Lighthouse records now online, shedding light on West Michigan history

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) -- They dot the coast of Lake Michigan, adding to the scene beauty of our area.

But lighthouses can also hold long lost secrets.

Records from the lighthouse keeper in South Haven sat unopened on a shelf for decades.

But now Western Michigan University has posted them online for the world to see.

They open a window to what life was like in West Michigan back in the late 1800s.

For more than 140 years, the South Haven Lighthouse has been keeping watch over Lake Michigan.

"It's this whole thing with man versus nature. And the lighthouse is the beacon, the structure that was going to save people, would guide them in," said Lynn Houghton, the Regional History Curator at the WMU Archives.

Operating the lighthouse in the late 1800s was a big responsibility.

All activity had to be written down.

The WMU Archives obtained logbooks from the lighthouse stretch from 1870 to 1887.

Three books containing more than 1,000 pages were carefully digitized and put online.

"It shows you life inside these buildings. It shows you what was going on in a day to day basis," Houghton said.

The handwriting in the books belongs to the light keeper, James Donahue.

He kept notes on the weather, his family, and what was going on in South Haven at the time.

But there are also moments of drama, with fires, shipwrecks, and bodies washing ashore.

"He saved people too. He pulled people out of the water, including a couple of his children," said Dr. Sharon Carlson, Director of the WMU Archives.

The lighthouse beacon had to burn bright all night.

That meant walking the pier in brutal weather.

"He was an amputee. So he was using some kind of prosthetic leg. You think of all the physical work under less than ideal conditions," Carlson said.

This helps history come alive in a very unique way.

"Digitization has opened up this whole new concept to make these collections accessible to people," Houghton said.

You can step back into history yourself.

Follow this link to view the logbooks.

"Every time we digitize these materials, there are new discoveries to make. We're hoping the community will look at these. Hope we get feedback in what the community is finding valuable," Carlson said.

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