Digest>Archives> February 2002

White River Lighthouse: In the Footsteps of Keeper Robinson

By Jim Merkel


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Captain Bush

A poignant standoff early in 1919 deserves a place in the annals of lighthouse lore, along with the most stirring stories of rescues at sea.

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The White River Lighthouse in Michagan.
Photo by: Jim Merkel

The place was the White River Light Station in Michigan. William Robinson had faithfully tended a light at that spot ever since 1872. Now, 47 years later, the government said he had to retire and move on out of the quarters. His grandson, William Bush, was the real keeper of the station, on the east side of Lake Michigan.

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Captain Robinson

But Robinson would have none of it. No government or grandson would tell him he couldn’t take care of the light.

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White River Lighthouse from an old postcard.

“Captain Robinson would say ‘As long as I have two legs, I’m going to go up there and tend the light,’” said Karen McDonnell, who is today charged with keeping the memory of Robinson and other keepers of the White River Light Station.

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Karen McDonnell, curator of the White River Light ...
Photo by: Jim Merkel

McDonnell is curator of the White River Light Station Museum, located a short distance from Highway 31 and the cities of Whitehall and Montague, Michigan.

In the state with more lighthouses than any other, the White River Light is a rarity, in that it is both regularly open for public tours and within a short walk of a parking lot. The nearest lights with that double accessibility are Grand Traverse Light, 170 miles north, and the Michigan City (Indiana) Lighthouse 150 miles south.

Those who visit the White Right Light will find a homeyness befitting a beacon that welcomed mariners to a harbor. Here, next to the channel connecting White Lake to Lake Michigan, is a favorite local place for weddings, just a short walk from a beach.

“The White River Light Station Museum is kind of the crown jewel of the township,” said Greg Boughton, supervisor of Fruitland Township, the little municipality of about 5,200 people that has owned the light station since 1966. To show it off, the township uses a picture of the station on its stationery and logos. “The township feels that it needs to be preserved and in the hands of the public.”

Here, summertime visitors will encounter McDonnell behind the counter of the museum shop, next to the entrance. In a season, she sees 6,000 to 8,000 of those visitors and entertains them with tales of the light, including William Robinson’s last days.

Although Bush was officially the assistant, he was doing most of the work of the station by 1917, when Robinson was 86. Finally, the Lighthouse Service told Robinson he had to leave the quarters at the beginning of April 1919 and that Bush would be the keeper.

“He apparently fell under just a terrible depression,” said McDonnell. “The family says he kind of willed himself to die. He just never left the building. I guess he got his wish.”

The end of William Robinson at the age of 87 is one familiar to many a senior citizen convinced he has been pushed aside to make way for someone younger. An old newspaper article kept by McDonnell recounts that ending this way.

“On the final day of his stay at the lighthouse he died, peaceably and quietly. Hundreds of people whom he had aided in time of trouble came to grieve with the family, for Capt. William was more than an honored resident of the White Lake community. He was an institution.”

And so is the lighthouse museum, lovingly maintained by Karen McDonnell, an institution in her community today.

“It certainly is a labor of love,” Boughton said. “When you walk in the door and you’re greeted by her, her excitement and her energy comes forth to the guests.”

As she stood in the shop, next to the 4th order Fresnel lens that flashed from the top of the 38-foot-tall light tower, McDonnell told of how it came to be in the first place.

In the 1860s, lumbermen started to put their product on the White River, which originates in underground springs just north of White Cloud, Michigan, and meanders southwest. It floated into the White Lake, just a short distance from Lake Michigan. Although the river eventually emptied from the White Lake into Lake Michigan, the passage was not a good one.

Then in 1870, an approximately 30-foot-wide channel was built to connect the White Lake with Lake Michigan. It was one year before a great fire destroyed much of Chicago and created a huge demand for wood to rebuild the city.

As the Chicago Fire proved to be good fortune for the lake, so did Robinson.

The son and grandson of ship owners and ship captains, Robinson was born in England in 1831 and ran away to the sea when he was still young. He came to Michigan in 1867 with his wife, Sarah, and their first six children.

“He was pretty upset at the fact that there was no light at that time,” McDonnell said.

Robinson’s worries were partially eased in 1872, when a pier light was established at the end of the south side of the channel and he was named its keeper. Three years later, in 1875, the current building went up, also on the south pier, using limestone for the larger foundation pieces and brick for the rest. It was lit for the opening of navigation in the 1876 season, with Robinson as the keeper.

The beam from the pressurized kerosene light provided illumination both for sailing schooners that brought lumber from the White Lake and for passenger steam ships that brought tourists in from places like Milwaukee and Chicago

Watching them as they came were Robinson’s many children. A family man if there ever was one, he had 13 children by his wife, Sarah, 11 of which survived. Of those, five were born while they were at White Lake.

“She was quite the lady,” McDonnell said of Sarah Robinson.

An obituary remarked that there never was a more affectionate couple than the keeper and his wife. “It talked about how loved she was and admired,” McDonnell said.

In 1910, William Bush, Robinson’s oldest grandson, moved into the lighthouse. He became assistant keeper in 1911 and found his grandfather increasingly difficult.

“I think that Captain Bush surely was frustrated at times with his grandfather’s insistence on tending the light,” McDonnell said. On the other hand, “My guess is that he had ultimate respect and admiration for the man and his steadfastness, knowledge and dedication.”

With so many children, Robinson had loads of grandchildren. “Think of the stories he could impart to them about the storms and shipwrecks, sailors and steamship passengers,” McDonnell said.

In the end, Robinson himself became the stuff of stories. His son, Thomas, had served as his assistant from 1877 to 1882 and spent his life with the Lighthouse Service, before retiring from the Muskegon (Michigan) Light in 1928. His grandson stayed on and kept the light until March 1943, when other keepers followed.

