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Painting the Town Red

Big changes are coming to the South Pier Lighthouse during the month of August. Less than a decade after the lighthouse underwent a massive renovation project, the time has come to give our lighthouse a shiny new coat of paint. While everyone can agree that the lighthouse is in need of a new coat of paint, the process has nevertheless renewed a decade-long debate about the proper color of the South Pier Lighthouse.

The first lighthouse on the south pier was built in 1911, made of wood and painted red. The current steel lighthouse dating from 1948 was also originally painted red. Things changed in 1968, when new Coast Guard regulations stipulated that the lighthouse needed to be painted white, in an effort to make it more visible to boats coming in from Lake Michigan.

As the years went by, more and more vessels relied on GPS to navigate rather than lighthouses. Because of technology advancements, the Coast Guard decided to decommission 75 Michigan lighthouses, and Charlevoix was on the list. In response, the State of Michigan started the Michigan Lighthouse Project to find organizations willing to help save these lighthouses and award grants for lighthouse restoration. The City of Charlevoix and the Charlevoix Historical Society came to an agreement where the city would own the structure but all future fundraising, restoration, and maintenance would be the responsibility of the Historical Society.  

With the lighthouse deemed no longer necessary for navigation, the Historical Society made the decision to return the lighthouse to its historically-correct red exterior. The town was immediately split on the color issue. On one hand, multiple generations of Charlevoix residents had grown up in town knowing nothing but a white lighthouse. On the other hand, the South Pier Light had been red for over six decades before being painted white.

In 1968, the Charlevoix Courier ran an article showing that residents were initially resistant to the switch from red to white. The same thing occurred 40 years later when the color of the lighthouse switched from white to red. It is clear that for many people, the color of the lighthouse invokes feelings of nostalgia. Red or white, Charlevoix is fortunate to have such a remarkable landmark shining out over Lake Michigan and lighting the way home.

To learn more about the Charlevoix Historical Society, click here.


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