HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) - While ascending the numerous stairs and ladders throughout the Holland Harbor Lighthouse, more affectionately known as “Big Red,” inner-ear equilibrium remains steady and nothing seems to be extraordinary about the structure.
Only when standing on one of the infamous lighthouse’s many floors and attempting to walk in a straight line does something not seem quite right as a sense of “upright” requires a slight balance adjustment.
Even outside the lighthouse, close examination from numerous angles reveals the structure is not, in fact, standing perfectly erect and does, in fact, have a slight tilt, appearing poised to tumble into the channel connecting Lake Macatawa to Lake Michigan.
In 1872, the first lighthouse in Holland was constructed using federal funds and featured a wooden structure with a lantern built atop a pier, accessible by a catwalk extending to shore.
“The light was originally free-standing in front with no house,” John Gronberg, president of the Holland Harbor Lighthouse Historical Commission, told The Holland Sentinel (https://bit.ly/1HuhB9f ). “The structure was originally wooden and it got destroyed several times.
“Finally, (citizens) petitioned to get a new lighthouse,” he said. “The new lighthouse was built on steel.”
With a taller, stronger lighthouse in place a steam-powered fog signal was installed in 1907 and two Marine boilers to power the signal were installed in a house that would later go on to serve as the foundation for the lighthouse as it appears today.
The advent of electricity being routed to more of the country’s rural areas - a result of the Rural Electrification Act of 1935 under President Franklin Roosevelt - meant the Holland Harbor Lighthouse would receive electricity for both the light and the fog signal, Gronberg said.
Consolidating two structures into one was an improvement to the lighthouse and the decision was made to place the existing light on top of the structure housing the boilers.
Prior to this task being completed, major work needed to be done to the pier supporting the boilers so additional weight could be added to the top of the building.
With the lighthouse and the steam fog signal house built on top of a cement pier supported by wooden pilings, the effects of water, wind and Michigan winters eventually took their toll.
“Between 1905 and 1920, this was the end of the pier and it was subject to the most duress during the winter months,” Gronberg said.
Over the decades, erosion of the pilings supporting the pier allowed the buildings to settle slightly and tilt a few degrees to the north, Gronberg said.
When electricity was routed into the area in the mid-30s, and the decision was made to place the light on top of the building housing the boilers, stabilization had to occur to ensure future stability of the lighthouse.
“The stabilization was occurring at the same time of the Rural Electrification Act,” Gronberg said. “Whenever you’re going to put more weight on a structure, you have to make sure it’s stable. The work was done then.”
The structure’s tilt was not a great concern to engineers when the decision was made to put the lighthouse atop the existing structure - the tilting structure was deemed acceptable so long as it was stabilized, Gronberg said.
The biggest challenge engineers faced when stabilizing the structure was removing the existing wooden pilings underneath the pier, Gronberg said.
“This was a gigantic challenge because they had to get all those pilings out of there,” he said. “It actually took them an extra six months. They were down there blasting, sawing and pulling and they just weren’t coming.”
Perseverance paid off and the old pier pilings were removed and so concrete ones that could better withstand the elements over time could be installed, Gronberg said.
“What they chose to do to stabilize it was to drive pilings in front of it,” he said.
Using a combination of poured concrete, bolts and sea-calming siding, which can be seen today along the sides of both piers, the Holland Harbor Lighthouse still stands intact and has not shifted, Gronberg said.
“It was straight at one time but it hasn’t been for a long time,” Gronberg said.
Information from: The Holland Sentinel, https://www.thehollandsentinel.com
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