The area was first founded in 1787 by Ottawa, Miami and Pottawatomie Native American tribes who named the land, “Ni-Ko-Nong,” or “beautiful sunsets.”
In 1833, pioneer J.R. Monroe founded South Haven, Michigan when the U.S. government granted him a land patent for 65 acres of land along the shore of Lake Michigan.
After marrying his wife Fanny Rawson, Monroe traveled to South Haven by lumber wagon with hopes of starting a village. Despite Monroe’s great hopes, the village of South Haven did not develop at this time, and he and Fanny were forced to move to Lawrence, Michigan.
In the 1850’s, with the construction of the first sawmill on the bank of the Black River, families first began to move to the area permanently. A school, hotel, homes, stores, and other buildings were built with lumber from the growing industry.
The area exploded during the next forty years. The lumber industry cleared much of the land, shipping the lumber across the lake to Chicago and Milwaukee. Peach, apple, and blueberry growers began taking advantage of the cleared land, and a booming fruit industry ignited in the South Haven area. This was influential for other industries as well, bringing new factories and business to town such as canning factories and cider mills.
Soon, South Haven became a popular spot for tourists, attracted by theaters, a casino, an opera house, and an amusement park. By the 1920’s and 1930’s, an auto camp replaced the amusement park, and the age of the automobile ushered in an age of prosperity for the resort town. In 1969, the first Blueberry Festival was held, a celebration and reflection of the great progress the town of South Haven has made in its remarkable history.
Throughout the 1860’s, as South Haven grew as a port, several attempts were made to increase the width of the channel. Already the Black River served as an important means for the settlers to transport lumber products to the cities along the lakes. By 1867, the width of the channel was such to allow almost any vessel through.
Soon, it became evident that a pier head beacon at the end of the pier, along with a keepers dwelling, should be developed. In 1868, the Lighthouse Board requested money for construction of the pier head beacon on the chosen site, but there were setbacks. In 1871, construction finally began on a bluff near the shore. By 1872, the original South Haven light shone for the first time.
A thirty-foot tall wooden structure, the pier head featured a 75-foot walkway bridging from the shoreline to the tower to allow the keeper to walk to safety above the wave line during storms when waves crashed above the pier. The simple wooden structure consisted of a storage room on the first level with an octagonal cast iron lantern above it. The storage room played dual duty of supply room and shelter to the keeper working on the light.
Captain W.P. Bryan was appointed as the South Haven lighthouse’s first keeper in 1872, followed by Captain James S. Donahue in 1874. Donahue’s service as keeper of the light was characterized by his devotion and hard work.
Throughout the years the pier endured several extensions and the tower was moved 249 feet to the end of the pier in 1901. In 1902, when a brand new Fifth Order Fresnel lens was placed in the lantern, the old wooden tower was sacrificed as a result of years of battery from an unrelenting sea. In 1903 the wooden tower was replaced with a prefabricated steel tower. It was painted a glimmering white and the new Fifth Order Fresnel lens was placed in the lantern.
Louis De Deimar replaced Captain Donahue as lighthouse keeper after his retirement in 1910. Soon after, in 1913, the pier faced its final extension. Again, the tower was moved 425 feet and elevated to its new location. At some point, the wooden elevated walkway was replaced with an iron walkway, and the tower was painted red. In 1932, Robert G. Young was appointed as lighthouse keeper. He served until 1940, and since then the Coast Guard have taken over the duty.
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