The Twin Cities’ working waterfront

Published 12:30 pm Sunday, July 11, 2010

A lighthouse guards the St. Joseph/Benton Harbor harbor and directs boats through the channel. (Photo by Terri Gordon)


Off the Water

In the hustle and bustle of the modern world, the word “maritime” seems  archaic — from “back then,” and “long ago.”

But the maritime heritage of southwest Michigan is anything but dead. Until very recently, no other state could boast as many registered watercraft; it still has a viable commercial shipping industry; and Lake Michigan is the largest freshwater fishery in the world.

Of course, the maritime history of St. Joseph/Benton Harbor does go way back. The early explorers traversed these waters before they traversed the lands — as did the Indians, but the story really picks up a bit later — before railroads and cars, when Michigan, rich in iron ore and copper and lumber, used the Great Lakes to transport goods to and from the region. In fact, the region’s shipping industry “rivaled that of the eastern and western seaboards combined,” said Kenneth Pott, director of the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in St. Joseph. “That’s how important this region was to the industrialization of the nation.”

In 1832, a lighthouse was built at the Port of Chicago. It was the second lighthouse to be built on Lake Michigan. The first was in St. Joseph. It wasn’t elaborate, but the 40-foot-tall stone tower sat on the bluff and let its light shine for ships using the harbor. In 1847, a wooden lighthouse was built at the end of the North Pier. This light was in addition to the one on the bluff, and the two lights guided ships for many years.

A third lighthouse was  built on the bluff in 1859, making the first stone tower obsolete. This third lighthouse included a keeper’s residence, and was kept in service until 1924. Against public protest, the City of St. Joseph razed the structure in 1955 to install a parking lot.  The parking lot remains to this day.

The current lighthouse system — a range light system consisting of two lights — was constructed on St. Joseph’s pier in the early 1900s. In 1906, the inner pier light was built. The pier was extended in 1907 to accommodate the outer pier light. Ships guide themselves into the harbor by lining up the two lights. According to Pott, it is one of only two surviving range-light systems in the Great Lakes region. The other is in Grand Haven.

St. Joseph’s lighthouses still hold their Fresnel lenses. Made in France, they use prisms that direct the light five times further than any other system for that time. Eventually, every lighthouse in the United States had a Fresnel lens.

The St. Joseph Harbor also houses a U. S. Coast Guard Station. The Coast Guard was established around 1877. The earliest stations were manned with volunteers — fishermen and sailors — people who understood the waters. The government provided buildings and boats. The current station is no less important. It patrols the waters from Cherry Beach to South Haven. When Holland is closed, they take over the Douglas/Saugatuck area. Their duties have increased under Homeland Security, especially with the two nearby nuclear plants, Cook and Palisades.

Next to the Coast Guard Station, the St. Joseph River Yacht Club occupies what is left of the Lighthouse Supply Depot.  Built in 1893, the depot was responsible for all the supplies — from food to lenses — needed to operate the lighthouses around Lake Michigan. Original structures on the yacht club property include the main depot and the keeper’s residence. Small railroad tracks remain from the cars that carried supplies from special boats, called tenders, into the depot to be inspected, inventoried, exchanged or repaired, and then back to the boats to be sent to their destinations.

Another important maritime structure is the swing bridge which pivots — open for boats, closed to let trains, some 25 a day, cross the St. Joseph River.

“We have a wonderful range of surviving historic structures,” said Pott. “We also have a living maritime history. The Coast Guard is one example. We have commercial shipping terminals here. Seventy-five to 80 boats come into this harbor every day bringing stone, aggregate, sand and concrete, contributing $5 million to the local community and reducing the cost of road construction and commercial construction in southwest Michigan by some 7 percent.”

The industry also provides jobs and conserves natural resources.

“It’s a green industry,” Pott said. “One ship equals 1,200 semis.” Taking fuel costs, pollution, wear and tear on the roads and other considerations, shipping by water saves.

Much of St. Joseph/Benton Harbor’s working waterfront is now gone, but the current Heritage Center exhibit, “Working Waterfronts,” features historic photographs and artifacts of days gone by. The Heritage Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from June through September on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.