History of Big Red, Lighthouse and Foghorn
To truly appreciate Big Red’s future, it’s best to consider the history of the people who built it, and why a well-deserved pride remains today.
The Dutch settled in Western Michigan on the shores of Black Lake (now Lake Macatawa) in 1847, led by Dr. Albertus C. Van Raalte. At the time, the area was thick with forests and vast swamplands. Van Raalte had to be a visionary. He knew that if Holland were to thrive, perhaps even survive, a channel had to be cut from Black Lake to Lake Michigan to ship future manufacturing, and grow a lumber industry. He petitioned the governor and U.S. Congress many times without success.
There was a waterway, of sorts, between Black Lake and Lake Michigan, but it was covered with sand and silt. The settlers were resourceful. In 1860 they organized a citizen’s brigade to hand-dig a channel that was deep enough for barges to float to and from the lakes. Later in the century, money was appropriated from Congress to work on the harbor, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that work was largely completed. It was too late for any dreams that Holland might become a thriving commercial port, but just in time to make Holland a major resort on the Great Lakes. Soon steamers were making two trips daily from Chicago, bringing city dwellers eager for summer fun. In 1900, more than 1,095 schooners, steamers and barges used the harbor.
While early improvements were made to the harbor, the federal government saw the area’s shipping potential and built the first lighthouse, a small, square, wooden structure, in 1872. The early days of U.S. lighthouse keepers were treacherous ones, and Holland was no different. The keeper had to carry his lighted oil lamp to the tower along a narrow catwalk that stretched from the shore to the tower. When the fog was so thick the small lens at Holland harbor couldn’t be seen, the lighthouse keeper could only signal boats by blowing on an 18 inch fish horn.
When the harbor was finally completed after the turn of the century, a steel tower was placed on the new breakwater. To accompany the taller tower, it became apparent that something better than a fish horn was needed for those frequent foggy days. In 1907, a steam signal was installed. It took two coal-fed boilers about 45 minutes to build up enough steam to sound the ten-inch train whistle that was used as the foghorn. To house the signal, a separate building was constructed, which later became the base for Big Red.
In 1934 the lighthouse was wired for electricity. Two years later electric air compressors for the horn were installed, the free-standing steel tower was removed and a new light tower was added to the top of the fog signal building. Finally, in 1956, the Coast Guard ordered the now-combined signal building and light tower painted red, to comply with the newer aids-to-navigation that required structures on the right side of any harbor entrance be painted red. Today, every sailor and motor boater remembers the nautical 3-R’s: “Red, Right, Returning from sea.” These final modifications created the lighthouse Big Red as we know it today.
Big Red (true name – Holland Harbor South Pierhead Light—is truly one-of-a-kind. The turn of the century gables and Palladian windows in Queen Anne Victorian style, together with the tower added about thirty years later, make this lighthouse easily recognized, and distinctive among all the lighthouses of the world.