Lighthouses are defined generally as any structure containing a beacon light to warn or guide vessels. Within this broad definition, lighthouses may be classified based on numerous architectural characteristics. “Round” lighthouses, as the name implies, have a round structure rising up to the light. The structure is often built of brick and encased in steel. “Conical” lighthouses are similar to round lighthouses, but narrow as they rise. “Skeletal” lighthouse have exposed frames to minimize wind resistance. “Integral” lighthouses are square at the base, rise to the light on top, and often contain lightkeepers quarters inside. “Pyramidal” lighthouses have three sides and often narrow toward the top. “Schoolhouse” lighthouses resemble an old schoolhouse, with lightkeepers quarters inside, and the light built into the roof. Conical style lighthouses are most common in Michigan. Some lighthouse feature combinations of styles. In Michigan, many lighthoises feature schoolhouse style quarters that connect to conical or round lighthouses.
One of the key decisions in construction of a lighthouse is the height of its beacon. Schoolhouse lighthouses generally feature relatively low beacon lights, since they are attached to the living quarters. Conical and round lighthouses are better suited designs for higher beacons because they minimize wind shear, maximize structural strength, and allow for a more efficient use of materials. In determining height, lighthouse designers were guided by a simple equation. The distance from which a beacon can be seen is 1.17 times the square root of its height. Thus, if a beacon is 100 feet in the air, it can be seen 11.7 miles away (1.17 x 10) from the water surface. In reality, a 100 foot beacon can be seen much further away by mariners depending on how high the are elevated on their vessels.
Lighthouses feature a variety of materials. Early lighthouses were built from wood. Given the dangers inherent in burning a powerful oil lamp in a wood structure, wood construction quickly gave way to brick, steel and cast iron as the materials of choice. Brick and steel are most common in Michigan.
Lighthouses can also feature all kinds of colors and patterns. Bright white is most common, as seen in lighthouses like Point Betsie and Grand Traverse. Some are bright red, as seen on lighthouses like Holland’s “Big Red” and Muskegon’s North Pier Light. Still others are colored in natural browns and beiges, like Little Sable Light and White River Light. Lighthouses also feature unique combinations of colors. Ludington Light, for example, has a deep black base and white trunk. Saint Joseph’s North Pier Outer Light has a white base leading to a black lantern. Others have white bases leading to bright red lanterns. Still others, like the White Shoal Lighthouse, have red and white stripes reminiscent of a candy cane.
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