Public to get rare peek at Saginaw River lighthouse

Alex Nester
The Detroit News
The Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse, which opened in 1876, is open for tours Friday and Saturday.

Unlike early keepers of the Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse, visitors will not have to row a boat to visit the beacon at the confluence of the Saginaw River and Lake Huron.

The historic lighthouse in Bay County's Bangor Township will be open for a rare public viewing from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 

The Saginaw River Marine Historical Society is opening the 143-year old lighthouse in conjunction with the Tall Ship Celebration, which runs Thursday through Sunday in Bay City. Tickets to see the lighthouse are $7 for adults, $3 for students and free for children up to age 5. Each ticket includes an air-conditioned bus ride to the lighthouse. 

Don Morin, vice president of the historical society, said the weekend is designed to "encourage people to come out and drench themselves in some history and enjoyment of the atmosphere in Bay City." 

"It's a great family event," Morin said. "These cities were born from the river and continue to grow out of the river." 

A traveling fleet of more than 10 ships will enter the Saginaw River near Bay City for the event on Thursday, marking the beginning of the weekend's festivities.

Carl Jahn, a truck driver by trade who travels the country to re-enact lighthouse keepers' work, will lead visitors through the Rear Range Lighthouse dressed in an authentic 19th-century wool uniform.

He even grew out his beard to look "just like a keeper," Jahn said.

This will be Jahn's fourth appearance at the Tall Ship Celebration in Bay City, though he travels around the state with his uniform and artifacts to share with the public. His collection includes a compass, lantern and binoculars from the 1800s.

"I'll stand on the porch of the lighthouse and all the people from the bus will line up and wait for me to welcome them up to the top," Jahn said. "It makes you feel good." 

This is a great opportunity to visit the lighthouse, he said, because "it's hard to get to unless you know somebody who knows somebody." 

The late lighthouse historian Terry Pepper documented the history of Great Lakes beacons on his website According to the site, the design of the Rear Range Lighthouse was "unique," as engineer Godfrey Weitzel connected the tower to the northwest corner of the lighthouse keeper's living quarters. 

Julia Brawn, her husband George Wray, and Brawn's son were the first to inhabit the dwelling and kept both Front and Rear Range Lighthouses. They family first lit both the lighthouses on the evening of Sept. 15, 1876, according to Pepper's website. 

The north-pointing, non-revolving Fresnel lens shined 60 feet high from the Rear Range Lighthouse, which sat over 2,000 feet upstream from its partner Front Range Lighthouse.

Jahn said duties of the lighthouse keeper included pouring oil into the lamp every three to four hours and shaping the lamp's wick. The keeper cleaned the lens every morning with alcohol and a linen cloth, as the burning oil left a thick residue on the delicate crystal. Keepers also kept a log of the ships they saw on the horizon.

The lighthouses guided ships carrying lumber through the river. At the height of lumber industry, 13,000-14,000 ships would sail through Saginaw River every year, Morin said. 

Saginaw River Marine Historical Society President Don Comtois said the value of the lumber shipped out of Saginaw was greater than the value of gold mined during the California gold rush. 

Bay City then became a ship-building town, and Comtois said the city built wooden vessels and later steel freight ships. 

In the early 1900s, a dike was built, connecting the Rear Range Lighthouse to the mainland, Morin said. Later, a road was built on the dike. The Rear Range Lighthouse became a Coast Guard Station in the late 1930s, Peppers's website said. When the structure became electrified in the 1950s, Morin said the lamp was replaced with a front headlight from a locomotive. 

Ships continued to flow in and out of Saginaw River and across the Great Lakes, carrying copper, iron ore and automotive parts.

New lighthouses were built in the 1960s to direct ships into Saginaw Bay, according to Pepper's website, and the Rear Range Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1960. 

The vacated lighthouse took blows from the weather through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Dow Chemical purchased the structure in 1989, and the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society entered with the company in 1999 to preserve the lighthouse.

With more than 120 lighthouses, Michigan boasts more than any other state in the country, Morin said. 

But the lighthouses need support, Jahn said, and the best way to do so is volunteer. 

"Pick your favorite lighthouse and go out support that lighthouse," Jahn said. "Your labor is worth more dollars than you could ever donate."

Comtois said the event helps educate the public on the importance of Saginaw River and Great Lakes history

"Without maritime history, our country would not have existed," he said.