When my husband and I moved to Michigan last fall I was fascinated by the many lighthouses that are in the state. In a blog I wrote then I said I was looking forward to spring/summer when we could begin exploring these lighthouses.
Well – that time has come.
This past weekend we visited the most photographed lighthouse in the state – Big Red. Located at the entrance of a channel that connects Lake Michigan with Lake Macatawa. I was surprised at how small it actually was. Thinking of lighthouses as being very tall, this one looked more like a big barn with a tower for the light.
The lighthouse has a great history. The area was settled by the Dutch in 1847 on the shore of Lake Macatawa. Led by Rev. Albertus C Van Raalte a band of Hollanders founded the city of Holland.
When they settled here they realized they needed access to Lake Michigan from Black Lake (now called Macatawa) to help their community grow and flourish. The entrance to the lake from Lake Michigan was blocked with sandbars and silt.
After petitioning the government for help but getting none, the citizens took matters into their own hands and cut a channel that was deep enough for barges to use. Finally, in 1866, Congress made an appropriation for work on the harbor taking over improvement of the harbor in 1867.
The government gave funds of $4,000 in 1870 to build the first lighthouse. A small, square structure on top was a lantern deck with a ten-window lantern room. The lighthouse keeper lived on the shore near the lighthouse and would carry his lighted oil lamp along a catwalk where he would place the lamp under a lens or magnifying device. He would use a 18 inch fish horn to warn incoming boats when the fog hide
When fog lay on the lake, as it so often did, a light signal was useless. It was obvious that a fog signal, stronger than a fish horn, must be incorporated. In 1907, a steam operated fog signal was installed. A building was made for the fog signal. This building and the lighthouse stood next to each other until 1936 when the Coast Guard combined the two structures by placing a light tower on top of the building for the fog signal.
The two buildings were painted pale yellow with a deep maroon base. In 1956, to satisfy a Coast Guard requirement that a structure or light on the right side of any harbor entrance must be red, it was sandlasted and planted the bright red that gives it the title now of Big Red.
Marking the end for the need of lighthouse keepers, the light was electrifid in 1934 and in 1936 air powered horns using electricity were installed.
Since the lighthouse no longer was needed the Coast Guard declared it to be surplus. A petition and letter writing campaign to save the lighthouse began. The Holland Harbor Lighthouse Historical Commission was organized and this group gave it the name of “Big Red” to create more awareness in its effort to save the lighthouse.