Meanwhile, commercial shipping declined and the steamship operation ceased in 1936. After two major local businesses that relied on shipping, Hooker Chemical and Genessco, a tannery, switched to trucking, most of the vessels that used the channel were small pleasure craft for those using the lake. The lighthouse was deactivated in 1960. Today, the lights on the pier are automated.

The White River Light might have lost any significance if it hadn’t been for a group called the Sylvan Beach Association, made up of owners of nearby vacation property. That group raised money to buy the lighthouse for $6,250 and give it to Fruitland Township, with the hope of keeping it open to the public.

After the township acquired the building in 1966, it opened it as a museum in 1970, after renovations. When McDonnell arrived in 1983, as its fourth curator, she found she had a lot of work on her hands.

Before McDonnell came, she had an education that fit perfectly with her life’s work. She put herself through college working in museums. After attending several universities, she earned a double major in environmental education and museum history and a minor in art from Grand Valley State in Allendale, Michigan.

“My goal when I first got here was to make it into a better museum, to have more artifacts, more of a collection of artifacts and to restore it,” McDonnell said. “That’s been my quest and that’s kept me here and I love the work.”

The museum, which takes up most of the lighthouse, has a large number of lighthouse and marine artifacts. “I think the museum adds to the draw of the lighthouse because you get two for one - the museum and the picturesque lighthouse location,” said Thomas A, Tag, author of the book White River Light Station.

McDonnell was finicky in her restoration work, down to returning outside details that some might have said was going overboard. “That king post isn’t necessary to the structure in that it doesn’t keep it from falling,” she said, mimicking what some people might have said.

Restoration work is just a small part of the job of McDonnell, who must do everything.

When the museum is open, the only relief she receives is from volunteers, who put in several hours a week. She calls them exceptional individuals and rare treasures.

She stocks the gift shop, does the exhibits and public relations and does errands before and after hours. Off season, she busies herself with maintenance work, preparing exhibits and giving prearranged guided tours to outside groups and programs to school children.

Volunteers help ease the load of groups of children and senior tour groups who pass through the museum. “Every third grader in our local school system goes on a field trip to the museum. The teachers have a whole curriculum that I assist with about shipping and lighthouse history,” McDonnell said.

On top of the hard work are the accommodations. McDonnell lives in small quarters in the front of the old lighthouse with the rest of her family. Although the living space is tight and the pay low, there are advantages, beyond the fact that she lives in a historic building on Lake Michigan.

“I meet people that have professions that make phenomenal salaries but they don’t necessarily like what they’re doing,” McDonnell said. “You really have to like what you’re doing. You have to have a passion for what you’re doing,” she said.

“Can I say when I am done with my life that I put a good chunk of it into something that I felt was worthwhile, and that it did something for other people that made a change in their lives and thinking?” she said. “I have people that literally have walked into the museum and have never been in a lighthouse and it’s changed their life coming in here. Changed their life.”

To illustrate her points, she speaks of two different women who arrived at her lighthouse the same day.

A man came in one day and told McDonnell, “ ‘My wife’s greatest goal is to get to the top of a lighthouse tower. And she’s had MS for years.’ . . . I said, ‘Well we will make it happen today.’”

With the woman’s husband in front and McDonnell in back, they set off to help the woman climb the 44 steps of the light tower’s circular staircase.

It was an inspiring experience, interrupted by a hard-driving woman who had arrived earlier with her children.

“She yells up ‘are you going to be down soon?’ She knows what’s going on. ‘I got some stuff in the gift shop I want to buy, by the way, like, you know.’ So I said I’ll be down as soon as I get this woman to the top. So we got her to the top and she broke down and wept. . . and I started tearing up,” McDonnell said.

Though McDonnell counts the experience as the greatest glory of her time at the light, it is not the only benefit. Among the others are imagining the thoughts of Robinson and Bush, in the final days of Robinson’s life.

“How could Mr. Bush not feel compassion and sadness towards Robinson’s retirement and the end of a rather consummate career as keeper of the light?” she said.

The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from June through August and noon to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in September. It is also open Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend and off season by appointment. For details, write the station at 6199 Murray Road, Whitehall, MI 49461, call 231-894-8265 or surf the Web to www.whiteriverlightstation.org.


Just before Lighthouse Digest went to press, we received word that Karen McDonnell, curator of the White River Light Station Museum, is the 2002 recipient of the Kaplan Award.

The Kaplan Award is presented each year by the Kaplan Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to Great Lakes preservation. Each year, the Kaplan Fund Selection Committee, consisting of the senior staffers of Great Lakes Cruiser Magazine and at least one member of the Kaplan Family, presents the award to that group or individual deemed to have done the most to “preserve these Great Lakes as a culture, a resource and as a destination.” The award is in memory of GLC staffer Jon Kaplan who passed away in August, 1994 and was an ardent Great Lakes preservationist.

An article in Great Lakes Cruiser Magazine noted McDonnell’s work to restore the lighthouse, rebuild its collection of artifacts and document the station’s history. “It is for her dedication and efforts to preserve the past that the Selection Committee has chosen her as this year’s recipient of the Kaplan Award,” the magazine said.

The Kaplan Award will be presented in a ceremony held at 2 p.m. in the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, Grosse Pointe, Michigan on Sunday, March 17. For reservations or more information, call 248-545-5999.

During the ceremony, McDonnell will become a 21st Century Lighthouse Keeper. By a definition created by Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association president, Dick Moehl, “a lighthouse keeper was once one who trimmed wicks and polished lenses. Today, it is one who protects the beacon and preserves the past.” Moehl himself won the Kaplan Award several years ago and was declared the last lighthouse keeper of the 20th century, and the very first lighthouse keeper of the 21st.

This story appeared in the February 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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