Waterways link past to present

Published 6:00 pm Thursday, April 26, 2012

While recreational boating has always been a part of St. Joseph's maritime heritage, it has increased in modern times. Here, boats participating in the Tri-City Regatta line up along the arboretum. Off the Water photo/TERRI GORDON

The cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor owe their existence to the fact they sit where the St. Joseph River meets Lake Michigan. Water was the highway of the time, and water is what brought people to this juncture.

The cities have grown, the industries have changed. It has become easy to overlook its maritime history: A self-guided walking tour lets people uncover this past with a series of 14 Maritime Heritage Trail markers placed along St. Joseph’s bluff and waterfront.

“Where possible, markers are placed where the history took place or where you can still see it,” said Christina Arseneau, director of the Priscilla U. Byrns Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, 601 Main St., in St. Joseph. “For instance, you can stand and read about the Coast Guard and look down (and see the station).”

The various industries that drew people to the cities included boat and shipbuilding, commercial fishing and tourism. The harbor has changed over time, as have the industries.  Boats are no longer made here, nor great ships. Fishing died out in the early ’70s. But other activities, such as recreational boating and tourism, have risen to fill their places. Commercial shipping is also still important to the regional economy.

“The dredging issue comes up every spring,” Arseneau said. “A lot of people don’t realize that without federal money, which we are able to get because we are a commercial port, the river, in a few years, would be so shallow not even recreational boats would be able to get through. So, it’s not just the huge freighters that dredging keeps the river open for, it’s also the smaller, private boats.”

Though the industries have changed, those early activities have left their mark. The Coast Guard remains, the swing bridge, the lighthouses. These facilities are not only historical attractions; they still provide the services they were installed to provide and underscore the importance of the harbor.

“Things that are still around today, like the lighthouses, were built specifically because it was such an important port,” Arseneau said. “They weren’t set up as tourist attractions or because they were pretty. They were essential in helping ships navigate the port.”

Arseneau cannot emphasize enough the importance of the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor port in the growth of the two cities. Even subsequent industries, such as the fruit trade, would not have been possible without this important waterway.

“Without the river and the Benton Harbor canal, they would not have been able to get the fruit out to the Chicago and Milwaukee markets like they did,” she said.

While not part of the walking tour, the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center does display the restored Fresnel lens used in the north pier lighthouse until 2003. Fresnel lenses were made in France and used prisms that directed the light five times further than any other system of their time.

The Maritime Heritage Trail was the result of a collaboration between the City of St. Joseph, Western Michigan University and The Heritage Museum. Funding for the project was made possible with assistance from the Michigan Coastal Management Program, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce.