St. Joseph North Pier Inner Light and St. Joseph North Pier Outer Light
The towns of Saint Joseph and Benton Harbor lie on either side of the mouth of the Saint Joseph River. The shoreline is marked by parallell piers extending hundreds of feet into Lake Michigan and providing shelter to the river. The south pier extends out of downtown only a few hundred feet from Saint Joseph’s many shops, bars, and restaurants. The north pier extends from Tiscornia Park, an area of secluded dunes along the shoreline.
The river can be navigated for nearly sixty miles inland, which made it a critically important waterway in the 1800s. Many believed in the early 1800s that Saint Joseph would become one of the most important towns and ports on the Great Lakes, second only to Chicago. History turned out much differently. Chicago grew into one of the world’s largest cities, while Saint Joseph turned into a quaint lakeside town that has become one of the most popular summer tourist destinations in Michigan.
It was the belief in Saint Joseph’s potential, however, that led to the establishment of a lighthouse in 1832, only the second on Lake Michigan. The lighthouse was originally placed on shore, while the piers that mark the harbor today were built. Various lighthouses were built on the piers over the next sixty years before the tandem towers that exist today were built in 1907.
The lighthouses are unique because they are one of only two tandem lighthouses in Michigan with their catwalks intact. Catwalks were built to allow lighthouse keepers to traverse the pier when seas were rough and the pier surface slippery. In the cold of winter, waves provided a continual source of water that quickly froze atop the pier, causing ice to accumulate. When walking on the pier surface, one errant step, rogue wave, or burst of wind could prove deadly if it caused someone to lose their footing and slip into Lake Michigan’s icy waters.
The lighthouses are among the most unique in Michigan because they each feature such distinct styles, colors, and lanterns only about 100 feet apart. The Saint Joseph North Pier Outer Light is conical. It is 8’ 3” in diameter at its base, tapering to 7’ 3” at its lantern. The lantern itself has nine sides, making it the only nonagonal lantern in Michigan. The North Pier Inner Light consists of a 24’ x 24’ base rising to a bright red roof, white octoganal tower, and round lantern. It is a prime example of an integrated style of lighthouse architecture, although the lighthouse keeper’s quarters were located on shore.
The United States Coast Guard maintained both lighthouses until 2008, when they were offered at no cost to bidders. The City of Saint Joseph placed the only bid, which is still pending acceptance. An architectural consultant determined that the lighthouses were in need of more than $1 million in renovations before they could be opened for public access. Due to an exterior renovation in 2003, however, the lighthouses appear in good condition from the outside.