Looking Back: Few liked the newly painted white lighthouse

White lighthouse on a decaying south pier takes a lean to starboard, early 1988.
White lighthouse on a decaying south pier takes a lean to starboard, early 1988.

CHARLEVOIX — This Looking Back, fourth in a series, plus one for next week, celebrate the 75th anniversary of the installation of Charlevoix’s south pier light. It was put in place on Sept. 30, 1948, the fourth light to be built on the piers that provide entry from Lake Michigan into Round Lake.

A celebration of that anniversary event, for adults and children, will take place in the pavilion at Lake Michigan Beach on Saturday, Sept. 30, between 2-4 p.m. No admission charge. This will be followed by a fundraising sunset cruise aboard the Beaver Island Boat Company’s Beaver Islander from 6:30-8:30 p.m., boarding at 6 p.m. Historical narration of Charlevoix’s maritime highlights provided by this writer along the way. Tickets are still available, $75 per person, all proceeds going toward the lighthouse’s ongoing preservation. Call (231) 547-0373 or order online at chxhistory.com. Mark your calendars.

One day in July of 1968, all of a sudden Charlevoix’s red lighthouse on the south pier, painted that color around 1912, appeared in a snow white guise, to the shock and consternation of everyone. The July 24 Courier said that “The Coast Guardsmen (stationed on the channel nearby) painted the foghorn white in compliance with a Washington directive that all stationary navigation aids be that color. The reasoning at Coast Guard headquarters is that boaters can see a white marker a lot further than they can see a red one. The red, right, returning rule (that is, a requirement that a red structure or light be on a vessel’s starboard — right — side when entering a channel or port) will continue to prevail for all floating channel markers only.”

All lighthouses, everywhere in the country? That never happened. Some boaters claimed white should be the case, others said white against a wooded shoreline could be mistaken for a sand dune, others claimed that red is unmistakable in all circumstances, pooh-poohing the new directive out of hand. Charlevoix gave a raspberry and an argument to the Coast Guard, and many of our summer residents were additionally incensed, but nothing could be done about it.

In 1986, the 61-foot-tall, white, spindly openwork metal structure on the north pier, there since 1913 to flash a white light out into the lake, was taken away when that pier was reconstructed as it is today. In its place was placed a very low marker that this time utilized a green light, and still there.

In December of 1987, a new, or maybe just refurbished south pier was announced as forthcoming. It better be, because soon after the beginning of the new year, all of a sudden the south pier light took a decided list to starboard. The entire pier’s very old foundations were now so far gone that scuba divers could swim through the underwater gaps from the channel to the Lake Michigan municipal beach.

At first, the contractor hired for what he thought would be only a refurbishing job claimed that the pier could be evened out without the lighthouse having to be removed, just restraightened on site, “nothing major,” he said.  How wrong that statement turned out. Within a very short time, it was discovered that the entire pier had to go. The lighthouse found itself lifted off its concrete base and taken a few hundred feet up the channel. It didn’t go back in place until the end of the following year.

That was how matters stood for another several years, until 1997 when the Coast Guard announced it would be decommissioning more than 75 of Michigan’s lighthouses, calling the program “excessing” them. Michigan has the most lighthouses in the country. The reason? The Global Positioning System, or GPS, had begun to make many lighthouses obsolete as navigational aids. Charlevoix’s lighthouse now stood in the balance. Would it or wouldn’t it be affected? We would find out in 2001. 

This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Looking Back: Few liked the newly painted white lighthouse