White River Lighthouse

Oct. 22, 2019

White River Lighthouse, White River, Whitehall, Michigan

Built in 1871.


Location: Fruitland, MI (White Lake Channel/Lake Michigan)
Station Established: 1875
Year Current Tower First Lit: 1875
Operational: no
Automated: 1945
Deactivated: 1960
Foundation Materials: Limestone
Construction Materials: Limestone
Tower Shape: Octagonal
Markings/Pattern: Natural with black lantern
Relationship to Other Structure: Attached
Original Lens: Fourth Order, Fresnel
Tower Height: 38’

Historical Information:

During the 1860s, after the Lighthouse Board was formed, several standard lighthouse designs were created by the Board to meet specific site criteria. One of these designs was the ‘Norman Gothic’ style, and this style was used to build the White River Light Station. Other lighthouses to use this style was Chambers Island (the first to used this design, in 1868), Eagle’s Bluff, McGulpin’s Point, Eagle Harbor, White River, Passage Island, Sand Island, St. Clair Flats Canal and Squaw Island.

August 28, 1875: Construction began on the lighthouse when keeper William Robinson was instructed to employ five men. Grading the hill-top was the first work to be done at the site.   Early September 1875, the grading work was completed.

September 28, 1875: Mr. E. Rhodes, the Lighthouse Service construction foreman, began the construction of the main tower. William Robinson aided in the construction by doing some masonry work. The yellow colored bricks and limestone foundation came from various parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, while the Lighthouse Service brought in many parts to form the cast-iron lantern room. The cast iron staircase in the tower was made by the Ryerson Company, which was located 20 miles south of the site.
December 28, 1875: Work was completed on the tower.

April 1876: Mr. Crump, the Lighthouse Service Lampist, arrived at the site to fit the lighthouse with a lens and lamp.  May 13, 1876: The new light was exhibited for the first time.  In 1902 the Fresnel lens was reduced to a sixth order with a Kerosene lamp. This reduced the range of the light to nine miles.

The South Pier-head Beacon Light housed a fifth order Fresnel lens and lard oil lamp. It produced a fixed red light that was visible for eleven and a half miles. The tower stood at 27 feet, and set the focal plane of the lens at 33 feet above sea level. The framework was a square pyramid. The lantern room was black metal, while the wooden tower was painted white. On April 19, 1917, the tower was re-painted red.  The South Pier-head Beacon Light was accessible from a double deck walk along the south pier. It was originally made of wood and consisted of a walkway on top of the wooden pier. There was a second, elevated wooden foot-walk above the walkway. The elevated foot-walk was built to protect the keeper from waves during storms and to reduce the effect of ice during the winter months. Unfortunately, the foot-walk did not completely protect the keeper from some of the elements.

The construction of the original elevated foot-walk began in August 1875. A construction crew was sent by the Lighthouse Service to build new pier cribs to lengthen the South Pier. Two crews were involved; one from the Lighthouse Service and a second that was made up of local contractor personnel. On August 25, 1875, the timber frames for the first foot-walk were installed, and a dispute occurred later that day. The engineer of the project, Mr. S.M. Mansfield, halted production. He discharged the foreman of the local contractor and inquired into the conduct of Mr. E. Rhodes. Mr. Rhodes was eventually cleared, and work resumed several days later. Work was finally completed in November 1875. In December 1875, the construction crew completed the final pier-end crib. The Light was then moved to its new location on December 6, 1875.

The wooden foot-walk was partially converted to metal in September 1901, and was fully converted to metal in 1910. Ice flow damaged the foot-walk and began settling down into the water. It was torn down and removed on May 14, 1925 and was never replaced.  The original name White River Pier-head Light was given to the lighthouse, which was located on the end of the South Pier, at the entrance of the New Government Channel into White Lake. This name was used until 1875, when the lighthouse construction was completed on a small sand bluff near the shore. At the point forth, both lights were named in the official records. On May 9, 1910, the Lighthouse Board officially changed the name from White River Lighthouse to White River Light Station. Current government charts no longer list the White River Light Station, but the South Pier-head light is still listed in the official records. 

The light had a female light keeper, Frances Johnson, who served from 1948-1954. In 1960 the lighthouse was deactivated. The Coast Guard turned over the property to the General Services Administration.  The Fruitland Township proposed to purchase the property so it could be used as a museum and public park in 1965. The property was appraised at $12,500, and the township was required to pay one-half of the cost. The other half was paid for by gifts from local residents.

The property was turned over to the Township in 1966.  The property was cleaned up, and a parking lot was created for the park.  In 1970 a curator was chosen to collect artifacts for the museum and the museum was opened to the public in the late summer of 1970.

Researched and written by Jamie Smith, a volunteer through the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society.