Holland Harbor Light (“Big Red”)
The Holland Harbor Light is one of the most photographed and visited lighthouses in the state. It sits on shore along a channel connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa. It is accessible by a half mile hike along the beach from the south, and can be viewed from Holland State Park on the north side of the channel. It is an integrated style lighthouse, with a large two story base connecting to a square tower and octoganal lantern.
In 1847, Dutch settlers arrived in the area and realized the economic potential of connecting Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan. At the time, the waters were separated by sand bars and debris. The federal government was slow to provide assistance, so residents undertook to build the channel on their own. After years of dredging by hand, the channel opened to barge traffic in 1860. Holland was decades behind towns like Saint Joseph, however, and would never become a serious commercial shipping port. Instead, the Dutch settlers focused on building resorts, and soon two ships per day brought tourists from Chicago.
Early efforts at building a lighthouse failed. The first structure, built in 1872, featured a lantern built on wooden sltilts. It eventually crumbled under the force of waves and high waters. In 1880 a sturider steel tower was built, but still used an open frame structure.
In 1907, the present-day lighthouse was built as a fog signal. In a dramatic structural improvement over the previous lighthouses, it featured a 32’ x 32’ square, two story base and was placed closer to shore. As a result, the strucutre has survived to present day. The base has a gabled roof and was originally painted yellow, keeping with the Dutch influence in the area.
In keeping with the Coast Guard’s mandate, however, the lighthouse was painted bright red in 1957, making it easier for mariners to navigate into the harbor. They just had to remember the universally applicable rule “Red to Right when Returning.” It is hard to imagine the Holland Harbor Light in anything but bright red. More than any other lighthouse in Michigan, the Holland Harbor Light is identified with its color. After its repainting it earned the nickname “Big Red.” Today it is more commonly know by this nickname than by its formal name.
The Coast Guard declared Big Red surplus in 1971. It is not surprising that Big Red was one of the first lighthouses in Michigan that the Coast Guard abandoned, since Lake Macatawa caters almost exclusively to smaller recreational boats. In 1974, local residents formed the Holland Harbor Lighthouse Historical Commission to acquire the lighthouse. The sale was completed in 1978. The commission soon installed a new light with a twenty mile range that illuminates nightly. Since then, Big Red has been one of the best maintained lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Along with Point Betsie, it is one of the most photographed lighthouses in Michigan.