Photos and article by James Mullineaux
The Saginaw Rear Range Lighthouse is a rare piece of maritime history. Most lighthouses have a lens and/or light that spins to warn sailors of dangerous shores. However, range lighthouses don’t have spinning lights; they’re continuously on and point in one direction. Range lighthouses are also built in pairs and they help mariners navigate towards them.
When the tower was lit in 1876 there was also a Saginaw Bay front range lighthouse. At night ship captains could line up the two beacons one on top of the other. They could then set a course for the double light, knowing they were on a safe path to enter the Saginaw River.
This saved critical time and ships during the logging boom era. The Saginaw Bay poses a challenge to ship captains because a strong, sudden nor-easter can pick up, perilously increasing wave size and blowing ships into sand bars. Should Lake Huron become dangerous to vessels, the Saginaw range lighthouses allowed sailors to navigate to the safety of the river, even at night.
In 1915 the light was converted from kerosene to electricity and in 1939 responsibility for the lighthouse transferred to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard updated the optics and light source of the tower with a locomotive reflector that produced 45,000 candlepower, which increased the visible range of the lighthouse to 15 miles. These updates were completed prior to 1954.
In the early 1960s the primary entrance to the Saginaw River was dredged and widened, which made it easier for larger ships to enter the Bay. This made the front and rear range towers obsolete. The front tower, which had been plagued by maintenance problems due to ice and moisture since its inception, was torn down. The light in the rear range lighthouse was extinguished, though the structure still served as a Coast Guard station.
In the late 1970s the Cost Guard needed more space, and by 1986 had moved their station across the river. The the Rear Range Lighthouse was sold to the Dow Chemical Corporation in 1989, who still own the structure and the surrounding land. When the Coast Guard left, the building was for all intents and purposes abandoned. It was vandalized and fell into disrepair.
The Saginaw River Maritime Historical Society opened discussions with Dow about restoring the building in 1999. Unfortunately the agreement reached between the SRMHS and Dow has not always been harmonious. In turn, the future of the Rear Range Lighthouse is not entirely certain. Since the renovations began nearly a decade ago, the windows and roof have been replaced, the interior plaster from the walls removed, and a replacement optical lens was obtained. Hardly a break-neck pace, especially considering the scope of Dow’s other community projects. One can easily see that the Saginaw Rear Range Lighthouse is in bleak condition, made worse when compared to other lighthouses across Michigan.
In mid-July 2010, the lighthouse opened to visitors successfully for the second time in 30 years. Although the lighthouse opened briefly for public touring in 2005, things did not go as well as expected, and poor treatment of the grounds and surrounding areas stalled subsequent public access for another five years. Except for these two public openings, the only way to see the lighthouse has been from the Saginaw River. The privately owned access roads have been gated.
The future of the Saginaw Rear Range Lighthouse is hopeful as plans and fund raising continue, yet future public access no doubt depends on how Dow perceives the recent weekend tours. Documentation and appreciation of this historical structure is important to help preserve the Saginaw River’s history for future generations. We would be remiss to allow it to fall away into dust.
James Mullineaux is the owner of JMX Photography.
© James Mullineaux, 2010