1870 a new pierhead beacon was built on the south pier along with an elevated walkway, and in 1881, it was transferred to the outer end of the north pier, with its light changed from fixed white to fixed red. A new open-frame tower, which was 5,5 meters 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 fog bell 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.
The front light consisted of a post near the end of the pier to the top of which was connected a 90-meters-long conduit that was used to run a light out to the post from the protection of the pierhead tower. Also a fifth-order lens replaced its previous lens and, if 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 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.

The present set of range lights on the north pier was constructed in 1907.
The front tower consists of steel framing covered with metal sheets and tapers, with lens that produced a fixed red light.
The rear tower consists of a square steel structure whose pyramidal roof is surmounted by an octagonal tower and circular lantern room with helical bars.
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.
Owen C. McCauley, who was in charge of the pierhead lights from 1931 to 1936, was one of those who tried to save the lighthouse.

In May 2008, the St. Joseph Pierhead and Inner Lights, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, were offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations.
The City of St. Joseph itself was the only entity to submit an application, and a formal ceremony celebrating the transfer of the lighthouses to the city was held on October 7, 2013.
“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 saved it. We cannot lose our current lighthouses. We need to save them for future generations to enjoy.”

A nearly $2 million restoration was completed in 2015, which preserved these icons to their 1932 appearance for generations to come.
The fourth and fifth order Fresnel lenses that were used in the lighthouses were removed in 2003 and 2012 and replaced with solar-powered modern optics. However, you can still see the Fresnel lens today at The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.
The 1908 keepers’ duplex still stands near the end of the north pier.
And still today, the piers at St. Joseph and Grand Haven are the only ones on the Great Lakes that retain their range lights and catwalks.

Featured on a postage stamp in 1995, visitors and locals alike can enjoy the St. Joseph lighthouses in all seasons.
Take a walk alongside them on the North Pier over a calm Lake Michigan in the summer, enjoy the sunset views from the Silver and Tiscornia Beach shorelines or the South Pier as waves crash against her each fall and spring, and watch her hibernate in the winter. Despite they are tucked away in an ice casing each winter, their light still shines over the snow-covered, semi-frozen Lake Michigan.

Images from web – Google Research

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