The Local History Gallery
For the White Lake Area

Website & Imaging: Jerry Grady     Research: Barb Brow


White Lake Channel Piers

The Lighthouse

Life Saving Station




A number of sawmills were established in the White Lake area between 1836 and 1850. Lumber from these mills was rafted through the narrow natural channel between White Lake and Lake Michigan before being loaded on ships, which sometimes had to anchor out in the Lake. This was a time-consuming process, and the local lumbermen lobbied for an improved waterway.

In 1866, Congress appropriated $67,000 for the construction of a new channel between White Lake and Lake Michigan, and an additional $10,000 for the construction of a lighthouse. Construction on the substructure began in 1867 and progressed slowly. In 1869, Congress appropriated an additional $45,000 to cover cost overruns. After four years, the channel project was finally completed in 1871. $1,059 of the lighthouse money was spent on the construction of a beacon at the end of the south pier.

Due to the amount of commercial traffic, the channel was originally much longer than it is today: 1,717 feet on the north side and 1,953 feet on the south. It had a depth of 16 feet and an outside width of 200 feet. The width of the channel inside the walls is 80 feet.

Pilings were driven into the sand with stones piled around the outer edges of the pilings up to where the wood channel walls began. The wood channel walls/piers were then filled with stones. An elevated walkway, or catwalk, was built in 1875 to enable the keeper to reach the pier head light in heavy weather. Oil lamps were used instead of electricity and were lighted by hand each evening. Thus the upper walkway was not just a convenience, but a necessity.


ca 1910

In 1880, the beacon was moved 100 feet lakeward and a corresponding among of elevated walkway was built, along with an extra 226 feet to replace a section that was carried away by a storm. The tower was moved another 150 feet in 1884, and the elevated walk was extended to it.

Given their exposed location, the pierhead tower and elevated walkway suffered significant damage over the years from a variety of sources. On August 15, 1877, Keeper Robinson recorded the following in his log: “The steamer Tempest entered this harbor and a spark from her smoke stack fell into the pier and burnt the foundation of the frame of the South Pierhead Beacon Light.” Shallow water in the channel between the piers caused two schooners to collide with and damage the elevated walk in April 1890. A piece of driftwood tossed up by violent waves in December 1904, broke a section of the walk. In August 1911, the elevated walkway was struck by lightning, and the pierhead tower suffered the same fate in July 1916.



Channel Wall

By the 1920s, heavy seas and ice had taken their toll on the wooden piers, and on June 20, 1924, Keeper William Bush noted in his log that he had spent two hours during the night fighting a fire in the south pier. With the south pier settling and breaking up, the metal walkway was taken down during the spring of 1925. At the same time, the light in the pierhead tower was changed to acetylene supplied by tank, so it wouldn’t require daily attention. Another fire, however, broke out in the pier on September 9, 1928, that necessitated a call to the Whitehall fire department.

In 1925 & 1927, the White Lake harbor was marked for discard based on the drop off of cargoes passing through since 1922. In 1930, it was urged that the harbor be kept open as an emergency port for all boats on the Great Lakes. If the channel had been properly maintained, a tug and barge could have taken refuge from a storm which ended up destroying the barge.

In 1930, a thirty-one foot tall metal, skeletal tower replaced the faithful wooden tower, which was, according to the keeper’s log, “wrecked to pieces.” The metal pierhead tower was electrified in 1939, and then replaced with a steel pole in the late 1980s.


Sometime after 1930 when the pier head tower was changed
After the removal of the catwalk in 1925 and the structure continued to be wooden until 1936 when the first reconstruction took place. That lasted until the most recent renovation which took place in 1998 when they changed the sides to the corrugated sheet metal and added the blue rail.  HERE

Prior to the 1936 reconstruction


In 1936, an allotment of $28,000, and the belief that sufficient funds would be forthcoming, work began and the wooden pier walls were replaced by concrete, but the center reinforcement of stones was still the same. Presumably it was at this time that the length of the channel was reduced to 80 feet and the depth from 16 to 12 feet. Until the early 1950s, there was only a red channel marker on the south pier, and no marker on the north pier.


Before & After The 1936 Reconstruction


Tug Racine

In April, 1936, work began on the north pier of the White Lake channel by the U.S. Government Engineers with equipment arriving that included a quarters boat, three derricks, two scows and the tug “Racine”, along with 20 men from Milwaukee. Forty additional men from the local area were also hired for various jobs. In July of that year, work began on the south pier of the channel. This picture was most likely taken during that time period.


1940 South Side

North Side

ca 1924

ca 1939 Entering White Lake



About 1985, a report indicated that the channel length of 80 foot in between Lake Michigan and White Lake was adequate. Also, the depth was reduced from 16 feet to 12 feet.

By the late 1990s, structural repairs were again necessary, and in 1998 a major project was completed at a cost of almost 8 million dollars. Repairs consisted of encasing the existing structure with cold rolled steel sheet pilings, and capping with reinforced concrete. A 200 foot rubble mound wave attenuator structure was constructed on both sides of the channel to reduce the wave intensity entering the channel.




Old shipwreck located on the shoreline adjacent to the South Pier, pictured here in December 2018. According to Valerie VanHeest from the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association and Eric Harmsen, Marine Archeologist from the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, the shipwreck was identified as the Schooner Contest, which sank on October 25, 1882. The shipwreck has appeared at least twice before - in 1942 and again in 1974. As of December 2020, parts of the ship are still visible. 

According to Valerie VanHeest, this is what the Contest might have looked like, as it was a typical style for the day.