BY JOHN MASSON
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
LAKE ST. CLAIR, NEAR HARSENS ISLAND
When Chuck Brockman and his wife, Scotty, piloted their boat past the gradually collapsing South Channel Lights back in 1988, he heard the same voice in his head that many Lake St. Clair boaters ignored over the years:
"Geez, it's too bad somebody doesn't do something about that."
But Brockman listened to that inner voice. And now -- after 16 years of bureaucratic wrangling, constant fund-raising by his nonprofit, Save Our South Channel Lights (SOSCL), and an investment of $700,000 -- the future is brighter than ever for a pair of 146-year-old beacons that helped open the Michigan wilderness and turn a newborn state into an industrial powerhouse.
In August, craftsmen wrapped up a second summer of reconstruction work at the lights, about a mile off the south shore of Harsens Island in the shallow waters of Lake St. Clair. And as Labor Day brings an end to Michigan's traditional boating season, both lighthouses will enter the ice season stabilized -- with the larger, rear range light lovingly restored.
But the work is far from finished. The front light leans at an alarming angle and needs at least as much work as the rear light once did. SOSCL also hopes to someday rebuild the brick lightkeeper's house, which was demolished in the early 20th Century.
Altogether, Brockman said he expects the entire project to cost an additional $1.3 million. That's not to diminish what SOSCL has accomplished so far. Tour boats are expected to run out to the lights next year -- a miraculous reversal for structures that nearly fell into the lake a few years ago, victims of vandalism and the inexorable forces of nature.
"I literally grew up looking at those things, and you watched them deteriorate -- thinking, 'Boy, I wish we could do something about that,' " said U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Harrison Township Republican.
"Then along comes a guy like Chuck Brockman."
Lingering in sorry shape
By the time Brockman started the drive to save the lights, they had been nearly demolished by 129 years of constant battering by ice, wind and water. The delicate Fresnel lenses in both towers, which amplified the light from the original oil lamps, had disappeared. Much of the stone foundation of the front light had washed away; its lantern room was gone, and the whole stubby structure was balanced on a sort of upside-down pyramid grounded in the lake bottom.
The man-made island that once surrounded the taller rear light had completely washed away, leaving the base of the taller tower unprotected from pounding surf and ice floes grinding downstream each spring.
"It had gotten to the point where the front one was going to fall down," said Brockman, a 72-year-old retiree who now lives on Harsens Island. "And we couldn't let that happen."
So first, in the early '90s, SOSCL put a temporary steel ring around the front light to stabilize it. Later, the group built a permanent seawall. But costs mounted, and Brockman found himself raising cash wherever he could. He also found himself navigating bureaucratic waters more treacherous than those guarded by the lighthouses.
The state owns the lake bottom; the feds owned the lights themselves, and the area itself doesn't fall under the jurisdiction of any local government.
"They had to have a community to sign the grant applications," said Miller, who was Harrison Township supervisor during SOSCL's early fund-raising efforts.
To get the process rolling, she said, she agreed to claim it as the township's property on the grant paperwork -- and that worked. An initial $10,000 grant helped the project get started, and donations since then have ranged from a few dollars to an anonymous $100,000 gift. More money was raised with donated artwork and South Channel Lights souvenirs sold at boat shows and art fairs and online.
Over the years, SOSCL has raised more than $500,000 in grants -- the largest for $450,000 from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program also chipped in $20,000.
With cash in hand, SOSCL awarded a $599,000 contract to Mihm Enterprises for the historical restoration of the rear light. Work began last summer.
Getting it right
Workers replicate original equipment whenever they can, and when they can't, they use historically compatible materials. The iron lantern room at the top of the tower, for example, had to be physically removed, trucked across the state to a shop near Holland, disassembled and rebuilt.
The goal is to have the lights look as they did when they were lit for the first time on Nov. 1, 1859, enabling mariners to reliably find the entrance to the St. Clair River at night by lining up the lights from out in the lake. Traffic was so heavy on Lake St. Clair then -- and the upbound trip through the South Channel was so perilous -- that mariners usually dropped anchor and waited for daylight rather than chance the passage in the dark.
That's how Anchor Bay got its name.
But then, as now, time was money -- which is why experts say these two old lighthouses, among 122 other Michigan lights, are significant enough to merit full restoration.
"Those lights were very important for the growing commerce that was developing in the newly formed state of Michigan," said Jon Ottman, who is researching the lights as part of his Eastern Michigan University master's degree program.
"At the time, that was the only natural outflow for the St. Clair River that commercial shipping could use."
The lights doubled traffic, Brockman said. They enabled waves of immigrants to go by boat to the wilds of northern Michigan much more quickly and cheaply than traveling the region's primitive roads. Ottman said the lights also supported the growing traffic in lumber, iron, and copper that came down the lakes from that same wilderness -- some of it through the first of the current Soo Locks, which also was built in 1855."The government recognized that they had the opportunity to expand commerce even further," he said, by making other improvements to the St. Clair River approaches, including digging the St. Clair Flats Canal a few years later for bigger ships.
Improvements like that made the South Channel lights far less important to commerce, and soon they were all but abandoned -- until the day the Brockmans cruised by.
Carrying on the mission
Scotty Brockman died in 2001, but the work she and her husband began has continued despite the obstacles.
"There's been times when I've said, 'What the hell am I doing?' " Chuck Brockman said. "But I know my wife would want me to go on."
Commerce no longer stands to gain by the presence of the South Channel Lights, but the rest of us do. The two lonely beacons are powerful reminders of Michigan's maritime past and of the innovations that helped overcome economic obstacles.
"Everybody loves lighthouses," Brockman said with a smile. "It's a light in the dark, and we all need that."